Alan Butt: a miracle of local journalism

It was fascinating to read Dawn Alford’s memories (Press Gazette, 10 August) of Alan Butt, who was her editor at the Exeter Leader.

She seems to be suffering from a certain amount of amnesia, however, when she says she was the only reporter. This may have been true when she was first taken on at the paper, but – as this picture shows – I worked there, too, in the late Eighties.

The reason Dawn may not remember me too well is that I was taken on as the reporter for the Exmouth Leader, the Exeter title’s sister paper. After six months working in the Exeter office, I demanded to be sent to the Exmouth office. However, even though I was some 15 miles down the road, Alan Butt’s presence dominated everything I did.

He was an inspiring character and a great person to be able to call my first editor. He and Dawn had almost a father and daughter relationship. I have no doubt it was his firm tutelage that laid the foundations of Dawn’s later career as the Daily Mirror reporter who bought cannabis from William Straw, the son of Home Secretary Jack Straw.

Although Dawn was a great news getter, Alan was the dominating force in the Leader newsroom. Her description of Alan bashing out a story while the city council leader was still in the room is typical of the man.

I can remember one exchange at about 8.15am on our publication day when he was talking to a local VIP on the phone. ‘So, Chester, you’d say it is all a storm in a teacup.’Pause. Then: ‘So, Chester, you’d say it is all a storm in a teacup.’And there on the screen in front of him in 120pt caps was the headline ‘Storm in a Teacup’above a story about a row involving the then-city council leader Chester Long.

Alan was a loveable man, who demanded respect in the newsroom because he worked so hard and so fast and was nearly always right. The only person who really intimidated him was his beloved wife, Marian. He would spend hours on the phone pacifying her, saying: ‘Yes, dear”, ‘No, dear”, ‘Of course, dear”. His constant refrain was: ‘When I get my villa in Spain…”

We always laughed at this line and shook our heads thinking it would never happen and Marian would never allow it. It was, therefore, very much to my surprise a few years later that I opened a copy of the Exeter Express & Echo and read that, after taking retirement, Alan Butt had moved… to Spain. That he should have died there, too, and lived out his dream for a good 16 years is wonderful.

He was a great character – one of an increasingly rare and diminishing breed in the world of modern newspapers. In the current era everything seems to be about the bottom line. Very few free newspapers today actually carry real news stories.

But Alan wasn’t interested in puffs for local businesses – all that motivated him was the paper’s news story count. Alan would always count up how many stories were in each week’s paper. ‘That’s 245 stories this week,’he’d say, ‘good effort, my boy'(or in Dawn’s case, ‘my girl”). In the mid to late Eighties, this was in a city which at one point had three free newspapers, an evening paper and a paid-for weekly. Managing director Vincent Boni used to call Alan ‘my genius”.

Of course, the downturn arrived at the end of the Eighties and swept most of the free newspapers away. But for a brief while, in a small corner of Devon, Alan Butt was part of a little local miracle of free newspaper journalism – the like of which we may never see again.

Dawn used to do a great impression of Alan – when he wasn’t there – which was nearly as good as listening to the man himself. It just prompts me to say: ‘Dawn, can you do me some nibs?”

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