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The aftermath of a newspaper war

A Google search for “who owned the Western Daily Press” led someone to Wordblog earlier today. I am sorry to say they did not get the answer but it does raise an interesting story about local control of newspapers.

The Bristol morning was founded in 1858 by a Scotsman, Peter Steward Macliver, and continued under independent ownership until 1960 when, with its circulation under 12,000, it was bought by Bristol United Press. That is the simple answer but we really need to go back to a vicious newspaper war that began in 1928.

Anyone who thinks that DVD give-aways and price cutting are brutal competition or that there will be blood in the streets when thelondonpaper is launched next month, should look at the Camrose versus Rothermere newspaper war.

Give-aways included alarm clocks and life insurance. In Bristol the people, led by the Bishop of Malmsbury, were so disgusted they started their own paper, the Bristol Evening Post.

William Berry, later Lord Camrose, and his brother already owners of the Sunday Times, the Financial Times and the Daily Graphic, decided in 1924 to take on Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail and a host of other papers.

They set about buying, from Rothermere as well as others, taking papers in the regions and in London. They acquired The Daily Telegraph and almost before anyone noticed they had the world’s largest publishing empire.

In 1928 Rothermere decided to fight back and founded Northcliffe Newspapers to establish a chain of evening papers in the larger industrial cities. A Time magazine article on January 9, 1933 records:

In Newcastle, Rothermere planted his Evening World in opposition to Camrose’s old established Chronicle. In 100 days he ran the World’s circulation to 176,000, two-and-a-half times the Chronicle’s. Baron Camrose wailed in protest against the Rothermere circulation method, which was to give free and hearty dinners plus free insurance policies to longtime subscribers. But ruthless Rothermere’s only reply was to snort his contempt of “old fogies” in the business. In Bristol Rothermere dazzled the natives by building the most modern and luxurious newspaper plant outside of London.

Bristol’s long-established and loved Times and Mirror closed under the Rothermere onslaught. Opinion turned against the upstart Evening World. There were stories of people refusing the Evening World but paying the news vendors so that they would not lose.

Local businessmen, a powerful and influential group in the City of Merchant Venturers, got together with the Bishop of Malmesbury at their head to raise the money for a new paper.

The got a run-down industrial building on Silver Street and installed second hand presses. The Evening Post was launched with a title line announcing: “The paper all Bristol asked for and helped to create.”

At the end of 1932 Rothermere and Camrose called a truce. Rothermere abandoned the Newcastle Evening World but the Bristol Evening World lived.

It continued, under Rothermere’s ownership, to battle with the Evening Post until 1935 when the two papers were brought under single control. In a complex deal Northcliffe newspapers held a minority of shares but as a single shareholding it would normally have allowed it to exercise control: the agreement prevented this.

The Evening World continued until 1962, a lively paper, when its low circulation eventually caught up with it.

In 1960 Bristol United Press, owner of the two evenings, had bought the ailing Western Daily Press which had a circulation of fewer than 12,000. Eric Price, who was working for the Daily Express, was recruited to revitalise the morning.

He set about the job with a zeal and a popular middle-market approach which offended traditionalists — among journalists as well as the West Country establishment — but built circulation. In 1989 it was selling a shade under 76,000.

It was “the paper that fights for the West” and it saw the nationals as its rivals. Eric Price was innovative with design, introducing a “goodies” panel stripped across the top of the front page, a navigation tool that, at the time, was almost unknown.

The pages mixed village flower shows with national stories giving them greater importance by association. Eric Price delighted in attacking bureaucrats and the readers liked it. I worked for him and he kept me on my toes and taught me a lot about local news.

The Bristol papers continued as an active locally-managed business until early in 1990 when David Sullivan, owner of the Sport and magazines including Adult Fantasy, made the shock announcement that he had bought a substantial shareholding and intended to make a bid. Because of the combined circulations of the Sport and the Bristol papers he needed approval and the Competition Commission was asked to report.

The Commission decided a take-over by David Sullivan was not in the public interest, saying:

The main public interest issue is the likely effect of the transfer on the character and content of BEP newspapers, particularly the Evening Post and the Western Daily Press. We consider that if the acquisition of shares were allowed Mr Sullivan could be expected to influence editorial policy and the character and content of these papers and that this would harm both the accurate presentation of news and the free expression of opinion. We also consider that the acquisition could harm the standing of the papers in their community and that there could be some adverse effects on circulation.

However, the rather cosy arrangements were shaken and in 1998 Northcliffe Newspapers extended their shareholding and gained direct control.

Sources:
Time Magazine Jan 9, 1933
Competition Commission report, 1990
Tony Gosling’s Bilderberg.org webside. The relevant article appears to be accurate
My memory, which may be faulty

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  1. Wordblog » Blog Archive » Are newspapers communities? says

    […] In a recent post I wrote about the history of the Bristol papers and the founding of the Evening Post which carried this line below the title: “The paper all Bristol asked for and helped to create.” It was the arrival of a new paper owned outside the city that led a Bristol community to found its own newspaper. […]