Head eludes the Hunters

One of the top jobs in the regional press is up for grabs, but I bet it is not as easy to fill as you might imagine.

The Yorkshire Post has a proud history and a clutch of recent Newspaper of the Year awards to its name, and is currently trawling the countryside for its next editor after Tony Watson’s surprise decision to step down.

The Post’s owner, Johnston Press, has employed headhunters to assist in the search, and it appears the big names regionally have not come forward.

The original favourite was Neil Hodgkinson, editor of sister title the Yorkshire Evening Post, but he has not applied. And actually it’s not hard to see why. He has great fun editing a much larger paper which concentrates on the very newsy city of Leeds.

The Post’s circulation area is vast, but with low penetration, and editing a morning broadsheet is tricky, to say the least.

That might be why some of the bigger names are steering clear. It might also be the realisation that, prestigious as the Yorkshire Post may be, it’s now owned by a group which will expect more accountability from editorial.

The rumour that Watson was dismayed at having to request funding to send staff to New York for the September 11 anniversary rings true.

On the other hand, many editors of big titles have had to justify such extra funding for years, and can generally get it as long as it stacks up – and, in the case of large sporting tournaments, if ad departments eventually get around to selling sponsorship for it.

Editors also know that the large groups are the least likely to want big personalities in this day and age. The very attributes that you might suppose should describe a regional editor – strong, feisty, independent – are often perceived as tiresome in a boardroom that wants to concentrate on the bottom line, head office needs, and the share price.

So no wonder that the Yorkshire Post chair may be difficult to fill. For the record, the current names in the frame are thought to include Liz Page of the Evening Press, York, Peter Charlton of The Star, Sheffield, and Ian Herbert, previously number two on the Liverpool Daily Post and now at The Independent.

The wonderfully named Sly Bailey takes up her new post heading Trinity Mirror next month and it will be interesting to see how the management team take to having a woman boss.

Thankfully for them, she is a football supporter so the usual social chitchat will not have to change radically – but I imagine quite a lot else will.

As you would expect, there has been much speculation about what she has been appointed to do. Some feel it is to split the national and regional parts of the group, but that seems unlikely if Joe Sinyor’s demise is anything to go by. He was the chief executive of national titles brought in from Sony who left at Christmas.

If that is not in her gameplan, it will come as a great disappointment to many in the regional division who have never felt comfortable with their national sisters.

Bailey will have to tackle the strongly held internal perception that the regional group, which has produced excellent financial results since the merger but is currently going through a large cost-cutting exercise, is just producing cash to be spent by the national arm of the group.

Whatever the speculation, she has a great, but tough, job ahead of her, and many inside the group are excited by her appointment and the changes it should bring.

Bailey replaces Philip Graf, who must surely be one of the most popular execs in the industry. A national business profile on him a couple of years ago pointed out that he was unusual in having no enemies, and even people he sacked (and there can’t have been many) left the room smiling.

That might be an exaggeration, but he was one of the few who could stand up in front of a large room of his senior staff at a conference and inspire them.

Having been such a success in the regional press, where rival companies have their markets fairly well sewn up and can afford to be pleasant with each other, it must have been a hell of a shock entering the murky waters of the national scene.

Being ridiculed in full-page ads in Press Gazette by rivals, and appearing in knocking national news stories, takes some getting used to, and, I suspect, is one element of his recent role he will not miss.

As we are talking about women getting top jobs in the media, I can’t ignore Rebekah Wade’s appointment at The Sun. This rightly got a fair amount of news coverage, but why was she continually described as “fiercely ambitious”? In my experience this phrase is only used to describe successful women – and the impression is clearly intended to be less than flattering.

Are we to imagine that other national editors and senior executives are only mildly interested in their career progression and could take it or leave it when the next big job comes up?

In the difficult world of selling newspapers, journalists and newspaper sales staff are always looking for the next big successful promotion.

Although the nationals have money to throw at cover-price cutting, it is usually the regional press that comes up with the best ideas. The recent token collects for school trips and equipment has been copied by many – including food manufacturers.

Commercial radio also has a justified reputation for coming up with wacky ways to hook in its audience.

One such idea that’s getting publicity at the moment is Birmingham-based BRMB’s Coolest Seats in Town promotion.

This required contestants to sit on dry ice (which has a temperature of Ð78C) for as long as possible in order to win tickets for a pop concert. Unfortunately, the competition resulted in people suffering serious loss of skin, fat and muscle, with a permanent and disfiguring area of tissue loss.

Four of the contestants, including a 12-year-old boy, were taken to hospital suffering from severe frostbite. Three of them remained there for eight to 10 weeks.

The station is now being prosecuted for breaching three sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act and has been fined £15,000.

They say the best ideas are nicked – but this is probably one that the rest of the media may just choose to avoid.

lIf there are any issues in the regional press you feel need to be aired, e-mail me on ajh@alisonhastings. demon.co.uk. In future columns I intend to look at journalists’ salaries plus regional papers’ gossip columns. Get in touch with your views and examples.

Alison Hastings is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. She’ll be back in four weeks

lNext week: Chris Shaw

Alison Hastings

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