Brummies go back to basics for £1m relaunch of evening tabloid

By Sarah Lagan

The Birmingham Evening Mail this week revealed its eagerly awaited
“back to basics” £1 million-plus relaunch aimed at ending a 30-year
circulation decline.

The relaunch is being headed by Brum-born editor Steve Dyson, who
has returned to the paper after the Mail’s failed 2002 relaunch, which
led to the departure of editor Roger Borrell. Dyson has left the
editorship of the Teesside Evening Gazette, one of the most successful
evenings in the country, to return to the Mail, which was down 10 per
cent in the last ABCs.

“This is a huge reinvention, a
branch-and-root change of everything we do,” said Dyson. “Roger
(Borrell) is a great personal friend of mine. The only difficulty I had
coming back to this job was that it was in the footsteps of a friend.
But I want to do it in a completely different way to how he did it.”

The
major problem facing Dyson is how to attract one of the most diverse
and transient readerships in the country to the new-look paper. An
ethnic mix of afro-caribbeans, sikhs, muslims and hindus make up a
near-majority in Birmingham. It also has diverse social groups ranging
from those living in inner city housing estates to prosperous suburbs.

The
newly named Birmingham Mail (the ‘Evening’ has been dropped)n has gone
back to some traditional newspaper methods by producing more regional
editions throughout the city and surrounding areas.

Community
news In contrast to the general newspaper trend, the Mail is doubling
the amount of regional editions to seven and, like many successful
weeklies, is focusing on more ultra-local news to serve the northern,
central and southern parts of the city.

Each area is flagged up
on the front page, with the smaller communities within them listed in
striking red teaser headings. The editions, with four changed pages,
have their own fronts and their own campaigns where necessary.

“The
editions won’t just be disparate pages inserted on page 20 and 72,”
said Dyson. “It’s slapping them across the head with the newspaper and
saying ‘this is about your area’.”

The Mail is also hoping to
attract more female readers and has taken design cues from magazines.
The design is more European in style using more colour, white space,
multiple entry points and softer headlines.

The paper is also going along with readers’ pleas to lighten up its news.

Where
the old Evening Mail might have relished a headline such as “Boy 14
Dies in Blaze Horror” the new Mail will be searching for positive
outcomes to tragedy. A recent splash about a boy who lost a leg in an
accident carried the headline “Rail Fall Boy Cheats Death”

and the story ran into a feature on page three.

Dyson
said: “It’s all very well to put a dawn raid on the cover with known
criminals, but is that what people want on their dinner table every
night? We have to challenge ourselves to delve into the human side to
it and pull more emotional strings.”

Practical features and
guides are spread throughout new and existing supplements. There is a
new shopping supplement on Mondays and sports coverage has been doubled
to 16 pages on the same day. Tuesday features a new Family Life
section, which already has strong links with a children’s
hospital. Travel coverage has been condensed into one section.

The masthead is in a redtop-style box in the top left-hand corner of the page. Dropping
the ‘Evening’ from the masthead, Dyson insists, doesn’t symbolise a
shift to earlier editions. “Ideally I’d like later editions, but given
that we are producing so many we had to work very hard with the presses
and van routes to make sure we can do it as late as possible,” he said. “We want readers to have that day’s news.”

Borrell’s
relaunch in 2002 had aimed to focus on better serving Birmingham’s
ethnic communities and local areas, but Dyson says the company reverted
to a more generalised news approach accompanied by budget cuts. Staff
numbers at the Mail have dropped from about 100 to 75 in the past three
years.

Despite a job freeze on non-essential staff elsewhere in Trinity Mirror, Dyson has already replaced three reporters’ positions to cover Solihull, Sutton and Redditch.

“Because
the Mail worked on such a generic basis, you could carry on with fewer
and fewer staff because you didn’t have to cover every cough and spit
of what was going on.

“We’re saying the geographic and ethnic
complexity has to be treated as an overhead. In the new editions we’ll
be listing all planning applications as well as magistrates’
convictions, from TV licence dodging to flashing on a bus,” said Dyson.

“In
certain places replacements may be needed and I’ll argue those on a
geographical basis and make sure we have people where it counts.”

Rival
publication, the Wolverhampton- based Express & Star, has about 180
staff and its circulation is 156,000 compared with the Mail’s 96,000.
Dyson says the Express & Star benefits from serving seven
closely-knit communities rather than a metropolis like Birmingham, but
he admires the way it has covered local issues and its multi-edition
structure.

The management structure in Birmingham has also been shaken up. Previous
editors of the Evening Mail have had a wider role within the company,
including Borrell, whose position was changed from editor to editor-
in-chief after the relaunch. But Dyson is adamant he has only one focus.

“I have taken on this position on the condition that I am the editor. Management
do not touch me for meetings until any given afternoon. It needs that
focus and direction. We need a strong editorial management structure,
hands-on, coal-facing, to drive thisproduct and resource accurately.”

Concentrating
on the wider strategy are John Bills, who was brought in from the
Northwest as regional managing director in place of Alistair Nee, and
former Liverpool Echo editor Mark Dickinson as editorial director.
Dyson has appointed the Birmingham Post’s assistant editor Carole Cole
as his deputy and former editor at Trinity’s magazines division Stacey
Barnfield as design editor.

Dyson says his Brummie roots will
give him an advantage. “I know the city inside out, the communities,
the significance of the different industries, the nature of Birmingham.
I think that helps tremendously,” he said.

And from Teesside he brings with him a strong drive for campaigning journalism.

“We
need to be careful we campaign on things that matter to people. I think
Ian Dowell [former Evening Mail editor] was a great campaigner. I
certainly learned a lot of tricks from him.”

With £1 million
being spent boosting the relaunch, the regional newspaper industry will
be watching the Birmingham Mail’s progress closely. Some of the
key changes could be seen as a return to traditional values: an editor
in charge of editing, grass roots reporting, strong campaigning and
investing in editorial.

“Nobody in the industry is telling a new story, we’re all recycling old stories. We’re going back to basics and going back to patches,” said Dyson.

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