'Don't mention profits in front of the Colonel'

Times
certainly changed during Barrie Williams’ 30 years as a regional
editor. The former teddy boy tells Jon Slattery how he made a
career out of ‘making a difference’

WHEN BARRIE WILLIAMS was
editor of the Nottingham Evening Post in the 1980s he was asked to join
the board. One bit of advice he was given was “don’t mention profits in
front of the chairman, he doesn’t like to talk about profits”.

What a contrast to the regional press today, when the pursuit of
ever higher profit margins is seen by some as the major force shaping
the industry.

Williams was one of three high-profile editors who
left Northcliffe in the summer, ahead of its plans to make substantial
savings and increase its margins to 25 per cent.

He made it clear in July why he was taking early retirement from the Plymouth-based Western Morning News at 60.

In
a statement, Williams said his decision was because of “a major change
of policy and structure within Northcliffe”. Those changes included
plans to appoint an editor-in-chief in Plymouth, where the WMN and
Evening Herald are published.

Few in the industry could imagine Williams – well known for his bluntness – answering to an editor-in-chief.

His
departure ended a near 30-year run as a regional editor. He was editor
of the Kent Evening Post for five years, the Nottingham Evening Post
for 14 years and the WMN for 10 years.

Going to see an editor
just after he’s left his newspaper is a bit like death-knocking, but
Williams is in a far from sombre mood.

Maybe it is because he was
able to watch the climax to the Ashes series uninterrupted by the
stress of an editor’s job or because he lives in a very beautiful part
of Cornwall.

Swigging tea from a mug emblazoned with the Western
Morning News masthead, Williams speaks proudly of his record at the
paper. “When I joined, its sales figure was seven per cent down. In the
eight years since we went tabloid the worst sales figure we ever
recorded was minus 2.5 per cent, and there were a number of ABC periods
in which we achieved an increase, including last year.

“Every year since 1997, the WMN has been in the top five for regional newspaper sales performance.

We
built a reputation for quality, campaigning regional journalism and
every year we have won top industry awards, including Press Gazette
newspaper of the year and daily/Sunday newspaper of the year three
times.

“The WMN is holder of that title and of EDF Energy South
West newspaper of the year and NFU Countryside rural newspaper of the
year. It also holds numerous national and regional newspaper sales
awards. I’ve never been renowned for my modesty, but I reckon that’s a
recent record second to none in the regional industry, and I’m very
proud of it.”

So does he miss it?

“Was I sad to leave all
that behind? Of course I was,” he says. “But Northcliffe has decided on
a new structure to achieve higher levels of financial performance, and
it is perfectly entitled to do that.

After 25 years as a director of newspaper companies there’s enough of the businessman in me to understand the situation.

“It’s
not like they’ve said ‘Williams – you’re a crap editor, bugger off’. It
is purely a financial scenario. While I might not agree with it, I
respect entirely their right to run their own company the way they see
fit. I owe Northcliffe a great deal. If they had not offered me the
opportunity to edit the Western Morning News, I would not have enjoyed
arguably the best, most challenging and rewarding years of my career.

“They entrusted me with a prestigious morning title and left me totally free of interference to edit it in my own way.”

Williams
wanted to be a journalist from the age of 11. It had a lot to do with
when he was growing up in Oswestry and lived next door to a journalist
who regaled him with stories about his working life.

His first
attempt to join a paper at 16 failed when the editor of the Oswestry
paper told him: “We don’t employ Teddy Boys.” Williams admits to having
had a Brylcreemed quiff at the front and a “duck’s arse” flip at
the back.

However, he was offered an apprenticeship on The
Shrewsbury Chronicle. Three years later he joined the Impact Press
Agency in Shrewsbury and had his first brush with Fleet Street
journalists.

“The idea of being a reporter in Fleet Street was
everyone’s Mecca. There were an awful lot of talented small fish in
that big pond. I decided I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond.”

He
returned to the Chronicle as news editor, before working on the
Wolverhampton Express & Star, Stoke City Times and Nottingham
Evening Post. In 1971 hejoined the Kent Evening Post where he became
editor for five years.

He left in 1981 to become editor of the Nottingham Evening Post.

Both
Kent and Nottingham were family-owned titles. In Nottingham the
proprietor was Colonel Tom Forman Hardy, whose family had substantial
farming, brewing and property interests.

Williams remembers: “He
was happy as long as the paper was ticking over. He just loved owning a
newspaper. He was a stickler for editorial freedom and independence and
loved to sit and talk about the issues and what we were campaigning
about. It was a vicarious pleasure in sharing the editorship.

“People
of my generation of editors had the best years. There were almost no
financial pressures. You submitted a budget each year and it was
approved.

“About a year after I joined Nottingham, I was
appointed to the board and become editorial director.” This was when
Williams was advised not to talk about profits in front of the chairman.

“You’ve
gone from that to a situation where editors now have to think about
their contribution to a 30 per cent profit margin or whatever.”

Extraordinarily,
the Evening Post had what Williams described as “its own air force”.
This comprised a helicopter and company jet. “We even had our own
pilot, called Captain Bond.”

Another bit of company largesse came
before Williams took up the editorship at Nottingham. He and his wife
were sent on a round-the-world trip.

The idea was for Williams to
look at newspapers in Europe, America, Canada and Australia. “It was
first-class travel and must have cost thousands of pounds, but I learnt
a lot,” he says.

Northcliffe took over the Evening Post for £94m in 1994.

Politically,
Nottingham was a strong Labour Party city and there was a lot of
opposition to the local paper being owned by a company with links to
Associated and the Daily Mail. The Monopolies Commission at first
blocked the deal, but it went through after an appeal. As part of the
appeal, Williams gave evidence in favour of the takeover.

“I am convinced that if I had said a bad thing it wouldn’t have happened.”

A
condition of the takeover was that the editor of the Evening Post could
not be fired or hired without it going before an independent committee
of the “great and the good”. Williams says: “People joked that I had
the safest job in the world.”

Nevertheless, he quickly took up
the job of editor of the Western Morning News when offered the chance
to move on by Northcliffe managing director Ian Park.

The WMN
became a strong campaigner on rural issues under Williams, who believes
“the maltreatment of rural areas is appalling”. The paper became a
thorn in the side of the Government, especially in the aftermath of the
foot and mouth crisis.

Alastair Campbell once asked Williams: “Why do you give us such a kicking?”

He replied: “Because you deserve it.”

Williams
has been approached to continue his campaigning on rural issues in the
political arena, but is undecided about taking up the offers. However,
he adds: “No way am I going to sit in the bath counting toe-nail
clippings.”

Williams thinks his near 30-year record as an editor will not be repeated.

“People are starting in the business so much later.

I was bought up in a council house and joined a paper straight from school at 16.”

Williams
believes the new stress on academic qualifications has “cut out the
council-house kids” from entering journalism. At Nottingham, he
pioneered a scheme employing kids on council estates to write for the
paper and supplied them with laptops.

“I wouldn’t get into the
profession nowadays,” he claims. “A lot of regional papers have lost
touch with their readers. You have middle-class journalists writing for
people who aren’t on the same wavelength. They have lost the common
touch.”

Williams believes the switch to graduates began in the
1970s because of an “intellectual arrogance” that journalism was a
profession like law or medicine.

“It’s a people business. It is
all about getting on with people. The academic bit is non-essential
unless you want to be a specialist. We have a lot of very bland people
who, when looking for a job, stopped at ‘j’ and thought ‘that might be
rather fun’.”

For Williams the job has been more than just “fun”.
He says the kick he got out of being an editor was “making a
difference” to people. He has a file of letters from organisations and
individuals who feel they were helped by the WMN. One said “You can’t
leave it at that.”

It is unlikely he will.

In his own words

BARRIE WILLIAMS ON……

Brian Clough

The mercurial Brian Clough was manager of Nottingham Forest when Barrie Williams was editor of the Nottingham Evening Post.

“Clough rang up one day and said, ‘I want to come and work for you.
I want to do a column.’ I said: ‘but we pay peanuts.’ He said: ‘OK,
I’ll do it for a case of champagne each month.’

“The finance
director wanted to know what sort of champagne Brian wanted. When I
asked him he said: ‘fuck it, I’ll do it for nowt.’

“The column
was so good that freelance stringers used to park outside the office at
7am to be the first to sell it to the nationals. Brian didn’t like to
be ripped off, so once he wrote a complete load of old crap, complete
rubbish – and it still got sold.”

Williams asked Clough to
present the Disabled Sports Personality of the Year Awards: “We were in
the foyer of City Hall when a woman walked in with a child in a
wheelchair who was so disfigured everybody instinctively looked away.

Cloughie
picked this child gently out of the wheelchair and kissed him. He
carried him away across the room and sat him on his knee. I have never
forgotten that.”

… the future of regional evenings

“The decline of sales in evening newspapers has been going on for
the last 15 to 20 years. It doesn’t appear to make a lot of difference
how good, bad or indifferent they are. Evening papers have lost a bit
of their unique selling point. I’ve always thought it might be
interesting to take an evening paper and go back to late deadlines and
have it full of news that happened on the day, the way they used to be.
It would be interesting to see if people would respond to a genuinely
late paper.”

… the future of morning papers

“Mornings are the exception. Providing you don’t try to be something
you’re not and try to compete head-on with the nationals, you can buck
the trend [of declining sales]. You tend to have large circulation
areas and can be more picky about what you put in, because you have a
higher quality of material not always available to evening papers in
smaller conurbations.”

… newspaper cover prices

“If the old proprietors had been more demanding on cover prices, we
wouldn’t have the ridiculously low prices we have today. People were
conditioned to throwing pennies into an old man’s hat on street corners
for newspapers. We are still paying for that mentality. The Western
Morning News is 40p.

What else can you buy for 40p? When you look at the skill, the
expertise, the knowledge and blood, sweat and tears that go into that,
40p it is bloody crazy.”

… Christopher Pole-Carew

Pole-Carew was the controversial MD at the Nottingham Evening Post
who sacked journalists after they joined the 1976 national pay strike.

“The unions thought he was someone who ate babies. It’s nonsense.
The Evening Post was a bloody good payer. The journalists were asked to
go on strike for £1,500 less than they were earning. Under Pole-Carew
we were trailblazers.

We had direct input production – it took the rest of the industry 10 years to catch up.”

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