Comment and insight on journalism issues from Press Gazette's guest writers

Former Northcliffe editor Barrie Williams on Monty's brave new (Local) World: 'Somebody's got to start somewhere'

I was telling Dominic Ponsford about the way we were in the regional newspaper industry before the dramatic decline of recent years. About how, when I became editor of the Nottingham Evening Post in 1981, we had an editorial staff of 128; printed five on-the-day editions, the last at 4.00pm; sold around 130,000 copies a day; employed more than 1,000 people and had our own private company jet and helicopter and he said: “Can you write me a piece about how that compares with Monty’s Local World vision?”

I think I can see where Dominic might have been coming from: Grisly old hack appalled by the concept of an industry with no buildings and no presses; with ‘pretty redundant editors’ and small teams of journalists managing self-service community news.

But, not only do I think the core of David Montgomery’s thinking is incontrovertibly sensible, I reckon much of it is not all that new or revolutionary.

David says: “The modern editor will be the content director, managing content, organising content and disseminating it on the appropriate platform.”

Which, admittedly before the full emergence of the very latest outlets, is precisely what I spent more than 30 years as an editor doing; the new generation of 1980’s editors shunned the ivory tower status of their predecessors, spent most of their time shirt-sleeved on the ‘coal face’ and happily delegated previously sacrosanct controls to team members.

Press Gazette reports that the conventional idea of the sub-editor does not feature in Monty’s vision. Nor did it in mine.

On the Western Morning News in 1999 I dispensed with traditional sub editors, made the best of them content editors who generated, as well as managed and organised, editorial content; got reporters to write straight into pre-determined spaces and employed young graphic artists, instead of subs, to design our pages.

I argued then, as David does now, that much of the sub-editor’s time-honoured role was ritualistic and redundant.

David exhorts grass roots community journalism. So did I.

In Nottingham in 1993 I took on 17 kids straight from comprehensive schools, gave them each a bike and a laptop and let them loose on their own council estates to serve a neglected readership with which most over-educated middle-class ‘proper’ journalists had no rapport whatsoever.

I’ve never forgiven my successor for abandoning that project! I could go on, but space won’t allow and now I’m amused to note that most of those objecting to David Montgomery’s vision sound just the same as my critics did, arguing from the safety of the stale status quo rather than embracing exciting change.

Obviously, the halcyon days I was privileged to enjoy are gone forever, consigned to history by changes in society’s habits, the inexorable growth of the internet and the unavoidable but unsustainable profit demands of the big groups which bought ownership from local family proprietors.

Now, the only way to sustain the presence of genuinely local media is through the sort of approach being pursued by Monty’s Local World.

Of course there will be argument, some of it no doubt entirely valid, about whether David Montgomery’s specific remedy is precisely the right one and I do hope he will not jettison quality writing, investigative reporting and campaigning but somebody’s got to start somewhere because, otherwise, we are in danger of losing irretrievably the essential democratic function of the ‘local rag’ with all that will mean to the detriment of the people who won’t miss it until it’s gone.

‘The way we were’ is recalled in Barrie’s entertaining autobiography Ink In The Blood (www. woodfieldpublishing.co.uk)

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