Five decades of regional news reporting

ANOTHER WORLD – that was life on a provincial paper in the ’60s.

Standing
outside churches in the rain attempting to scribble the names of
irascible funeral-goers was part of the fun. Running to the railway
station with the latest package of copy for the print works in
adjoining Hastings was a chore to be dodged.

Cub reporters, the
lowest form of editorial life, addressed their editors as “Sir”. We
chased fire engines on push-bikes until we bought motor scooters – an
innovation which led to my breaking my jaw on an unforgiving and icy
road.

The office – twice the staff to produce a broadsheet, with
only a fraction of the content of today’s tabloid – was filled with the
clatter of typewriters. Stories produced on myriad sheets of
postcard-sized copy paper had to be word-counted before submission.
Re-writes involved real cut-andpaste with scissors and glue; not a few
computer key-strokes.

Hot-metal make-up took a day and an inky
half of stone-subbing supervision – and Lord help the journo who
inadvertently touched metal and risked a union walk-out. A page of
carefully assembled Linotype that slid off the trolley on the way to
the flong machine would disintegrate amid enough swearing to make a
sailor blush.

Bexhill telephone exchange was still manual.

Getting
a connection was a matter of patience and of good manners. I found much
later that the “rubber knees” (“number please”) girls deliberately kept
a short-tempered colleague waiting as a penalty for his rudeness. Many
“contacts” lacked home telephones, so far fewer stories were researched
from the lazy convenience of the office.

No mobiles, no fax and
certainly no websites or emails. When a colleague on the sister Sussex
Express and County Herald covered a county council meeting she typed
anything up to 40 “slips” of copy paper – then dictated the lot down
the phone to me at Bexhill.

Yet we still found time (excuses) to
absent ourselves for a leisurely afternoon beer – 2s (10p)n a pint –
secure in the knowledge that without the shackles of a mobile phone we
couldn’t be summoned back to work.

John Dowling, deputy editor,
Bexhill Observer (44 years and still scribbling – though not outside
funerals)n I HAD THAT amazing experience which few fellow journalists
can share: being in at the beginning of a brand new evening newspaper.

The
Shropshire Star began in 1964, replacing the Shropshire edition of the
Wolverhampton Express & Star. It was indeed an unforgettable thrill
to stand on the press hall steps on that first October day.

I was woman’s editor, a post I kept until the mid-1990s, by which time I was also royal correspondent and assistant editor.

After
a second stint at the Express & Star, also as assistant editor, in
2002 I became associate editor of the Shropshire Magazine and royal
correspondent of the Shropshire Star, the circle completed.

The Shropshire Star was the first web offset daily.

During
the ’60s and ’70s, we were high on the “interest” barometer, with many
visits from those wanting to see if this new-fangled printing method
really could replace hot metal. It could, and how!

The first
colour picture on the day of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral of the
great man in his Knight of the Garter robes, or a plate of food with
attractions such as pink lettuce and vaguely blue tomatoes, were far
from brilliant. But, rather like the dog that walks on two legs, but
not very well, you are amazed that he does it at all. Those early days
were like that.

Moon landings, Paris fashion shows and a
commitment to the best local coverage gave us first after first. For
me, a significant career-first during that decade was a 1973 interview
with Margaret Thatcher, followed by several more as she became leader
of her party and then Prime Minister. These were heady days as we led
the way in media progress and helped forge changes in regional press
and beyond. More mundanely, notebooks were joined by tape recorders,
then typewriters gave way to word processors and finally to the fully
computed world we inhabit today. It has been a remarkable journey. And
one which I hope is not finished yet.

Shirley Tart, royal
correspondent, Shropshire Star, and associate editor, Shropshire
Magazine ON A BRIGHT, early spring morning in 1981 I was sitting on the
subs’

desk of the Kent Evening Post editing that day’s paper when
I received a call from Christopher Pole-Carew, managing director of the
Nottingham Evening Post.

“It’s about your application for the editor’s job,” he said.

“The chairman would like you and your wife to join him for lunch.”

“Fine. When?”

“Today.”

“But it’s half past nine and I’m a five-hour drive away.”

“No problem, we’ll send the helicopter for you.”

That’s what it was like in Nottingham in the 1980s.

I
got the job and I edited the Nottingham Evening Post for the next 14
years. It was a decade of massive change and monstrous challenge.

At
the Nottingham Evening Post the “new” (direct input by journalists)
technology was old hat. They’d had it since 1975, having been the first
newspaper in Europe – let alone the UK – to take that hugely
controversial step.

The rest of the industry, regional then
national, was to follow the Nottingham route in the Eighties and that
was, inevitably, accompanied by much industrial action and disruption.

These
were, of course, the Thatcher years and the technological revolution
took place against a background of bitter and often violent conflict
between government and trades unions, with the print industry prominent
on the battlegrounds.

The regional industry also pioneered colour
printing, leaving the nationals way behind. When – in Berlin in 1984 –
I addressed a big international newspaper conference on Nottingham’s
very impressive use of colour sections, a fellow speaker was the Daily
Mirror’s editor, Mike Molloy, whose subject was “the power of black and
white”… and it was a deadly serious presentation!

In the ’80s,
the battle against declining sales, which had started in the ’70s,
became much more intense and up-front. This was the decade in which
editors had to court commercialism and open their previously sacrosanct
sanctums to the marketers.

Already dismissed by many of them as a
brash young bugger heading for a fall, I became distinctly unpopular
with the old guard in the Guild of British Newspaper Editors when it
was reported that I had not only opened up my daily news conferences to
the newspaper sales people, but actually encouraged them to express an
opinion on what should go on the front page. This, believe it or not,
was heresy in some exalted editorial echelons. That sort of pompous
elitism had to go and it did – though not without a struggle.

Competition
from burgeoning free newspapers and ever more localised TV and radio
grew apace. The newspapers had to be sharper, more professionally
produced and focused on their markets than they had ever been. The
influence on editorial thinking from marketing and newspaper sales
directors grew enormously, and the more enlightened editors were
perfectly happy with that, though, to this day, I have disagreed with
the newspaper-sales led move to ever earlier deadlines for evening
newspapers, which we resisted in Nottingham. It was, and remains, a
panic measure that has proved counter-productive, robbing the evenings
of their raison d’être.

The result of most of the 1980s’
innovation and activity was positive. Regional newspapers improved
radically and, by the end of the decade, they were vastly more
professional and polished in content, presentation and print quality.
They were making loads of money, however the slow but sure decline in
circulations proved inexorable and, as the Nineties dawned, we were
faced with the harsh paradox of newspapers that had never been better
showing sales figures which didn’t even begin to reflect their
excellence.

Barrie Williams, former editor, Western Morning News
BY THE TURN of the century, groups which had dominated the regional
press, and which tripped off the tongue, had just ceased to exist.

Think publishing giants like Thomson Regional Newspapers and Westminster Press.

In
their place were previously small, relatively unknown weekly groups,
which had taken the ’90s by storm – pulling off some spectacular
buyouts.

Think Trinity and Johnston Press.

In fact, this
decade is remarkable for the amount of consolidation which took place,
leaving small familyowned businesses few and far between.

That
TRN was bought by Trinity was one of the biggest shocks for many years.
For those, like myself, proudly working for the then biggest group –
with all its associations with great editorial training and innovative
progress under Stuart Garner – it was a sobering thought to have been
bought by the hicks from the sticks.

In fact, that was very
unfair. Trinity, under Philip Graf, Mike Masters and Stephen Parker,
may have been more conservative than the previous regime, but they knew
the business and invested heavily in the papers while letting centres
get on with it.

A very different climate from today.

They
may have been conservative, but they took the plunge to appoint the
first female editor of one of their larger titles – something the
progressive TRN never managed to do.

The ’90s will also always be
associated in the regional press with the introduction of colour – when
we followed Eddy Shah’s Warrington revolution and stuck garish pictures
of clowns with balloons on front pages up and down the land.

Luckily we calmed down and grew up, replacing them with salmon washes over news-you-can-use boxes.

In
fact, many of the early innovations of the decade – graphics, sidebars,
non-institutionalised stories, which all seemed to emanate from across
the Atlantic by strange-sounding gurus – are still the mainstays of how
we produce and design papers today.

Alison Hastings, former
editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle, now a consultant NOT SO
LONG ago I had a frantic text message from a friend.

He was watching one of the finest historic homes on our patch disappear in flames.

I
logged onto the local BBC website. Two paragraphs confirmed it was
true. I switched on the TV. The regional news told the tale in 20
seconds.

I dashed into work, to meet a dozen staff already clambering through the front door.

We
spent the next three hours putting together five fantastic pages. The
destruction of a once-great manor house that had graced the local
horizon for centuries.

Gripping words. Superb pictures. Eye-catching design.

When
that day’s paper rolled off the press I knew we had put together the
definitive account of a story that will live long in the memory of
locals.

And I remembered (yet again) why we have the best jobs in the world. Even now, in the 21st century.

Reports of the death of local newspapers have not so much been exaggerated. More, they’ve been hyped out of all proportion.

Years
ago we might have picked up breaking news stories from the PA wire or
TV Ceefax. Now we are alerted via text message or an RSS feed.

But
it’s still up to us to chase the news. We uncover the important facts,
tease out the vivid quotes then produce the must-read pages.

And
the vast majority of human interest stories are, of course, still
published by us first. They come from the ordinary people (our readers)
who we speak to every day.

This year alone, one Lincoln
businessman turned international fraudster would still be spending his
umpteenth year on the run, living in continental luxury, if he had not
been tracked down by his local paper. There is also a mum from Stoke
who may never have received the breast cancer drug that could save her
life if she had not had the support of her own local daily.

Most
of the very best radio, TV and national newspaper headlines still start
life as local newspaper exclusives. So much of the media still makes a
living following in our wake.

Local newspapers are better today than they ever have been. They have improved because the competition has demanded it.

What’s
more, now it’s not only the printed page that gives us the buzz. The
sight of our carefully crafted words and pictures can make us every bit
as proud when they flash up on our websites.

Local newspaper journalism is thriving in the Noughties. There is nowhere else I’d rather work.

Mike Sassi, editor, Lincolnshire Echo

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