In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: A chance to demonstrate local newspapers are alive and kicking

IT cannot be true that weekly newspapers are dying on their feet – or that there are no profits to be made investing in them in the 21st century.

The Newsquest Media Group Ltd (Newsquest) is one of the biggest regional media groups in the UK. And today it has announced its acquisition of the Romanes Media Group, which operates in Scotland, Berkshire and Northern Ireland.

Its extensive portfolio, built up from modest beginnings in Fife under the dynamic leadership of the late Deirdre Romanes, comprises one daily, the Greenock Telegraph, 19 weekly paid-fors and nine weekly frees.

All the publications have associated websites, and the company employs 270 staff.

Henry Faure Walker, chief executive of Newsquest, publishers of The Herald and Evening Times, the Scottish Farmer and a number of magazines, is quoted, saying his company is focused on building one of the leading local multi-media publishing businesses in the UK.

He said: “I am delighted to welcome Romanes Media Group to the company. We operate in separate markets but this portfolio of good quality weekly titles provides a strong fit with plenty of opportunity.”

This is not the first time that owners of The Herald (then the Glasgow Herald) have gone into the weekly newspaper business.

Back in the 1960s, George Outram and Company, owned by the late Sir Hugh Fraser, purchased a raft of weeklies, including the Lennox Herald, the Perthshire Advertiser, the Ayrshire Post, the Dumfries and Galloway Standard and sundry others.

Outram centralised printing, embraced new technology and dramatically reduced the number of production staff. However, they retained and even added to their editorial staff which produced some of the finest weekly newspapers in the UK, picking up prestigious industry awards along the way.

The company became Scottish and Universal Newspapers, and was snapped up by Tiny Rowland, CEO of Lonrho, the international trading company.

Eventually, it was purchased by Trinity Mirror, the present owners.

Romanes, meanwhile, which originated with the Dunfermline Press, founded in 1859, have done likewise. Its local news brands include the Dunfermline Press, the East Lothian Courier, the Reading Chronicle, and the Impartial Reporter in Northern Ireland.

Could this, then, be a major turning point for the business of journalism and recognition of the trade’s vital contribution to the success of media in the UK?

Is this the moment when newspaper and other media proprietors are going to put their hands up and admit that if media companies are worth investing millions of pounds in – the figure for the Romanes purchase remains undisclosed – news itself is worth paying for?

There is no question that the people who gather the news and provide the photographs deserve a better return for their work. In biblical terms, has the time come for owners to admit the labourer in the vineyard is worthy of his hire?

This takeover by Newsquest is an opportunity for the industry to demonstrate to the world that it is alive and kicking and that it has prosperous future ahead of it.

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.