Black Country business leaders should be loud, proud and less parochial about their area, according to the editor of Britain’s biggest regional daily newspaper. Steve Dyson reports
“Did you know there’s not a plane flying anywhere in the world without a component made in or around Wolverhampton?” It’s a rhetorical question, but one that Keith Harrison, editor of the daily Express & Star newspaper, enjoys asking to make his point about the region’s industrial strength.
“Wolverhampton is a wonderful aerospace corridor, and then there’s the precision engineering, the manufacturing centres. The old image of the Black Country is grimy, dirty, oily workshops, but if you go round businesses now, it’s like touring a hi-tech laboratory – spotless and modernised.
“One of the biggest frustrations for me is that there’s been so many envious eyes cast towards Birmingham – and all the investment and regeneration that city’s had, especially before the recession – that the Black Country ended up hiding its own light under a bushel.”
In short, Harrison feels the Black Country, made up of the four boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, has failed until recently to speak with a unified voice.
“We can’t carry on being seen as four distinct boroughs,” Harrison says. “But the good news is there now seems to be a will to get over that – and to think on a wider Black Country scale.
“And I think it’s crucial for everyone to realise that wider strength exists and the unity is needed to achieve the future investment and infrastructure that’s needed. There’s strength in unity, and it’s becoming a recognised and new way of thinking for the Black Country.
“The four boroughs have got some really forward-thinking administrations taking huge decisions, and paper’s like ours – serving the whole of the Black Country – can be a real flag waver, business champion and unifying force.” The Express & Star, owned by the Midland News Association (MNA), has faced its own business challenges in recent times.
The paper still has a daily sale of nearly 80,000 copies – the UK’s largest among regionals – but this is around half of what it sold just 10 years ago. It’s a similar story at the group’s other papers, which include the Shropshire Star and a string of weeklies. With sales and commercial revenues plummeting, and publishers grappling with an ever-changing digital world, any interview with an editor leads to the same question. How can your titles continue to publish quality news, profitably, in an online world where content is free, and where businesses will only pay pennies for advertising, as opposed to the pounds they used to pay in print?
Harrison, 46, pauses, changes his sitting position and visibly searches for the right reply. “Now, if I only knew that…!” he laughs, buying a few seconds, before changing tack: “We went to the USA in 2013 to view the New York Times, the Star and Tribune in Minnesota and the Deseret News, a Mormon paper in Salt Lake City. What they’re finding is that subscription works very well, and we’re now looking at various subscription models.”
I ask him to confirm what he means: “My personal view is that a metered paywall is likely to be the most successful model.” A metered paywall means that a website is free for a certain number of views, but that readers then have to pay to continue accessing content.
Harrison plays with the idea: the right number of free stories is important for metered paywalls, so as not to frighten readers away, and setting the price is critical. He imagines a news website with a million unique users: “If you say it’s £1 a week and 98% say ‘I’m not paying’ once the meter starts, that’s still £20,000 a week, thank you very much.”
Perhaps more will pay higher or lower charges, but Harrison’s message is clear: “There’s merit in a metered paywall. But to do that, we’ve got to have a digital offering that’s indispensable, and an audience consistent enough to pay for it. Critical is bringing people on board, and getting them hooked to pay something.”
MNA employs more than 500 staff across the Midlands, but its annual turnover has reduced to around £40m, resulting in a restructuring project this year that’s seen the loss of more than 70 jobs. It’s been a painful change – especially for departing staff – but Harrison reminds me that it’s a “transitional” period for the newspaper industry.
“In the past, we prided ourselves on being a live news, multi-edition paper – if it happened at 12.30pm it’d be in the paper by 1pm and on the streets by 2pm. But however quick we are in print, we’re not going to beat digital – Twitter, the web and whatever’s next off the block. This has changed our thinking. We’ve got a big digital audience, so let’s serve them with breaking news online, using the paper for more detailed analysis, a lean-back read.”
That digital audience, Harrison says, is running at some 1.5 million unique visitors a month – they recorded 98 million page views last year, and are on track for 150 million page views in 2014. “Digital devices are going in one direction and we have to adapt the business model to serve readers in the way they want.”
When Harrison became editor at the Express & Star, he was also made editorial director for all MNA’s products, with a brief to modernise.
He says: “The workflow had become so convoluted and complicated, resulting in inefficient gaps. For example, at no point did any one individual have full sight of words, pictures, video, tweets and web comments – it was all different individuals and relying on them talking to each other. “We stepped back – if we were starting a business tomorrow, how would we do it? The result is a simplified workflow, with more emphasis on reporters getting all the information at the outset – pictures, videos, comments, Facebook pages and whatever else, as well as the story.
“We’ve re-christened them ‘multiplatform journalists’ and they get it – particularly the young ones who come with mobiles almost moulded onto their hands. For them, after A-levels, university courses, post-graduate diplomas and everything, to start at the biggest UK evening paper and be told ‘here’s a notepad, get on with it’, they’d look at you as if you were mad. It’s incumbent on us to give them a vehicle worthy of their talents.” But hold on a minute: there’s more to do – all those online tasks as well as the paper – but fewer journalists. How does that work?
Harrison says: “We need to be as efficient as we can internally, deciding which jobs to cover, allowing time to investigate the right stories. A double page spread, with unique content, holds readers interest for more than just one day – it can carry them into the next week.
“In the past, we changed editions for the sake of it. A great story in the Staffordshire edition would be taken out for a run-of-the-mill story in the Dudley edition. Now a great story will be carried through editions because it’s still a great story, just 20 miles down the road.”
This mirrors the cross-regional approach that Harrison is calling on businesses and councils to establish: “The entire Express & Star audience figures combined – the daily paper, the weeklies and online – is a massive local audience and can present a great national profile saying: ‘We’re open for business, and the Black Country is at the forefront of that.’”
Harrison is also keen on the Express & Star carrying more business depth and analysis, with industrial insight provided by people “who know exactly what they’re talking about”. He adds: “The Express & Star carries a certain cachet and prestige. We want to wave the flag high for the Black Country, but it needs to carry on shaking off its old image across the country and presenting itself as a bit more professional. We’ve got a part to play in that. We’re on the side of local businesses.”
Lancashire lad turned rejection into success
Born in Preston, Lancashire, in 1968, Keith Harrison left school at 16 to work on power cables as an apprentice overhead linesman. “I got the push,” he recalls, “as they didn’t think I’d pass the exams. Three weeks later, I passed them all, and somewhere in my attic is a City & Guilds Certificate, Electrical Engineering, Stage One!”
Not one to dwell on rejection, Harrison became a trainee reporter down the road at the now defunct Chorley Trader in 1985. “The office had one typewriter. We had to write stories longhand first and, if passed by the editor, you’d get a turn on the typewriter, then pass this to a pool of three women who re-typed it into the computer!”
After Chorley, he moved to the Garstang Courier for three years, joining the Staffordshire Newsletter in 1989 before his career overlapped mine for a few months when we were both Sunday Mercury reporters in Birmingham in 1992.
Harrison left for the Express & Star in 1993, serving as reporter, chief reporter, deputy news
editor and sub-editor, before stints at the Shropshire Star as sports editor, chief sub and assistant editor between 1998 and 2002.
He yo-yoed back to the Express & Star to build a formidable reputation as deputy editor, returning to the Shropshire Star as editor in 2011, then back as editor of the Express & Star in April 2013. He lives in Stafford and is dad to two teenagers who are both at Stafford Grammar School. He’s determinedly enthusiastic about an online future: “The editor before last never had to answer an email in his life. Now digital is a huge part of our time and resource.
“It’s a challenge, but I see it as an opportunity. We want to tell stories as quickly as possible to as many people as possible. Digital allows that more than ever before.”
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