In early June I caught a couple of articles talking about the potential launch of a new daily national newspaper for the North of England and Southern Scotland. My first thought was: they're mad. Bonkers. That'll last five minutes, if it gets off the ground at all. And then I forgot about it.
This week, 24 - The North's National, went on sale for the first time at a cover price of 40p. This time I thought, well good for them for getting this far. Won't last though. It'll fold within two weeks. But on reflection, will it? Is 24 actually more genius than madness?
Headquartered and printed in Carlisle the paper is unashamedly produced by northerners for northerners; specifically at this stage, northerners in Cumbria, Lancashire and Southern Scotland. The staff and editor know their target audience because they are its target audience. I'm no absolute expert on national newspaper production but I imagine that being your own target audience makes success rather more likely.
But if you run this argument to its conclusion, New Day should have succeeded - and it failed, quickly and horribly. It was produced by its target audience. It was aimed at middle-class women and largely produced by them too. But in my view there was one big problem here: New Day had a relatively small target audience - and once you start aiming at a gender-specific subset such as middle-class women or retired men, you're making it very hard to sell sufficient quantities to turn a profit.
Plus, having spoken to a number of middle-class women about New Day, they found the idea of a newspaper for 'them' very off-putting. As one female friend put it: 'Oh right, I'm too stupid to read a 'normal' newspaper, I need my own 'safe' version of the news instead!'
In the case of 24, there is no gender bias; it's a newspaper for everyone. But actually, it isn't. Because they know their geographic area, and their potential readership, they've produced a tabloid for working people - mainly but not exclusively men - who are into sport. This is cleverer than it sounds. Frankly, it is men in the North who traditionally buy the most newspapers so you'd be mad not to slant it their way. Plus football is very big in the North West and as it stands most of the national papers focus on the London teams, not Manchester United, City, Liverpool, Rangers and Celtic. So there is a gap to fill.
In addition, they've been careful to choose an area to launch that's outside the reach of the mega-regionals like the Manchester Evening News. So geographically they've found a gap. And more importantly, unlike the MEN, they're not covering regional news, they're covering national and international stories. But even more importantly in my view, they have something else on their side: tribalism.
The North is tribal. I know this because I'm a northerner myself. Up there people and communities stick together. Psychologically, the north is much further away from London than a few hundred miles. When I was young I had a mate who wore a slogan t-shirt until it disintegrated. It said: 'Born in the North; Live in the North; Die in the North'. And I've got good reason to think that this is still the attitude of a vast number of northerners. They are proud of their region and culture - and rightly so. The north is different. It is special. It does have its own culture and attitudes. And it could well be that 24 can tap into this feeling to its own advantage.
However, you need a lot more than this to succeed where others have failed. And 24 has one big advantage: its business model. Instead of having hordes of journalists on its books, 24 gets 95 per cent of its content from a PA News feed and slants those stories for a northern audience. This saves money - lots of money. In fact, on BBC Radio 5 Live this week, Group Editor David Helliwell said that alongside ad-space sales which have been very good, the paper only needs to sell 10k copies to be in profit.
Plus it doesn't - and won't - have an expensive, labour-intensive website, which for its target audience is less of an issue than you might imagine; northern working people don't spend a lot of commuting time on the train, unlike their London-based counterparts. This cost reduction gives 24 a good chance of surviving longer than New Day.
But will it survive long term? My head says that it's a gamble and it's unlikely to survive more than a couple of months at best. But my gut says that it's given itself a much better chance of survival than many London-centric papers. I believe David Helliwell when he says there is an appetite for national news with a northern slant. And I also think he has the right attitude to the project. He is aware of the challenge and, from interviews I've read and heard, he seems to have the flexible but practical approach necessary to meet these challenges.
And they have a long-term strategy. Speaking to the Press Gazette, Group chief executive Miller Hogg said: "Success [for 24 is] that we have an ever decreasing reliance on PA and we have an increasing reliance on our own teams as we invest. That has got to be where the success line of the future lies - more regional columnists, a couple of investigative and business journalists (...). I think regionalisation and local pride is something that we hope will play a big part in our success."
Launching a print-based newspaper in the 21st Century takes courage and a certain amount of daring; qualities that you have to admire even if you fear for their sanity. In my view we should all give a cheer for 24, wish it well and hope against hope that it survives and thrives.Suggest a correction