Behold my front pages...

Lincolnshire
Echo editor Mike Sassi talks to Jon Slattery about the strategies
behind some of his award-winning newspaper’s most innovative and
successful splashes

FOR A NEWSPAPER on a relatively quiet patch, the Lincolnshire Echo has been making quite a noise.

What has helped the Echo stand out from the crowd and given it
something to shout about is the innovative front pages produced by
editor Mike Sassi and his team.

Last year the paper won front
page of the year in the Press Gazette Regional Press Awards for its
presentation of the plight of women forced to wait an unacceptably long
time for the results of smear tests. Earlier this month, the Echo beat
much bigger and better resourced evenings to take the top accolade of
regional newspaper of the year in the Newspaper Society awards.

Two
Echo front pages impressed the judges. One told the story of Gina, an
alcoholic living on the streets. The other concerned a campaign to
oppose a huge hike in car parking charges at a major Lincoln hospital.
It used the simple device of listing names of all the readers who
backed the campaign – which ended in a victory for the paper.

Pioneering influences

Sassi acknowledges that he has been influenced by two other
Northcliffe editors who pioneered front pages that lambasted local
politicians or bungling bureaucrats, leaving them with more lumps than
opponents of the legendary Northcliffe editorial football team.

“I am a disciple of the Mike Lowe and Keith Perch school of journalism,” Sassi is happy to admit.

One
of the six front pages he has chosen here, “Failure”, relates to the
final twists in the long-running Lincolnshire County Council scandal
which led to the jailing of a council leader and resignation of his
successor and full cabinet. But Sassi insists there is more to his
front pages than “town hall bashing”.

In fact, he seems to regard
the county council scandal as a bit of an open goal. “It was
mismanagement on such a scale that nobody disagreed with the stand we
took. The council officers and the 17,000 people working for them were
very supportive. I also got fantastic backing from my newspaper group.”

What
also marks out the “Failure” front as different from the others is that
it was a time-sensitive story that had to run that day.

Sassi says the other five fronts could have been held over if a major story broke on the day, but he is candid about his patch.

“In
a place like Lincoln, you may have obvious leads only two or three
times a week. There were only eight murders in the whole of
Lincolnshire last year.

“Things don’t fall into your lap here.
You have to be more creative on smaller dailies and weeklies. On
traditionally quieter patches you have to work a little bit harder and
be more innovative.

It is fantastic fun and fantastic training.”

Sassi
stresses the stories that have made the front pages here have come from
his reporters rather than from him plucking an idea out of thin air and
getting them to stand it up. “My reporters knew Gina (the alcoholic who
lived on the streets); they also knew people who used the hospital car
park and one of our reporters spotted the man living in a shopping
trolley. I didn’t say to them ‘find me a drunk’. All these stories have
been brought in.”

He is pleased the Echo has a high percentage of
reporters who are local and have been with the paper for some time. “I
want my reporters to be embedded in the community and to be their eyes
and ears.”

People often say that some papers win prizes but lose readers.

Sassi
reckons that week on week, the various front pages he chose to
illustrate this article put on between one and two per cent in sales.
Overall, the Echo is likely to be down around 1.5 to two per cent for
January to June, but in the current harsh regional newspaper market
that is good going for an evening title.

Despite his success with
one-issue front pages, Sassi doesn’t see a parallel with Independent
editor Simon Kelner and his championing of a “viewspaper” over a
newspaper.

He says regional papers have to be more wary than the
nationals of plugging any political line, as The Independent has done
in its opposition to the war in Iraq. “We have to be more careful
because we have to be all things to all men. You cannot take a
political view. You have to be balanced and have to choose an issue the
community feels strongly about. It’s about giving the community a
voice, a platform.”

Mike Sassi talks about his TOP SIX FRONT PAGES

1. Shame-less (3 March, 05)

Government ministers say naming and shaming young criminals who are
given anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) is an important part of the
fight against crime. However, Lincolnshire Police decided they had more
important things to do with their time.

Lincolnshire is a large county, with more than a dozen magistrates
courts. Unless prosecution requests for ASBOs are flagged up in
advance, it is almost impossible to make sure reporters are always on
hand.

Our Shame-less front page highlighted the fact that,
whatever politicians say, without the help of local authorities the
majority of ASBOs will go unreported.

Every head-and-shoulders
shadow represented a young criminal in Lincolnshire who had been made
the subject of an ASBO, but whom police had declined to identify to us.
It was backed by a detailed spread across pages two and three.

Since
the page appeared, the police and other local councils have informed us
in advance of court proceedings that could end up with the imposition
of an ASBO. However, 20 of the 26 criminals already served with ASBOs
in Lincolnshire remain unidentified.

2. Gina’s Story (2 October, 04)

Gina Mallard was a familiar figure on Lincoln High Street. Her
drunken behaviour was (and still is) the stuff of legend. It also made
her the subject of an ASBO that she had broken seven times.

When we published Gina’s Story, she was facing a jail sentence. We
asked whether prison was the right place for an alcoholic mother who
needed treatment rather than punishment. Had she been let down by our
legal system and health services?

Inside, we ran a two-page
spread making the case for Gina. The front page provoked much comment,
positive and negative, in the local community. The crown court judge
referred to it during sentencing.

Gina was eventually given a 12-month conditional discharge and a course of treatment for her addiction.

3. Lincs women waiting for smear test results (29 March, 04)

“When will our suffering end?” was a page designed to highlight the
huge lengths of time that women in Lincolnshire were waiting for the
results of their smear tests. The problem – which was the result of
staffing shortages at local medical laboratories – appeared to be
getting worse.

We wanted to convey the genuine trauma scores of women were
suffering while they waited to find out if they needed serious medical
treatment. One reporter gathered together six of the worst cases she
had uncovered and wrote a seven-paragraph narrative.

We displayed
it on the front page, without a headline but with six head shots. The
idea was that, because it was so fundamentally different from our usual
front pages, it would have a greater impact.

After the front appeared, more women contacted us,saying they were in the same position.

There
also began a concerted drive to improve the local smear test service,
kick-started by a £50,000 one-off grant from the local health trust. In
the past nine months, waiting times for smear test results have fallen
dramatically and are now among the lowest in the UK.

4. One Voice (10 November, 04)

Our local hospital decided, without consultation, to increase its
parking charges. There was a huge public outcry and the Echo started a
campaign to persuade health trust managers to change their minds.

In terms of numbers, it was probably the most successful campaign in the Echo’s 112-year history.

Even we were staggered by the support we received.

By
the end of the campaign more than 10 per cent of our readers had
written to us condemning the price hike. We published every letter. We
also published the names and addresses of 2,359 readers who spoke with
One Voice to demand that the hospital think again.

There were a
handful of readers who questioned our decision to dedicate the first
nine pages of one day’s edition to the petition. However, there were
many more who congratulated us on the stance we took. And we were
vindicated when the hospital did, eventually, reduce the hospital
parking charge.

5. Failure! (17 March, 05)

Much has been written about our four-year campaign to clean up Lincolnshire County Council.

Former leader Jim Speechley was jailed for abusing his position.

Over
the past 18 months we have highlighted the mistakes and misjudgements
of his successor, and friend of 30 years, Ian Croft. During that time,
on many occasions, we have called on Councillor Croft and his executive
to step down.

This recent front page, Failure!, highlighted yet
another independent report that condemned Croft’s leadership. Less than
36 hours after it was published, Croft and his entire 10-strong cabinet
resigned.

6. The Outsider (18 September, 04)

The Outsider was another front page that we hoped would highlight
the inadequacies of the health services available to some sections of
our community.

It focused on homeless Brian Buckthorpe, who lived in a supermarket shopping trolley in a car park.

There
is no doubt that Brian is a particularly difficult character who has
serious mental health problems. But we wanted to know if, in the 21st
century, in a civilised society, nothing more could be done to help
him. This front was backed by a powerful picture and a feature on page
two. Three months later, on Christmas Eve, we reported that Brian had
been given a home by someone who had read about his plight.

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