It’s been a tough year on Fleet Street.
Hundreds of national newspaper jobs have been lost. Publishers have suffered double-digit advertising revenue declines. And, if you include Trinity Mirror’s failed New Day, three titles have been closed.
Right at the centre of the decision to close the other two of those newspapers – the Independent and Independent on Sunday – was Steve Auckland, the recently departed chief executive of their owner, ESI Media.
It was not an easy decision, he tells City A.M. “Evgeny [Lebedev, the owner] made the call on it. Obviously we advised him. But it was literally the day before, the final call [was made]. He was taking it really seriously.”
Despite the Independent’s circulation falling to around 55,000 – making it by far the smallest national daily newspaper – its switch to an online-only format was mourned widely in media circles.
Was its closure a loss to society? “It’s always a tricky one that… Well, not really,” says Auckland, a straight-talking Yorkshireman. “Because I think… it’s not a loss to society when you’ve got the website there. And people can easily get onto the website and they can get all that information. I don’t think it is a loss to society.”
He also points to the fact the i newspaper – the former cut price sister title to the Independent – is still around. Its sale to Johnston Press coincided with the closures.
Like the i, the Independent and Independent on Sunday were understood to be on the market.
Auckland reveals that ESI Media spoke to parties about them “loosely”.
But he adds: “There was nothing forthcoming at all. We never had any sensible conversations with anybody about the Independent. Not that we weren’t looking for them – it’s just that there weren’t any.
“We talked to one or two people, but as soon as they saw the figures they were put off by what they saw.”
More closures coming?
Despite being one of the men behind the closure of the Independent, Auckland himself remains a print devotee. “Everybody says: ‘Is print dead?’ Obviously I’m a slightly older person, but I don’t believe it. It’s not dead.
“I think you will still see weekly papers out there in 10,15, 20 years’ time. I think you’ll see daily papers out there. I think you’ll see free papers, like yours, Metro and the Standard out there.
“It’s just part of the evolution of the media business. Every time it happens, everybody screams ‘it’s the death knell, it’s all going to go away!’ It won’t.”
Auckland describes the Guardian – now the smallest paid-for daily national newspaper – as the “usual suspect” when asked what could close next. But he adds that he does not expect this to happen any time soon.
“And all the others, they’ve got some pain at the moment with what’s happening in the ad market, but no I can’t see that at all. I think all of those products will still be here in three to five years time, at least.”
Keeping a national newspaper alive is one thing. But Trinity Mirror this year attempted to launch one – New Day, which was closed less than three months after it was first published.
Was it always a no-hoper? “A brave attempt, but I’m not sure I’d have put all my money behind it, if you know what I’m saying? Good on Simon [Fox, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror] for trying it,” says Auckland.
“I understand why the Mirror launched it, and I understand the rationale behind it, and everything else. I think the sums of money that you would have needed to create a new market – which is really what they were trying for there – are substantial. And I think it’s very difficult to do these days.
“I think it was a brave attempt. But in the end – could it have been executed better? Question mark, dunno. While it might have looked good from a marketing point-of-view, reality might have told us otherwise. And reality has told us otherwise, really, hasn’t it, in the end?”
More cuts coming
Are more cuts likely to follow in the near future? “If you’ve got revenues decreasing by 15 per cent year on year, that is a lot of revenue coming out of the industry, and you have to be able to balance the books some way. Otherwise you’re into public closures. So unfortunately, yeah, there will be rationalisation.”
Auckland’s media experience extends far beyond Fleet Street. After starting his professional life as a teacher – “that was the successful part of my career” – he spent more than 20 years working on the Yorkshire Post.
He then moved on to the Metro newspaper, became group managing director of regional newspaper group Northcliffe and oversaw that company’s transformation into Local World, where he was group chief executive.
Auckland then returned to Metro as managing director for a short spell before taking the reins at ESI Media, publisher the Independent newspapers, Evening Standard and local TV station London Live.
“Good result, job done”
Auckland says he has left the company lighter, but in a good place.
Companies House documents published last month, for the year to September 2015, show the Independent website and Evening Standard are profitable.
London Live, meanwhile, reported a £6.3m loss, but this was an improvement on £11.6m the previous year – “it’s out of the hospital, if you like, and it’s in a lot better nick”.
So, with the company in a good place, why did Auckland leave after less than two years?
“I had a job to do there to make sure we restructured, to get ourselves on to a firmer footing,” he says. “You’ve then closed the Independent, sold off i – the business is a lot, lot, lot, lot smaller than it was when I came into it. So you say: ‘Right, job done on this, guys.’
“Because we know where we’re going in the future. No disrespect, it’s a lot smaller business and therefore, do I really want to be with that going forward? So, at the turn of the year, when we thought the [i] deal was going to go through, it was a case of… ‘Right, okay, leave it with those guys.’”
He adds: “Good result, job done, thanks very much. Next one.”