Liverpudlian authority

Know your readers. The mantra for newspaper editors and journalists for the past 10 years or so. In fact, so many people now trot it out that it is in danger of becoming a trite, meaningless cliché. But with circulation still proving tough to maintain in most cities, it has never been more important for the staff on regional mornings, evenings and Sundays to know their audiences.

When The Sun decided this month to apologise for its coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy 15 years ago, it decided to take a swipe at the Liverpool Echo and Daily Post at the same time.

The local papers’ crime was that they had “stirred up” trouble in their reporting of Everton footballer Wayne Rooney’s signing an estimated £250,000 deal to write for The Sun.

This is an example of regional papers knowing their patch and readers inside out – and a national getting it all wrong again – 15 years on.

The Sun seems to have been taken by surprise by the strength of feeling in the city towards Rooney’s collaboration.

As it pointed out in the fullpage apology, “most of today’s staff weren’t on The Sun in 1989 and today’s editor was a 20-year-old student”.

Quite. So it’s a pity it didn’t appear to take soundings from people who were around then, or who live and work in Liverpool today.

This story was never one that the local media needed to whip up – you could have predicted every twist and turn from day one. And it made The Sun’s apology, however genuine, look like a belated reaction to a situation that had got out of control because it had not done its homework.

Having lived in Liverpool for the past two years, I am not at all surprised by the anti-Sun feelings of people from all walks of life in the city; Everton fans as well as Liverpool fans.

If I had asked any of them how they felt about Rooney joining forces with The Sun, the answer would have been unprintable – however proud they might feel of their latest football hero.

If anything, his international fame makes it worse.

But when you are under attack it’s easy to lash out and the knowledge that the Post and Echo are run by Trinity Mirror – owner of its bitter rival – must have led to more bunker mentality at The Sun’s offices.

In fact, Trinity Mirror’s regional papers have little to do with their bigger national stablemates. The two papers in question were not connected with the Mirror in 1989 and their reporting of The Sun’s coverage of the tragedy has been consistent.

Of course, it is undeniable that the Echo, particularly, has gained from the fact that The Sun is not snapping at its heels in circulation terms, as it is in nearly every other metropolitan city.

The Echo must be doubly thanking The Sun for bringing all this up again.

Any youngsters who were unaware of the reasons for the hostile attitude towards The Sun have now had it nicely explained.

The Liverpool papers are not the only ones to have taken a stance against a strongly-held view in a national.

The Hull Daily Mail has differed from practically every London-based newspaper’s comment and columnists by backing Humberside’s chief constable, David Westwood, who was heavily criticised by the report into the Soham murders.

Home secretary David Blunkett made it clear in the House of Commons that he should resign, but much to most people’s amazement, he chose to stay in the post and vowed to carry on putting things right in a policy of reform.

An honourable man determined to make amends, or an arrogant fool clinging onto his highly-paid, powerful post? The lines were drawn and the Hull Daily Mail came out strongly on the side of Westwood. It would have been just as easy, and probably more predictable, to have called for him to go, but the local paper knew the man and the community.

Mail editor John Meehan said they knew that he was the best man for the people of Humberside and this appears to have been backed up by reader reaction.

Instead of going for an easy “resign” story, they have explained the intricacies of the case and why they believe that Woodward is the right man to see changes through in Humberside.

Having one of the murdered girls’ fathers agreeing that Westwood should stay was probably the icing on the cake, but it would not have changed the views of the local paper if he hadn’t.

So to Press Gazette’s Regional Press Awards at Old Trafford earlier this month.

Having seen their national counterparts in action a few months ago it was interesting to make a few comparisons.

On a positive note, there were many more female winners – although some may have thought twice about approaching the stage when they realised they would have to face creepy compere Stuart Hall. Luckily for the organisers, Hall’s gob-smackingly deranged performance was the most talked about aspect of the day.

There were fears that the decision to make a free newspaper the overall winner would lead to some damaged egos and dissention in the crowd.

Some might even have accused Press Gazette or the judges (I was one) of going for something controversial for the sake of it.

However, that was not the case. This year the judging was much tighter, with Press Gazette scouring the land for journalists who truly knew the regional press and were not going to be for, or against any particular paper or group.

And as someone who has spent a large chunk of my career on frees, I for one was perfectly happy for Kent on Sunday to take the honours. The winners of the other three main newspaper categories were all well deserved and I am sure they did not feel diminished in any way by the eventual winner.

Before I leave the awards, here are a few of my own gongs determined through sober observations on the day: 

Most Stylish Journey To The Northern Venue: Mike Lowe and the Bristol Evening Post team, who allegedly flew in their own plane and then sailed along the canals on a barge.
Most Diplomatic Response On Stage: Young Journalist of the Year Beth Neil from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, who said she was more than happy to stay on the paper.
Rudest Remark About A Winner: The Sentinel editor Sean Dooley and his Sunday assistant editor, undeservedly described by Hall as tramps as they left the stage.
Best City Collection Of Awards Even Though They Will Now Be Watching First Division Football Played By People No One Has Ever Heard Of Or Who Were Thought To Be Dead: Leeds.
We Have Forgotten We Are Supposed To Be Detached, Hard, Cynical Hacks Award: All those who queued up to collect Sir Bobby Charlton’s autograph.
Most Sartorially Brave Decision: Lincolnshire Echo editor Mike Sassi’s tan shoes with dark suit. 

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle

Next week: Janice Turner

by Alison Hastings

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