Eric Price: 'Inspiring and exasperating but the ultimate editor's editor'

Eric Price, legendary former editor of Bristol’s Western Daily Press, has died, aged 95, after a short illness.

He took editorial control of the paper in 1962, when it was in near-terminal decline and launched a barnstorming turnaround that increased sales from 12,000 to nearly 80,000 a day in a few tempestuous years of campaigning journalism.

His technique was to apply Fleet Street-style techniques – he had worked on six national newspapers – to regional journalism: courting controversy, lambasting officialdom, town planners, and petty bureaucracy and fighting for the West Country with a gleeful ferocity that frightened opponents and staff alike.

In 1980, he was appointed editor of the sister paper, the Bristol Evening Post and group editorial director of Bristol United Press Ltd. He retired in 1983.

He died in Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital, on 14 October.

He is also credited with providing Fleet Street with a generation of sub-editors.

Born in Bath, Somerset, on 20 May, 1918, he was to work for 13 newspapers in Wiltshire, Bath, Leicester, Manchester, Fleet Street and Bristol.

His father was a tailor at Titley, Son and Price, the family business in Bath.

Educated at King Edward’s School, Bath, at 16, he joined the Wiltshire Times in a career that took him to the Swindon Evening Advertiser, Leicester Mercury, Manchester Evening News, Daily Graphic, London’s Evening Standard and then its rival The Star, Daily Sketch, News Chronicle, Sunday Express and, in 1959, the Daily Express.

A year later he was invited to take on the Western Daily Press, the morning paper based in Bristol, with a target of raising its week-day circulation of under 12,000 to 30,000. He joined as assistant editor in the run-up to the existing editor’s retirement. The WDP had just been acquired by Bristol United Press, publishers of the Bristol Evening Post.

By 1965, energetic campaigning and broad news coverage took WDP sales to a certified 54,544 and by 1970 to about 76,000. At its peak it sold 79,214.

In November 1980, aged 62, Eric became group editorial director and editor of the Bristol Evening Post, with a brief to halt the paper’s slide in circulation. It was then selling 121,000 copies a day, down from nearly 200,000 in 1960. He applied the same rigour to the Post that he had applied to the Press and stopped the decline in the run-up to his retirement in 1983.

Never happier than when exchanging tales of newspapers and journalists over a pint, he kept his contact with the industry by editing the Guild Journal for the Guild of Editors for ten years. He also maintained a trenchant correspondence with Press Gazette, the newspaper industry’s trade magazine, right up until his 90s.

His career was broken by the war. He joined the Royal Army Service Corps in 1939 and drove petrol tankers in France. When the Germans broke through, he escaped from St Nazaire aboard a cattle boat carrying survivors of the troopship Lancastria.

While on leave in October 1941, Eric married Barbara Fry, daughter of another Bath tailor, Albert Fry. Their marriage lasted 72 years until her death in April this year (2013).

In April 1943 he was sent to West Africa as assistant to a public relations officer with responsibility for producing a fortnightly newspaper for West African troops in Burma, moving on to Lagos to work with the Colonial Civil Service launching a similar publication for Nigerian troops.

He leaves two sons, three daughters, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Eric Price: the editor’s editor, writes Ian Beales

In 1960, Eric Price quit the Daily Express – then the flagship of Fleet Street – to return to his native West Country to rescue the near-terminally ailing Western Daily Press. He hit it like a tornado, transforming a grey and sleepy provincial daily into a gutsy mid-market broadsheet, with a powerful blend of national and regional news. It looked so much like the Express that one seasoned Express staffer visiting Bristol bought it by mistake and was halfway down the street before he noticed. It worked. The circulation went from 12,000 to 55,000 in five years and went on to peak at nearly 80,000.

The paper was packed with stories, and hard-hitting campaigns: he branded the WDP as ‘the paper that fights for the West'. It was the champion of regional causes, such as Concorde and the Port of Bristol, but the ferocious opponent of bureaucracy in all its forms – civil servants, town planners, municipal officialdom – pretentious Tory pomp, and interfering Socialism.

Eric was a ball of energy with a passion for journalism that often exploded into anger, moderated – thank God! – by his great sense of fun. He believed fervently that newspapers were invented for journalists to enjoy themselves.  He was irascible, raging and outrageous. But all this was redeemed by his touchingly schoolboyish sense of humour – he would put drawing pins on sub-editors’ seats, and light little fires under them. It was a stark contrast to hurling the office teapot across the room, which also happened from time to time. No one slept while Eric was on.

His essential journalistic talent was that he was the great sub-editor: hacking and re-writing copy to give it zip, and insisting on punchy and provocative headlines. Subs, he said, were ‘the uncrowned kings of journalism'.   This made the Western Daily Press the accredited boot camp for sub-editors with ambition. It was a great training ground if you could stay the course. Sadly, some recruits made it only as far as the supper break on their first night, and then disappeared.  But those who survived went on to provide Fleet Street with a generation of battle-scarred professionals.

Eric could be inspiring and exasperating in equal measure. But that was his charm. He was a great mentor, boss and friend. He was the ultimate editor’s editor.

Ian Beales was editor of  the WDP from 1980-2001 and deputy to Eric Price from 1971-2001. 

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