The Downs Mail will end publication after 25 years after the COVID pandemic hit revenues

A free sheet from Kent which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary was last in print, having failed to recover from the pandemic. The Downs Mail will go into liquidation on Monday June 27.

The publication, which covers maidstone and Malling, was founded in January 1997 by father and daughter team Dennis Fowle and Claire Procter. Dennis, now 87, brought a wealth of journalism experience, including a former editor of a local Kent paper, while Claire, 63, brought experience in advertising sales.

All was well for the title for many years and the publication has built a strong reputation for getting to the heart of local news. It’s this reputation that has helped the Downs Mail build a devoted readership in print and online.

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At its peak, 88,000 copies were distributed each month in five local titles, and there was also a leisure and travel magazine in its stable – Mid Kent Living – a quarterly glossy magazine.

But that all changed in March 2020 when the first lockdown was announced, ad revenue plummeted 80% in the first few days before dropping to zero for the following three months. Office space has been reduced and staff reduced.

Things started to look up again between July 2020 and July 2021 as advertising revenues increased and stabilized, although leisure and tourism were still in serious trouble, Mid Kent Living was not produced – its target market was still on his knees. In August 2021, when the recovery looked promising, things took a turn for the worse again as sales suddenly fell again – advertisers pulled back spending due to talk of more winter restrictions.

The front cover of the Bearsted Mail, the publication that would become the Downs Mail

By February of this year, printing costs had quadrupled in just 12 months, leaving them 30% higher. Meanwhile, energy costs had skyrocketed, along with bills from other suppliers.

Low cash flow caused by accounts receivable worsened finances and there was no option to increase the cover price – it had always been free; advertisers also could not agree to a price increase. Following this, a government stimulus loan was taken out to see The Downs Mail in the spring, but sadly the recovery just wasn’t viable.

Maidstone’s liquidators, Maxwell Davies, have been called in and the company goes into liquidation on Monday June 27. In its 25 years Downs Mail, which was first published in April 1997 as Bearsted Mail before being renamed Downs Mail in 1999, has become local champions to protect Maidstone.

Claire, who took over as chair from her father in 2009 when he retired, said: ‘The small team at the Downs Mail that made this all possible have all worked so hard, especially over the past two years with so many changes and challenges. To fire them after all their hard work was the saddest decision of all.

“We just couldn’t recover and after 25 years it’s so sad for us and for the community we’ve been such a big part of.

“We have seen many other publications fail and we never thought we would too, but the combination of lack of advertising revenue, rising costs and competition from free online advertising platforms means we we didn’t survive either.

“We did everything we could to change things, but it just wasn’t enough.”

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Jacob L. Thornton