Award-winning features writer Adam Wakelin has lifted the lid on life inside the Leicester Mercury newsroom and the reasons behind his departure from the newspaper earlier this year.
Wakelin, who won features writer of the year at the 2011 Regional Newspaper Awards, was one of eleven editorial staff who left the Northcliffe title during its latest round of redundancies in March, which cut the number of journalists by a fifth.
Writing exclusively in the May edition of Press Gazette, Wakelin said the ‘newsroom was running on goodwill, favours and professional pride even before the latest job losses”.
When he joined 15 years ago – ‘in a poky, smoky, office above a newsagents under the splendid tutelage of a district news editor named Dave Harrison (‘Don’t write it, report it!”) – there were more than 100 people in editorial and the paper sold around 100,000 copies a day.
Wakelin recalled management’s plan to stop sales decline codenamed ‘Project Hockey Stick”, adding: “Into this meltdown bounced David Simms, our saviour, the new MD who gloried in the title of publisher that gave him free reign over the fiefdom of the newsroom,’said Wakelin.
‘Once upon a time the editor answered to London. Not anymore. Simms was master of all he surveyed. He booked a nearby cinema, deafened us with ‘Search For The Hero Inside Yourself’, and announced that managed decline was not an option.
‘The Mercury would go on the front foot, launching new publications and revenue streams. Exactly how he was going to do this while systematically cutting costs was never explained. To my knowledge, it still hasn’t.”
Wakelin went on to reveal how management had a stage built in the newsroom that was used by advertising staff on ‘fancy-dress Fridays”.
‘We loved Fridays in editorial,’said Wakelin. ‘The working day was a non-stop Mardi Gras of ruthlessly incentivised merriment.
‘Some killjoys complained. What if a reporter can’t hear a grieving mum crying down the phone above all the whooping and hollering? Not a problem, said management. Just call them back when the din has died down…”
A red phone was later installed on the stage and every time it rang someone from advertising would ‘scramble to answer it”.
‘David was on the line, playing the banker from Deal Or No Deal,’said Wakelin.
In October the Leicester Mercury launched a new-look weekend edition with a 48-page magazine called More, which Wakelin said was ‘was cobbled together at the last minute with features – the very people who were going to be producing it with no new staff or money – the last to have any sort of input”.
‘Bright and breezy was the order of the day for More,’said Wakelin. ‘It was okay for people to be poorly, but they mustn’t die. Death, we were told, was banned. More wasn’t bad. It was as good as we could make it, with as little PA padding as possible, but it wasn’t great.”
On his decision to leave the paper, Wakelin added: “I could sit on the end of a phone knocking out leads and nibs with the best of them.
‘Features aren’t like that. A good backgrounder, colour piece or investigation takes time. And time isn’t a commodity local newspapers have any more. ‘Good enough is good enough’.
‘To me, that’s short-sighted. Twitter, Facebook and the BBC will always have the headlines. A newspaper, reduced to one edition a day, can’t compete by just sticking stuff up on its website.
‘Your local paper has to set a diffe¬ent agenda. It has to genuinely get behind the big stories of the day. Features, when they’re not dummed-down lifestyle crap, can do that.”
He added: “My faltering resolve to go was fortified when the publisher began handing out chocolate lollies to advertising staff while colleagues a few desks away were being summoned to pick up their compulsory redundancy notices. This wasn’t a place I wanted to be any more.
“Does that sound bitter? I hope not. The Mercury gave me some fantastic experiences and lots of good friends. I wish it, and them, all the best.”
New editor of the Leicester Mercury Richard Bettsworth said: “Obviously this is Adam’s personal view. It has been an honour and a privilege to work with him and I wish him the very best for the future.”
The full feature is available in the May edition of Press Gazette magazine. Click here to find out how to subscribe
Adam Wakelin is available for freelance feature writing commissions at firstname.lastname@example.org