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MEN interview

By The Drum | Administrator

July 29, 2002 | 9 min read

Stroll along Manchester’s bustling Deansgate and it is impossible not to notice the headquarters of the Manchester Evening News. While the signage and entrance for the paper’s parent company, Guardian Media Group, hides away around a corner the MEN itself stands proudly in the middle of one of the city’s busiest streets.

Its presence at the heart of Manchester’s vibrant city centre sends a clear message of “we are an integral part of this city” to both its readers and advertisers. And so it should. Manchester, as the birthplace of The Guardian, clearly is a significant city for the Guardian Media Group – both as the home of the MEN and as a base for a regional operation that spans more than 45 weekly titles in the north and south of England.

The Manchester Evening News itself, the company’s flagship regional title, must own a soft spot in GMG’s heart. And so the job of steering it in the right commercial direction is bound to be a pressured one.

It’s a job that has been passed on to David Benjamin, the recently appointed managing director of the Manchester Evening News and Mark Rix, his deputy MD.

The two took up their new positions earlier this year, with the task of overseeing not just the Manchester Evening News itself, but the entire MEN portfolio.

“The MEN is more than just the MEN,” explains Benjamin. “My remit now includes our weekly Metro, our daily Metro, Diverse Media, City Life and Jobs North West. My job spans the entire range of titles, so I have made sure to have a very strong management team around me.

“I suppose my job is basically two things – the here and now and the future, and to make sure that they are both well catered for.”

At 30 Benjamin would seem to be taking on a lot for his age, but he casually shrugs off the “eligible bachelor” tag, saying: “Being MD at thirty is probably the reason I am a bachelor.”

However, the appointment of a number of twenty- and thirty-somethings to senior managerial positions (think Iain Martin, the 30-year-old editor of the Scotsman and Tim Betts, the 27-year-old marketing director of Wimpey) does not a trend make.

“I don’t think it’s a trend,” he remarks. “What’s key is to have a balance. You have to have both youth and experience. That’s what we’ve got here in Manchester – a balance in all areas, which is the secret to our success. If you had bias it would affect the balance and, ultimately, the performance. I think it’s inspirational that our general manager was appointed to his position a few years ago at the age of fifty. You’ve got to have that balance.”

Originally from the South, Benjamin first joined the MEN eight years ago after completing an MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University. Prior to that he had worked for Martin Retail Group in the South East.

To say that Rix, who backs Benjamin up as deputy managing director, has had somewhat of a diverse professional life could be considered a powerful understatement. Leaving school at 16, Rix joined the Navy, before moving on to gold mining in South Africa. He explains: “When I was 16 my parents moved to South Africa. I joined the Navy because I didn’t want to go, I didn’t even know where South Africa was.”

Despite this initial dislike Rix moved to South Africa after his stint in the Navy. Two years later, after working as a supervisor in the gold mines, he returned to Wigan to get married. The next step for Rix, who also holds an MBA, which he gained at Salford University, was to be a career in newspapers. Two years as a trainee at the Wigan Observer led on to a sales position at the Manchester Evening News. Five years later he was offered the opportunity to become display advertising manager of the Yorkshire Post. It turned out to be a rough ride.

“It was a testing time to be the display manager for the Yorkshire Post,” says Rix. “Because it was right through the recession. It was, however, a good training ground.”

After proving himself at the Yorkshire Post, a return to the Manchester Evening News was the call of the day, where he has worked up to the position of sales director – a role he intends to keep in addition to his new deputy MD title.

Although it may surprise some readers of The Marketeer, Rix states that there are parallels between his jobs in the Navy, mining and newspapers. He says: “The Royal Navy and gold mining have a number of similarities to newspapers. For the Navy, firstly there’s the discipline, then there’s the fact that they are both dynamic. The Navy and mining can both be very dangerous, so you need teamwork. In newspapers you could argue that at 4 pm every day we don’t have a product, so we also need teamwork to get the product together. We need to be slick and efficient as a team.”

He adds: “In a newspaper, as in a gold mine, you always feel the heat, get your hands dirty, walk around in the dark and have your bosses sitting on top of you.”

The two take up their positions at a changing time for regional press. Though the market didn’t suffer as badly as the national press last year when budgets were cut, the pinch was still felt. The market has also had to deal with the emergence of the internet as a formidable recruitment-advertising forum – traditionally a strong source of revenue for regional papers.

Benjamin, however, does not see the internet as a threat, citing the success of manchesteronline and the company’s stake in recruitment site fish4 as a sign that they are moving with the times. He says: “I think we’ve stopped seeing the internet as the threat it was and see it as a complementary medium to our newspapers. As a result we have gone from just having an evening newspaper to being a media company.”

Rix, who also sits on the board of GMG RD, the regional digital business of the Guardian Media Group, remarks: “The real change over the last couple of years has definitely been the emergence of the internet. I think we embrace the change and realise that it’s perhaps not the substitute for regional papers that people thought it was going to be, but I think it’ll find its place. I think we should embrace the advantage the internet gives us, as it extends the power of our off-line brands into an online environment.”

As for the regional press market itself, both are optimistic about its continued strength. Rix says: “I think regional press has displayed significant resilience in the last 12 months. That’s for a couple of reasons: it wasn’t a victim of the dot.com crash, and therefore didn’t have that deficit, and regional papers are very strong in local markets.”

“Consolidation still continues in the market,” Benjamin states. “That clearly indicates to me that despite a slowdown regional newspapers are still an attractive commercial proposition. But with fewer players in the market it’s important that regional papers retain their regional focus.”

Retaining a regional focus is something the Manchester Evening News has always been good at and, says Benjamin, it remains one of the paper’s strongest selling points. “The MEN is basically a champion for Greater Manchester and all things Manchester,” he says. “Our recent campaigns have included keeping Wythenshawe Hospital open and lobbying to gain government support for the Metrolink tram system. It’s that level of involvement in the region that keeps us when things are not as fortunate in the market. It’s this commitment to the region which ensures that the MEN will continue to grow.”

Both men seem keen to stick with the winning formula. Both have denied that the Manchester Evening News, both the paper and the company, is set for any immediate drastic changes.

Rix comments: “Basically, in terms of change we are organising according to the prevailing market forces.”

Benjamin’s response was similar, stating that any changes are gradual and in response to readership. “It’s much like Mark’s response for changes in the ad department, it’s constantly changing. The editor has no immediate plans to change the look but we’ll constantly change the paper to keep it relevant to the target market.”

“I think we’re always talking about how to make the newspaper more aesthetically pleasing as well,” Rix adds. “It’s evolution, not revolution, with a paper such as the MEN.”

Both men are clearly enthused not only by their new positions, but by the city itself. Rix states that being based in the city is an exciting experience especially in the build-up to the Commonwealth Games, of which GMG is the media sponsor.

Benjamin, meanwhile, says that the biggest boon of working at the Manchester Evening News is the fact it’s owned by Guardian Media Group. With no shareholders to appease, says Benjamin, they have the opportunity to take a long-term view with the company. And that’s exactly what they are doing.

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