Editors have regions to be cheerful

You
don’t have to be glad to work here but it helps. As part of Local
Newspaper Week Sarah Lagan asks editors what they think makes working
in regionals so special

POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE,
being trusted and sleeping with a clear conscience are just some of the
benefits of working in the regional press. It’s like being in The
Archers for placing you at the heart of your community but on the flip
side, you could earn more working at McDonald’s.

In the run up to Local Newspaper Week we asked editors around the
country what they thought to be the most rewarding aspects of working
in the regional press, as well as the most challenging…

Sean Dooley, editor-in-chief, Staffs Sentinel Newspapers:
Even after a lifetime in the industry I remain mystified as to why the
qualities and achievements of the regional press stay one of the
media’s best kept secrets.

It may be a cliché but life truly is
local. Show me another sector of the business half as trusted, half as
committed to its community and half as relevant to the lives of those
who spend up to 80 per cent of their income within 20 miles of their
homes.

Yes, we have our challenges. The internet is the latest
one – though it will only prove to be so if editors fail to identify
what in future will be the province of print and how we should
cross-platform our information services. History teaches us that when
challenged, the regional press has superb survival instincts. Whether
competition has been in the form of the telegraph, radio, or
television, we have always metamorphosised into relevant and vital
products which have not only survived but flourished.

I believe
people will continue to buy newspapers because they like them. They
like the comfort. They like the convenience. And they cherish the fact
that they are tactile. Pollyannaish? Over optimistic? A defence for
falling sales and declining relevance?

Well, even by the lyrical standards of Frank Sinatra, 2004 was a very good year for Sentinel titles.

In
terms of awards we notched up, among others, Press Gazette Daily/Sunday
Newspaper of the Year, Europe’s Best Designed Newspaper and the
Midlands Newspaper of the Year for the third year on the bounce. In
newspaper sales terms four of our five paidfor titles are showing ABC
increases and the fifth, The Sentinel, is currently showing a
turnaround of five per cent. I think we’ll be around for a while yet!

Richard Vanhindsergh, editor, West Briton: Running a local weekly newspaper is like being in The Archers for real.

You are at the heart of your community, rejoicing in its successes, sympathising with its failures and fighting its corner.

It’s a cracking job with its own peculiar rewards, not always financial.

Involving
the readers in issues and campaigns and getting a result is
particularly satisfying. Each week is different and certainly in our
organisation you are very much given the opportunity to run your own
show. I can think of few other jobs that have so much variety, so much
vitality and so many possibilities, to not only be a part of a
community, but to influence its development.

In common with many
other weekly papers we are experiencing pressure on our sales after
many years of sales increases but we are looking at all the available
research and our own experience to determine the way forward. We
believe that properly framed our papers can develop hand in hand with
new media, rise to meet these new challenges and continue to remain at
the forefront of our communities and the markets they serve. Like The
Archers, we’ve plenty of episodes left to run.

Jim Williams, editor, Oldham Evening Chronicle:
The main advantage in working for the regional press is that we have a
opportunity to make a difference both in the quality of people’s lives
and in terms of the way they are governed locally. We can put pressure
on local authorities to make direct changes to our readers’ lives.

It’s
not the most lucrative of jobs but I don’t think that is the main
problem. The worst thing is when the huge national stories break and we
find authorities such as government ministers or the Royal family
restricting access of the developing news to the regional press even
though we can probably reach more people.

It is a constant
irritation. They think the national news organisations are sexy and
glamorous and perhaps look down on us which I think is a big mistake.

Sam Holliday, Tamworth Herald series editor and editorial director of Central Independent Newspapers:
I have always felt immensely proud to work in local newspapers because
I feel we are in a unique and privileged position to improve the lives
of those living in our communities. In my experience, local reporters
and local newspapers are still treated with enormous respect because we
have a proven track record of getting things done. We also have the
distinct advantage over our national colleagues in that we are not
forced to follow any political agendas. This fiercely protected
independence helps our readers know that the only “bias” we have is
towards them.

The best thing about local newspapers is the people
who work on them. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the
brilliant, dedicated colleagues I work with and they are all amazingly
loyal to our papers because they care about the communities we serve.
Of course, there are frustrations and difficulties, but they are
outweighed by the positives. In over 20 years working in local
newspapers, I can honestly say I have never been bored for a single day.

Not many other professions can boast that I suspect.

John Furbisher, editor, Evening Courier, Halifax: The great thing about the regional press is living alongside your customers and knowing they trust you and depend on you.

When
I spent a few years working for the nationals I didn’t always sleep at
nights. Since I returned to the regional press I’ve found I sleep like
a baby; not so cute, granted, but right through to the 6am alarm.

It’s remarkable what you get from a clear conscience and a glass of red with your supper.

I’m
not having a go at Fleet Street here: they have their market to serve
and we have ours. But our customers are living with the stories we
report. And they see straight through it if we try to flam or bend the
truth, preach or push them propaganda.

As a local evening paper
editor I still have tough calls to make and difficult stories to handle
that can have a huge impact on people’s lives. But I get to go to bed
knowing I haven’t toed any political line, haven’tdriven any other
agenda than my local community’s and haven’t set out to trash anyone’s
reputation who didn’t thoroughly deserve it. And that feels good.

The
hardest challenge at the moment is holding up hard-copy circulation.
But let’s not forget that all across our sector we are producing
superb, timely, locally relevant content on a regular basis. Our public
wants it. The challenge for editors and publishers alike in the digital
age is to harness the power of that content by growing a spectrum of
routes to market.

Peter Montellier, editor, Sunday Sun: A working life spent in regional newspapers has done nothing to dampen the thrill this editor gets on entering the office.

I’ve pushed a newsroom door open in three very different UK countries, yet been struck every time by similar thoughts.

The
most dominate theme? The talent in our business is awesome… well
motivated, dedicated and driven to tell the story. First, if humanly
possible.

Most don’t put a price on getting the story out either,
in terms of time or money. But if no one of sound mind ever entered our
business in search of wealth, a great many chose this path so they
might help change the world.

And change the world they do in a
way that really matters to readers. From nuisance neighbours to refunds
for wonky sofas, and literally everything else in between, local papers
make a difference.

Sometimes, as with The Irish News in Belfast,
we even help achieve the seemingly impossible and see the Birmingham
Six walk free. Other times, as with Sunday Sun here in Newcastle, we
help overturn the law on double jeopardy, so those tried and acquitted
of a crime may be tried again if new evidence comes to light. Local
newspapers? I can’t get enough of them.

Michelle Lalor, editor, Grimsby Telegraph:
The Grimsby Telegraph has an historic bond with its readers and has
built its reputation as a local newspaper, which is truly part of the
community.

As the editor, it gives real satisfaction and pleasure
to effect real change – change that makes a difference to the lives of
people in the community we serve. We must never forget the power a
paper, such as the Grimsby Telegraph, can have in influencing the minds
and hearts of readers. It is a responsibility we should always take
seriously – we are certainly reminded when we don’t.

Adam
D Smith, editor, Wokingham Times: I know it’s a cliché but no two days
are the same – you always find yourself in new, random situations and
deal with people from every walk of life.

You are also working
very closely with your readers. The nationals can go to a place, report
on something, and leave without ever going back there again but we are
constantly making contacts in our area with the people we write about.

The
down side is trying to live on the money. The pay in the regional press
is appalling and the people coming into the sector are intelligent,
educated people. Around 90 per cent are graduates and have huge debts
and they come into a sector where they could earn more at McDonald’s.

There
is a lot to commend the regional press for even though people’s views
of us isn’t always the best. It can be a thankless job at times and you
can receive a lot of criticism but to be honest I think journalists
expect that.

Tom Derbyshire, editor, The Wharf: Our
latest deadline marked only my fifth week as an editor, so my
experience is somewhat limited so far, but it seems like five years in
many ways.

So, why did I want to be an editor in the local newspaper world?

Every
day being very different is probably the main attraction. One moment
you are going to lunch at a smart restaurant with an estate agent who
writes a column for you, the next you are trying to make out a dubious
‘flying saucer’ pictured over Canary Wharf by an enthusiastic reader.

The
area we cover is a strange one, including both the gleaming towers of
the Wharf and the not-sogleaming (but still fascinating) Isle of Dogs.

Keeping a balanced coverage is one of the biggest challenges for us.

And
when you are in a small but dedicated team typical of many local
newspapers juggling sometimes scant resources also becomes a real
challenge.

Success? Hitting five deadlines on time. Failure?

Trying to smile on my new picture as editor on our page two.

David Hardy, editor, Carmathen Journal:

Good stuff:

● Chance to really get to know our readers.

● Chance to really help them 1. Personally 2. With their good causes
3. And make a difference in their communities. Great opportunity to
work with the young and enthusiastic (but very raw) wannabe journalists.

And watch them grow and develop – and go on to greater things.


If you look hard enough, you know, you’ll find a regional journalist’s
blood, sweat and tears behind many a national tabloid’s ‘exclusive’ tag
– which should, of course, really say ‘first to lift regional
story’ rather than ‘exclusive’.

● The ‘local weekly’ also
provides plenty of opportunity for the editor who always wanted to do
more subbing. (Hang on, is that good?)

Not so good:

● Recruitment ‘challenges’ – as would-be trainees have little or no
track record, sometimes it requires you to take a bit of a ‘punt’ on
someone but (touch wood) in my 18 months at the Carmarthen Journal we
have turned up 100 per cent absolute gems.

● Train ’em up and then they’re gone – and that’s a road that’s getting steeper.

● Not enough staff – one photographer and six reporters to cover our six (very different) editions.

● Too reliant on freelances to make ends meet.

Source of pride:

● The thank you letters from readers are a real fillip.

Only recently, we published a letter from a lady trying to trace
some relatives who lived this way at the turn of the century. She’s
just contacted me to say that a letter and two phone calls from readers
had helped her uncover five cousins she didn’t know she had. Not a bad
day’s work! And the Journal will be covering the family reunion in
June, natch.

● Moreover, it is the fact people turn to us when
they need help; when they need to know; and when they ‘want something
flippin’ done about it.

Noel Doran, editor, Irish News: In the regional press you really do stand or fall on the quality of your staff.

We’re
very close to our readers in our area and they are not slow to let you
know what they think especially when they disapprove of something.

It’s
good fun and keeps you in contact with your audience. If a reader calls
I will always endeavour to take the call and be as accessible as I can
which I don’t think is feasible in the national press.

Administration,
legal and personnel issues are very time consuming for regionals. I
have to sit on boards and liase with lawyers and the staff have to be
very clued up about the issues. I think most nationals have their own
in-house lawyers. We have advisors but no one on the staff. It can be
very complicated and draining but also very interesting.

This
paper is quite competitive but on the regionals in general people can’t
earn vast sums of money and they work very hard. They work very hard
and competition is growing each year.

Terry Redhead, Archant Norfolk weeklies editor: What makes me most proud to work in local weekly newspapers is the fact that our products matter so much to so many.

Local companies rely on us to promote, advertise and feed their businesses.

Local
readers rely on us for the news, views, information, advice and
entertainment that affects their lives. Did it happen or will it
happen? Then it will be in the Mercury, the Times, the Journal or the
News…

Our products care. They record events. They spell out
what will happen and why. They embrace and empathise with the local
community. They promote community spirit. They help by donating money,
equipment or publicity to local campaigns that help local lives. We are
trusted to be accurate. We are accountable for all we say and are
accessible to all.

Currently there are reasons to be cheerful.

Combined, sales of five traditional paid-for weeklies are almost 1,000 copies per week up year on year.

Those
titles, together with the free titles in the same Archant Norfolk
weeklies group, are heading for a third successive year of record
profits.

The challenges ahead include maintaining the standards
of our titles and continuing to care about communities covered by those
titles.

Local television, local radio, other local print media,
the web, village newsletters are all worthy competitors. But the
biggest challenge is making sure the titles remain relevant to readers’
lives and worthy of the time those readers spend reading them and
acting on the information provided by them.

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