Anita Syvret's parting shot: 'Local newspapers are stronger than ever'

Anita Syvret recalls being one of a handful of women delegates at her first Guild of Editors conference after taking the helm at the Gloucestershire Echo in 1990.

Throughout the event, the chairman referred to the delegates only as ‘gentlemen’and at the end said: ‘Thank you gentlemen for coming to the conference, and thank you ladies for looking so decorative.”

She says: ‘The industry has changed enormously in the past 18 years, and I would hope that I have played a small part in making that possible just by example.”

But despite being the first female editor of a Northcliffe daily since 1939 – gender is not something Syvret is keen to discuss.

‘My view has always been that I don’t know what it’s like to be a male editor,’she says. ‘If you sit around moaning that life isn’t fair you are never going to get anywhere.”

Syvret is far more interested in talking about some of the huge stories that have broken on the Echo’s patch during her time in charge – like the horrific Fred West Cromwell Street murders of the early Nineties, and last summer’s disastrous flooding across the county.

Rewarding and difficult

She says of the Fred West story: ‘It took up a huge chunk of our lives for a couple of years,’adding: ‘It really was horrific and some of our staff suffered from nightmares for some time dealing with that. Professionally it was very rewarding, personally it was quite difficult to do.”

On reporting last July’s floods, she recalls ‘reporting from the middle of a major disaster for 10 days”. ‘We had no water, we had no toilets – we had to take staff on a bus down to Bristol for them to have a bath, where we took over the David Lloyd centre.

‘At one stage it looked like we might not have electricity and have to switch the whole operation to Bristol, but then we had a hole knocked out of the back wall so we could put a cable through to a generator and keep the computers going. That was an unforgettable experience.”

Syvret’s editorship will probably be most remembered for the Echo’s reporting of one of the biggest legal fraud trials in British history – that of Tim Robinson and 29 other defendants.

Despite a gagging order which lasted four years – Syvret committed reporters to covering every one of Robinson’s six trials, getting them to file copy each day – as if for the next day’s paper.

When the restrictions were finally lifted the Echo produced an award-winning 24-page supplement plus 12 pages of breaking news, with more copy serialised later.

Perhaps surprisingly for a local newspaper editor, she cites some big national and international stories as among the most memorable of her career.

‘The high points are some of the big story breaks that I’ve had under my editorship, especially in the days when newspapers had lots of editions and you were first with the news, when it might take three hours to go from a reporter’s notebook to the streets.”

Margaret Thatcher’s morning resignation and the release of Beirut hostages Brian Keenan and John McCarthy are two of the biggest she remembers.

‘We went hell for leather and put on great sales because we were 24 hours ahead of the nationals,’she says.

Along with many other regional evenings, the Echo has ditched afternoon editions in favour of overnight printing in order to be in newsagents all day and save on delivery costs.

But despite the loss of ‘on-the-day news”, Syvret says it is not a move she regrets. ‘It’s gone because of the internet. That’s absolutely right.”

And far from believing that ‘things were better in her day’, Syvret says: ‘Newspapers have got better and better, and I think the internet is absolutely fantastic”.

She adds: ‘It’s where you go when you want breaking news. You don’t wait for newspapers to land on the streets, you switch on your computer and hopefully go to your local newspaper’s website – as we found with the floods last year.”

Echo regional editorial director Mike Norton has paid tribute to the Echo’s circulation performance under Syvret, saying it has ‘one of the best long-term sales records of any regional daily in Britain”.

Nonetheless, in common with nearly every other regional daily, sales have declined over the past decade – from more than 26,000 to the current figure of around 21,000.

But Syvret says regional newspapers are not in a terminal decline, saying that the true story is ‘quite the opposite”.

Alive and well

‘Let’s not get hung up on circulation, circulations have been going down since 1952 – but the regional and national news agenda is very much alive and well.

‘There will always be a call for local news and whether that news combined with advertising is on the back of a fag packet, in a newspaper, or on the internet, is irrelevant.

‘The important thing is that we publish that combination of local news and advertising and keep our place in the market.

‘We are undergoing massive change. Let’s not underestimate it, when we are looking back in 10 or 20 years’ time, the significance of what we are doing now, which is changing from a dead-tree business to a multimedia one, will be huge.

‘We’ve just got to go through the growing pains and it is painful. But I don’t believe that newspapers are going down the drain. Local news and local news organisations are stronger than they’ve ever been.”

At the Gloucestershire Echo, these ‘growing pains’have included an office merger with the Gloucester Citizen in 2006 which resulted in 20 editorial job losses. Then, in January this year, Citizen editor Ian Mean was made editor-in-chief across the group.

Editors seldom enjoy their authority being undermined by the creation of a new boss with power to interfere in their domain, but Syvret says the move did not hasten her departure.

‘It’s got nothing do with it, I’m 55 and I want to do something else before I get my bus pass.”

She steps down next week to set up Syvret Media, which will advise companies on handling the press ‘in good times and bad”. Her deputy, Marianne Sweet, is to be acting editor.

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