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STATEMENT: Downs Mail goes into liquidation

Thursday 16th June 2022

A Kent title that’s only just celebrated its 25th birthday has printed for the final time – having been unable to recover from the pandemic.

The Downs Mail, which covers Maidstone and Malling, Kent, was founded in January 1997 by father and daughter team Dennis Fowle and Claire Procter. Dennis, now 87, brought his journalism, including a former editorship of the Kent Messenger; the KM Group’s flagship county title whilst Claire, 63, brought a background in advertising sales.

Up until March 2020 when the pandemic struck, the title was doing well – readership was good; the paper and website had a reputation for getting to the heart of local news. At its height, 88,000 copies were distributed each month across five local titles, plus there was also a leisure and tourism magazine in its stable; Mid Kent Living – a quarterly glossy magazine.

Advertising was buoyant, with businesses booking time and time again having seen good results.

But it all changed in March 2020 as the first lockdown was announced; advertising revenue nose-dived by 80% in the first few days before hitting zero for the following three months.

A restructuring plan was implemented; office space was reduced, staff pared down, they went to two editions a month from their usual five and took a Bounce Back Loan to aid cashflow.

From July 2020 to July 2021, advertising revenue grew and stabilised, but with leisure and tourism still badly affected, Mid Kent Living wasn’t produced – its target market was still on its knees. In August 2021 just as things looked like they were recovering, sales once again took a sudden plummet – advertisers were pulling spends off the back of talk of more winter restrictions.

By February of this year, print costs had risen four times in 12 months, leaving them 30% higher. Energy costs had sky-rocketed, alongside invoices from other suppliers too. Poor cashflow caused by debtors compounded the finances and there wasn’t an option to increase the cover price – it had always been free; advertisers couldn’t take any price increases either.

A government recovery loan was taken to see them through to spring but recovery just wasn’t there and the company became unviable.

Maidstone liquidators Maxwell Davies was called in and the company goes into liquidation on Monday 27th June.

During its 25 years, Downs Mail, which first published in April 1997 as Bearsted Mail before being renamed Downs Mail in 1999, became local champions to protect Maidstone.

Campaigns included:

  • · Fighting to keep the Hazlitt Theatre open when Maidstone Borough Council wanted to close it
  • · Breaking the story and fighting proposals for Lenham Garden Village; 5000 new homes being built on the green belt
  • · A £100,000 fundraising effort to make Kent County Council build a pedestrian bridge across the A249 in Detling after the death of eight-year-old Jade Hobbs and her grandmother at Christmas 2000 as they tried to cross the road to buy sweets.
  • · A campaign to retain core services at Maidstone Hospital
  • · A fight against KIG – the building of warehousing and a railway line on 60 acres of land between the M20 and A20.
  • · Restoration of King Street in Maidstone Town Centre as a main traffic artery and the return of its taxi rank.

Claire, who took over as Chairman from her father in 2009 when he retired, said: “The small team at the Downs Mail that has made this all happen have all worked so hard, particularly over the last two years with so many changes and challenges.

"Making them redundant after all their efforts has been the saddest decision of all.

“We just haven’t been able to recover and after 25 years, it is so sad for us and for the community we have been such a large part of. “We have seen many other publications fail and never thought we would too but the combination of the lack of advertising revenue, rising costs and competition from free advertising online platforms means we also haven’t survived. “We tried all we could to turn things around but it just wasn’t enough.”