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FOCUS: Stronger together...merging the oldest and newest in local news

FOCUS: Stronger together...merging the oldest and newest in local news

Thursday 29 December 2022

FOCUS: Stronger together...merging the oldest and newest in local news

Thursday 29 December 2022


This year saw the island’s oldest, and youngest, main daily news businesses come together into a new company: All Island Media.

The combination of the JEP and Lighthouse Media (parent company of both Bailiwick Express and Connect Magazine) was announced in the summer, and given regulatory approval a few months later.

All the existing news brands will stay, and retain their separate editorial voices – and as part of the deal, staff will also become owners of the business for the first time.  

But once the period of integration is finished, what will that new business look like, and what is it about the current media market which drove the merger?  

Here, the two Editors, James Filleul (Connect and Bailiwick Express) and Andy Sibcy (JEP) explain more about the plans for two of the island’s main media outlets, starting with how the merger came about, and the process which was followed...

James Filleul: I think the local media sector has been ripe for consolidation for a while now, for two main reasons.

Firstly, we are all competing hard against the global internet platforms, who obviously have far greater resources than we do.

Take the local personal classifieds market for example - 20 years ago that was a steady income stream for local media across the country, not just in Jersey, while today much of that business has moved to Facebook. Or look at the Mail Online and see how many Jersey businesses advertise through unfocused pop-up adds. Across the country, these developments have eroded genuine local news because these businesses do not hire local journalists or invest locally.  

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Pictured: James Fillieul, Connect and Bailiwick Express (left) and Andy Sibcy, JEP (right).

Merging the JEP and Express will allow us to offer the best possible platform to advertisers, across multiple channels, and so enable us to put together a really compelling offering with unparalleled reach.

Secondly, In common with all local businesses, the media here are continually challenged in terms of recruitment. By bringing these two businesses together, we will be able to pool resources - that’s important as it will enable us to deliver the sort of journalism we all got into the profession to deliver, with lots more investigations, and the ability to really get behind some stories to offer the sort of analysis and context which I think people really want. 

In terms of process, once the overall commercial terms had been discussed, we then needed to complete a detailed and thorough regulatory form, and answer some searching follow-up questions, before we received approval to complete.  

Andy Sibcy: At their core, both of our businesses boil down to the same two things – we want to deliver great journalism, telling the stories Islanders want to read, and provide high-quality, differentiated local platforms which offer unparalleled reach and levels of engagement for advertisers.

When the opportunity to bring the two brands together presented itself, we simply had to ask ourselves whether we could do both those things better together – and the answer is undoubtedly yes. 

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Pictured: 'Merging the JEP and Express will allow us to offer the best possible platform to advertisers, across multiple channels, and so enable us to put together a really compelling offering with unparalleled reach.'

The rationale for bringing the JEP and Bailiwick Express together is therefore strong. When I ask people want they would like to read more of, they invariably say more investigative journalism. There is an insatiable appetite in the Island to understand the story and the story behind the story, and people want us to dig deeper and get to the truth, which is often obscured. 

It is exactly this type of reporting that we came into the job to do, but it takes a lot of time to research, fact-check and write. That means it is time-consuming and expensive. It is no secret that as the fortunes of newspapers have changed in the digital age, newsrooms have got smaller, with fewer journalists available to do the digging. The merger reverses that trend and provides an exciting opportunity to focus on in-depth journalism. We will be investing any savings - such as on rent because the Bailiwick team have already moved into the JEP’s Bath Street offices - in producing more high-quality and in-depth local journalism. 

In addition to the two headline brands in the JEP and Bailiwick Express, the merger brings together a number of other important elements of the two businesses under a new parent company called All Island Media Limited. 

The children of that parent company comprise an impressive portfolio of complementary publications, including Connect, Homelife, Celebrate Local, Celebrate Jersey and ecoJersey as well as standalone titles such as 101 Island Leaders and the ever-popular annual JEP calendar and tide tables. 

All these publications and many more, in their print and online incarnations, will be vital assets as we strive to deliver unparalleled reach across every part of the Island community for our advertisers and partners.

Was the approval of the JCRA, the competition authority, easy to obtain or did they impose conditions you didn’t expect?

JF: It was a detailed process, with a thorough assessment of the market we operate in. That took some time, as there needs to be a careful balance between commercial pragmatism, and making sure the competition law is upheld, which is there ultimately to protect consumers.

We worked through that process, with the invaluable help of our professional advisers (a special “thank you” to James Willmott of Carey Olsen), before we ultimately received the approval to go ahead. There were no conditions imposed. 

Some islanders are concerned the merger will mean the island will lose a source of news. How will you ensure both publications retain their “editorial voices”? 

JF: I think the first thing to say is that Express and the JEP will both be staying - in fact, we’ll be working hard to improve them both. Both retain their editorial teams, and the merger gives us the opportunity to pool resources and so offer even better content in both of them.

Express and the JEP cover stories in different ways, and that differentiation is really important - it’s a key focus for Andy and I to make sure that continues. 

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Pictured: "At their core, both of our businesses boil down to the same two things – we want to deliver great journalism, telling the stories islanders want to read, and provide high-quality, differentiated local platforms which offer unparalleled reach and levels of engagement for advertisers."

In terms of the number of local news outlets, there is an argument to say the Government itself is one of them, given the volume of material it disseminates through its own social media channels to islanders every day! It was the Government which streamed live the Proclamation of Charles III, for example, not one of the local media, as it would have been just a few years ago. 

Social media gives the opportunity for any organisation to be its own publisher - the local media don’t have a monopoly in that area any longer! So, as news outlets, we have to focus on offering something different, whether that is through the quality, the breadth or the depth of what we do, or just the way we deliver it.  

My view is the demand for great local news content has only increased - but we have to keep getting better and better at delivering it, as simply republishing a media release is often not enough any more.  

That drive for better quality is one of the main reasons behind bringing these two businesses together. 

AS: I agree with everything James has said, but would add one more crucial point. 

As an Editor the one thing you want to hear from your proprietor is that they believe absolutely in the editorial independence of the journalists they employ.

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Pictured: "That drive for better quality is one of the main reasons behind bringing these two businesses together."

From the very earliest conversations we had which led to the merger, our new owner and the Board have been unwavering in their support for this basic principle which enables us to do our jobs without fear or favour. 

I think islanders can have great confidence from that that both editorial voices will not only remain distinct, but will be free to interrogate, investigate and challenge without interference. 

Will readers of the Bailiwick Express or the JEP notice any change in the publications they read?

AS: The basic principle of the merger is that consolidation will make us both stronger and give us the capacity to do more – and do it better. 

Readers can expect to see more in-depth news and analysis in the JEP, as well as articles which explain how we got to where we are: the story behind the story. 

We are also committed to making sure the justice system is open and accountable by increasing our coverage of the courts and campaigning for open justice. Both James and I have seen a worrying trend of the courts becoming more closed, with judges seeking to restrict what can be reported. Open justice, not least as a safeguard against the arbitrary exercise of judicial power, is essential in a healthy democracy.

We will take on that fight on behalf of readers and hope to see more cases being reported more fully by both the JEP and Bailiwick Express. 

As a combined newsroom, we should be a powerful check on government, acting as critical scrutineers rather than seeking to position ourselves as an unofficial opposition. We should be trusted champions for the consumer, especially given the current squeeze on household budgets. 

And we should ensure all islanders have a voice. Powerful, meaningful journalism is about taking on the issues that improve lives and fighting for social justice.

The two publications will remain distinct and retain their different approaches and voices. I think it is also important to say that we welcome feedback and ideas about what stories people want to read. Please get in touch and tell us what you would like to see more of. 

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Pictured: As a combined newsroom, we should be a powerful check on government, acting as critical scrutineers rather than seeking to position ourselves as an unofficial opposition.

Equally, I cannot stress enough that If people like and value what we do and want more of it, they will need to support us by buying the paper, subscribing to the online e-edition or working with us because we offer the best platforms to advertise goods and services.  

Will the price of the JEP remain the same? Will Bailiwick Express remain free?

AS: Given the inflation we have seen in the cost of just about everything, I think any business would be foolish in the current climate of uncertainty to make promises about the price of what they sell.

That said, we have managed to absorb a 75% rise in the cost of newsprint (the paper on which the JEP s printed) this year and are committed to keeping the price as low as possible. There is a clear link between the number of people who buy the paper and how much it costs.

If people like and value what we do, the best way to keep the price down is for more people to pay their £1 a day or subscribe to the online edition and support local journalism. What I can guarantee is that the JEP will remain great value. I think people can have a rather strange attitude when it comes to the price of the JEP, and news in general. What else does £1 (£1.10 for the Saturday weekend edition) buy you these days? A sip of coffee or a fifth of a pint of beer…

JF: In terms of Express, we already put a very small number of stories behind a pay wall, and that is something we will continue to investigate to see what works best.

This is the challenge which the media have been wrestling with across the world - great journalism is expensive to deliver, needing experienced, knowledgable and well-qualified staff... why should everything they write be published for free, just because it is online?

Newspapers realised this centuries ago, they have always had a paywall in terms of the cover price. Ultimately, it is all about the value proposition, just as it is for any business. What value can we offer and at what price? We have some ideas on that, and look forward to introducing them. Whatever we do, however, there will always be a big free element.

What is the main benefit of the merger from a reader’s point of view?

JF: I think the main benefit is a stronger Express, and a stronger JEP.

I really believe in the value of local media, the last few years have reminded us how important it is to have access to accurate and trustworthy information, combined with detailed analysis. Islanders have access to so much information these days, a trusted guide is invaluable, and that is the role the local media can play.

So, expect to see a broader range of stories, analysis and features, told in the format which readers want (including radio), whether that be short-form news stories, longer features, colour articles or podcasts. We now have the depth in the combined news team to do them all, supported by a much broader commercial structure which offers unparalleled reach for our advertisers. 

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Pictured: 'Islanders have access to so much information these days, a trusted guide is invaluable, and that is the role the local media can play.'

AS: In many parts of Britain, it is a tragedy that communities have lost their local newspaper or they have been hollowed out to the point where they do not provide any real detailed local news and analysis.

Not having journalists working on your behalf to inform, challenge and dig for the truth has exacerbated a democratic deficit and left people without a voice when the need to be heard of vital issues that materially affect their lives. 

Trusted, independent, professional local journalism, especially in an autonomous jurisdiction like Jersey, is critical to the health of the community. The merger enables us to ask more questions and hold more people to account. Not only will we aim to deliver better reads in the public interest, but the real win in our coming together is that we are better placed to perform the traditional role of the fourth estate – scrutinising public officials and political institutions and keeping a watchful eye on legislation, the executive and the judiciary.

As part of the merger, an Employee Benefit Trust enabling employees to hold shares in the company. How will this ensure its longevity? 

JF: An Employee Benefit Trust is quite a common structure in other sectors, but perhaps not so far in the media.

Actually, it fits the media quite well in the sense that we are here to tell everyone’s stories, perhaps to bring the community together - certainly to make sure they are better informed. In that sense, broadening out the ownership is quite a logical next step. But its not been done before, so we are going to approach it step by step, starting with the first tranche of 10% of the shares being made available to staff in January, and we’ll see where we go from there.

Ultimately, if we can collectively build a business together in which people have a shared sense of ownership, then thats going to be a sustainable place for us all to develop our careers.  The owners would like to see wider share ownership overtime and have a vision for democratising the ownership of local media.

Fast forward five years, what does the local media landscape look like? 

AS: The world has the capacity to change so quickly in the digital age that it would be a fool’s game to predict what might happen too far into the future. Will Facebook have gone the way of MySpace, and what will Elon Musk have done to Twitter? I am confident that reading the printed newspaper will remain a valued part of many islanders’ day in five years’ time, although there will inevitably be far more news online.

The big question with that is one which all publishers are wrestling with – how to make it pay to fund the journalism on which it relies.  

What I can say with absolute certainty is that there will remain a huge appetite in this Island for trusted and accurate local news. Can anyone imagine life without it? It is really a question of how the words will reach readers and on what medium they will read it.

READ MORE...

This article first appeared in Connect Magazine, which you can read in full below...

An annual subscription to the JEP is available at 20% off for a limited time only... Click here to access this deal.

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