How to launch a new newspaper? Have a powerful digital newsroom already reaching huge audiences

Darren Thwaites, speaking at last year’s Society of Editors Conference

Last week, the MEN made headlines of its own by launching a Sunday edition. In an age when so many are quick to denounce regional news as dying, and print publications as effectively dead, how did the MEN’s decision come about? Editor in Chief Darren Thwaites on how being passionate about digital made it possible to launch a new paper in print…

IT’S been a bit of a strange week here at the Manchester Evening News.

We’ve talked more about newspapers than I can remember for a long time.

That’s all thanks to the launch of our new Sunday title. It’s created quite a stir and I’m sure you’ve read about it.

It’s been a lot of fun and plenty of hard work. I’m fortunate to have a brilliant team in Manchester, packed with talent, determination and creativity. They make things look easy. We needed all of those attributes to get this new launch off the ground in record time.

The front page of the second edition of the MEN on Sunday

We’re still in love with print and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’ve not for a moment let this new launch distract us from building bigger and more engaged audiences online.

In fact, the whole project has been made possible because of our success in growing digital audiences. That growth has sustained a newsroom of real quality and scale. It’s turned our newsroom into a responsive seven-day operation. It’s created a newsroom that obsesses about what the audience wants, not what we need to fill the spaces between adverts.

Out of that has come some brilliant content and award-winning journalism. We’re reaching more people than ever before and we know more about their needs than ever before.

This gives us a blend of content that people want to read across all seven days.

Until last week, we’d happily used that feed to build six daily editions of the M.E.N. So why not do the same on Sunday?

Roy Greenslade described our decision as “counter-intuitive”. I understand exactly what he means. No secrets here. We are launching into a market in which print circulation is declining and print advertising is declining. We don’t have a magic formula in Manchester to buck that trend, even though we’re the UK’s regional newspaper of the year.

But Greenslade was perhaps remembering an age when every new product launch was saddled with a huge cost base from Day 1.

In our case, the content is effectively free. We create it already because there’s a demand. Most people wish to read it on a mobile; many still prefer it in a newspaper.

Print readers talk about the experience of a newspaper. It’s seen as relaxing “me time” away from the frenzy of mobile, social and modern life in general. We edit and package the best of everything into one place, selected by skilled journalists not a mystery algorithm. It’s a comfortable, enjoyable experience. And what better day to tap into those emotions than Sunday?

The content that works best online on Sundays is also the perfect content to build a newspaper of authority and substance. It’s the content that wasn’t always getting the display space it deserved for our print readers.

So we’ve launched a product that we’re confident will make a profitable contribution without needing to reach delusional expectations around sales or advertising. If it generates additional profitable revenue, it all helps to support a sustainable future for local journalism.

And on that subject, the release of the Cairncross Review couldn’t have been better timed. Media interest in the launch was exceptional. We expected local TV and radio coverage but to get a full 60 seconds of fulsome praise on the Andrew Marr show was lovely. Over the next week, Jen Williams was on Politics Live and Newsnight, and I got a bit of airtime on the Today programme.

The first edition of the MEN on Sunday

All this highlights why newspapers remain an important part of our media mix. Jen reached more people online with her brilliant investigation into the unfair impact of a decade of austerity on Greater Manchester. But it was the new newspaper’s treatment that catapulted it on to the national agenda, nicely condensed into a splash headline of The £1.7bn Robbery.

We saw the same with the Northern Rail fiasco last summer, where the collaboration of historic, authoritative and trusted brands like the M.E.N, the Yorkshire Post and the Liverpool Echo forced the issue beyond our local borders.

We’d promised a newspaper that sets the agenda. One with clout, substance and authority. A title that brings political issues from Manchester, not just Westminster. One that challenges the London-centric nature of national journalism. Objective achieved.

Another highlight on the first edition was the Page 4&5 spread From Driveway to E-bay. Our chief reporter Neal Keeling had spent the previous Sunday night with police on the trail of criminal gangs stealing high-end cars to order. It was packed with police chase drama and fascinating insights, illustrated by a stunning picture from Joel Goodman, which would have graced a DVD box-set.

We also loved the Vincent Kompany interview by Chris Slater. Not a two-minute grab in the mixed zone after a game but a thoughtful, considered, sit-down. Kompany’s eloquence in talking about homelessness and his `proper Manc’ family was a joy to read. It was brilliantly illustrated with a stunning piece of artwork from Justin Eagleton.

Other highlights included Katie Fitzpatrick’s look beneath the surface into the real lives of footballers’ wives and Helen Johnson’s shocking investigation into motorway pollution levels, headlined: The M60 is poisoning us but who is trying to stop it?

A confession to make, though. I’ve been an editor now for just shy of 15 years and I’m still waiting to produce the perfect paper. I’ve got front and back pages that would grace an art gallery. But there’s always some aspect or other that you might have done just a bit differently at some point in the book. Everyone has a different opinion in any case. No two people would create exactly the same thing.

So when the phone had finally stopped ringing and Twitter had stopped tweeting, I got chance to really study the product. What did I think? Well, still not perfect. It never is. But it was very, very good. It lived up to its billing. It was bold, confident, authoritative and packed with great reads.

It showed digital and print working in perfect harmony. The combination of both media meant our journalism reached loads of people and made loads of noise. Our team should be very proud.

No time to rest, though. Edition No2 is well under way, It’s shaping up nicely and we think it might be even better.

Maybe this is finally the perfect one….