In My Opinion: Paul Wood: Small newspapers can be beautiful

IT has been three years since the West Highland Free Press was taken over by its employees, becoming the first employee-owned newspaper in the UK.

And it’s still a story that has people interested. Only the other week, I was invited to pen an article for the website of the Employee Ownership Association and I regularly talk to many other businesses looking for sustainably-viable methods of ownership succession.

Well, when I say it has people interested, it’s only those who have already embraced the concept of employee ownership that seem inspired by our status as the UK’s only employee-owned newspaper.

It’s somewhat curious, that calls and inquiries have been absent from the industry itself, especially when you consider our venture turns the received industry wisdom on its head – that the time for stand-alone, independent newspapers is well past.

Our journey into employee ownership was certainly helped by the long-held view of the West Highland Free Press that larger newspaper groups were something of predatory anathemas.

Even before we became employee-owned, we were the exception, with so many local newspapers subsumed into large portfolios operated by public limited companies. And it helped too the former owners were sympathetic to the idea of employee ownership. The sale could hardly have gone through more smoothly.

That we became the first and still only employee-owned newspaper in the UK is credit to the hard work and vision of all involved with the West Highland Free Press, both past and present. And the lasting legacy of our chosen model of ownership, an employee-owned trust, is that the paper will remain independent and locally-based for future generations of employees, so long as we maintain commercial viability.

The Free Press is still highly regarded in terms of the quality of its product and content. That we are still regarded as something of an anomaly is because of what seems to be a prevailing view that big is beautiful.

These last few weeks, I have been reading about Local World.

It launched itself, last month, by announcing: “[We are] a media business dedicated to the optimisation of local content and commerce across all platforms. Created from the newspapers and websites of Northcliffe Media, the regional publishing arm of Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), and Iliffe News & Media, the publishing subsidiary of Yattendon Group, Local World intends to transform regional publishing to create a one-stop shop for local content to serve the community and business in every aspect of life.”

Its website confirms it is already a big player, with its portfolio including 16 daily titles, 36 paid weeklies and 40 free weeklies. Trinity Mirror have taken a stake in the new company.

So, we are small. But, in my view, perfectly formed. The journalists at the West Highland Free Press certainly embody what I consider to be the best of local journalism.

Consolidation is not necessarily at fault in itself, but, to work, it needs, in my opinion, to cherish excellent, locally-sourced journalism. It should not be about cutting margins, which – translated – often means cutting back on the number of journalists.

Investment in journalism works. The West Highland Free Press proves it can be done, on a small scale. We continue to thrive, because what counts is well-researched, well-written content reflecting the needs of the local community, backed by a management and ownership sympathetic and responsive to the community the newspaper represents.

This is what makes us different, and I think this is what will give us longevity well in excess of some of our much bigger peers.

I cannot think of a better time for anyone who values what newspapers can do for a community to create the UK’s second employee-owned publication.

Paul Wood is managing director of West Highland Publishing Company Limited.