Business interview: Stuart Birkett, managing director of ncjMedia

Tom Keighley speaks to NCJ Media's new managing director about his mechanical mind and the nuts and bolts of the news business

Stuart Birkett MD of ncjMedia
Stuart Birkett MD of ncjMedia

The Journal's quest to uncover the most interesting of careers frequently takes us all over the region — into offices, factories and studios both grand and small.

This week’s story emanates much closer to home, inside our own offices with ncjMedia’s managing director Stuart Birkett.

“The Journal has been in our house since I can remember. All the time I worked for other companies I bought it, particularly on a Saturday,” he says affectionately.

Stuart attended The Dukes’ Grammar school in Alnwick, as it was then known, and went on to study a degree in environmental science at Northumbria University — in “the days before environmental science was a useful degree to do”, he smiles.

Graduating in 1985, he moved into technical sales in the construction industry. Recession in the 1980s bit hard, particularly for the concrete structure industry where Stuart was learning his trade and had hoped to formulate a career.

“The business fell off a cliff and I decided I wanted to do something completely different. I saw an ad in the local paper, the Berwick Advertiser, for a sales manager to lead a small team. I went for it, got the job and within 10 months my boss had left to go somewhere else, so I stepped up.”

Stuart worked his way up through the ranks and when the Advertiser’s owners, the Smail family, sold up to Johnston Press in 1999, he became general manager and then managing director of Tweeddale Press.

Some six years later and he made the jump to another Johnston Press subsidiary, Northeast Press, where he held the reins at the group of daily and weekly newspapers south of the Tyne and in his native Northumberland.

In 2013 Stuart was chosen to run the Scottish operation for Johnston Press, based out of Edinburgh. It was a brief run until the summer of 2014 before a new opportunity surfaced.

“I was really delighted to get back to the North East. ncjMedia is an operation with a such an iconic range of titles. It’s been a really interesting journey in the regional media sector over the last few years, as many people will know.”

Stuart talks of a “quadruple whammy” to the regional press around the start of the 2008 financial crisis. Changing consumption habits spurred by online news, a fragmentation of the classified advertising market, rising paper prices and recession all bore down on the industry. Stuart admits to there being some “fairly dark times” surrounding that 2008 crunch.

“We’ve been right sizing and becoming much more efficient. A lot of it has been about amalgamating back room functions so that we can concentrate on frontline reporting. It feels like we’ve come a million miles over the last 12 months.

“When I walked into Thomson House you could sense the positivity. Going digital first has totally revitalised the operation and given that many newsrooms have taken somewhat of a battering over the head in recent years, there seems to be a genuine vibrancy here in ncjMedia.”

That battering had not escaped ncjMedia. The Journal’s circulation in the second half of 2014 averaged 16,670 daily, a fall of 9% year-on-year, while The Chronicle averaged 34,954, a fall of 11.4% year-on-year. The business’ revitalised digital face provided the good news, in the shape of Trinity Mirror’s Newsroom 3.1 pilot — a model that put digital news publishing at the forefront. In the that same period of 2014 ChronicleLive recorded 155,831 daily users, year-on-year growth rate of 173%.

Newspapers remain the most profitable area of the business, but converting the digital headway into bottom line earnings is one of Stuart’s main goals.

He explains: “People have started to talk to us more about the digital audience. Advertisers are telling us that its increasingly about the audience and not necessarily the delivery channel. Our starting point now, from an advertising point of view, is a combined print and digital package.”

This evolution swept in a change to the way advertising is processed at the centre. An advert typically starts life in print format before it is reworked into a number of its newer digital siblings: the leaderboard, skyscraper, mid page unit (MPU) and mobile banner.

The next step is serving those adverts to a relevant audience. Timing and format are key to this, as Stuart explains: “At lunchtime we serve adds up to the desktop site, when people are eating sandwiches at their desk and in the evening and morning, when people are commuting, more will be served up through mobile.”

The digital field demands near constant innovation from publishers, not least because this changeable landscape continues to tempt news readers into new habits.

Stuart adds: “Younger people are showing a propensity not to seek out news via search engines, instead waiting for items to be pushed out to them through their social media timelines. That presents a new opportunity for us. It’s important to embrace social media channels to deliver appropriate news.

“My son, who is 18, is at university in Newcastle and he follows the Chronicle for news and sport. Recently he spotted someone climbing up the Tyne Bridge. Because he was engaged with the Chronicle he came to us and said ‘this could be a story’.

“Perhaps the traditional values of newspaper brands aren’t all that important to young people, but online it can be more fashionable, it’s a sexier thing. If you’d asked people 20 years ago who they trusted most, they’d probably have said their local MP, doctor, priest and the newspaper. The newspaper is probably the only one that would still be up there. And of course, there’s a big distinction between local and national newspapers.”

Stuart is enthusiastic about the translation of regional newspapers’ authority and relevancy online. A good tale from his Johnston Press days goes some way to demonstrating that.

“One afternoon, a few years ago, there was what seemed to be an earthquake in Berwick. There was a lot of talk on social media. The newspaper went to the British Geological Survey, who told us it wasn’t an earthquake. We put the news out but social media maintained that it was still an earthquake.

“The RAF then told us that it was likely to be a sonic boom, and we put that out pretty quickly. I think that story demonstrates the role of regional news providers in presenting the facts, not just the ‘buzz’ at the time. Social media is really important to us and we must do it in the right way in order to build trust in a sometimes untrustworthy format.”

The excitement around digital news might be palpable but there’s “still tread on the newspaper tires”, as Stuart is keen to point out. Tread is something he should know a thing or two about. On weekends Stuart’s petrol-headed passions are let loose on the 1980s Mini he is carefully restoring in his garage.

“It’s quite close to being finished, and I admit, that since starting at ncjMedia it’s been tricky to find time — but I’m determined to get the thing done and out on the road in the summer. I bought it as a shell and a box of bits, so it’s been built from the floor upwards,” he says proudly.

The mechanical skills — all self taught — stem from a youth tinkering with cars and motorbikes.

“I used to have a little Yamaha FS1-E bike, which will make sense to people of a certain age. The thing used to break down every few miles or so and I’d end up fixing it on the roadside before driving on. I graduated on to cars eventually and it’s just remained something I really enjoy doing.”

If there is any time left, and the wind is pointing in the right direction, Stuart might be found on his small sailing boat which is moored at his home town of Berwick. There’s been a downsizing of the boat recently as his hand is firmly on the tiller at ncjMedia.

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