NEVER MIND THE CORPORATE BOLLOCKS WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

SEAN
DOOLEY LOOKS BACK without rancour at his time as a Northcliffe editor,
but you can feel his frustration about the future of the regional press.

His
18-year reign as editor of The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent ended this
week at a time when the regional press is gripped by talk of
redundancies, cost-cutting, falling circulation and huge doubts about
its future in a digital world.

Dooley says: “The regional press
needs friends now as never before. Above all it needs people who
believe in it and understand it. Only a fool would dispute that we face
an unpredictable future and need to examine our efficiency and
effectiveness right across the publishing business, or even that some
of what is happening is just an overdue challenge to the way we have
operated in the past 10 years. Some of it, though, can also best be
described as corporate bollocks designed more to produce a result on
paper than to secure the future for the business, the staff or the
shareholders.”

Within Northcliffe, Dooley is described as a
“brilliant newspaper strategist” with an ability to get his way and
even intimidate management.

His departure follows that of four
other formidable and experienced editors within Northcliffe since June:
Mike Lowe at the Evening Post, Bristol; David Gledhill at the Bath
Chronicle; Barrie Williams at the Western Morning News; and Terry
Manners at the Western Daily Press.

Some have likened the five to
“an awkward squad”, unlikely to have accepted Northcliffe’s
company-wide Aim Higher programme – which is expected to see
significant job cuts – without a fight. Dooley won’t be drawn and
points out that the five have left for different reasons. They have
either retired, as in his case, resigned or been sacked.

For a
man about to retire after more than 40 years in journalism, Dooley’s
talk is about the future and the current debate about the pay of
regional journalists, rather than a nostalgic look back at his career.

He
stresses how much he has enjoyed his time at Northcliffe and how little
interference he has had from the company as an editor.

For
example, a Sentinel columnist launched a trenchant attack on Melanie
Phillips of the Daily Mail, which is owned by Northcliffe’s parent
company, without any comeback from head office.

Dooley is much
occupied about how regional titles should be establishing what he
describes as a “publishing matrix” – mixing the newspaper, internet,
local radio and local television content.

He says this happened
in the US four or five years ago and tells of visiting the Tampa Bay
Times, which had an internet editor, a television and radio editor and
a newspaper editor.

“These are issues which almost seem to be on
hold while everybody chases the Holy Grail of producing what we produce
for the least possible cost.”

“There has been a shift in the way proprietors and publishers see their newspapers,” he claims.

“I
think there is a vacuum at the moment. To some extent it is inevitable,
and a lot of what’s happening is necessary in the light of the internet
and a need for a different mix.

“But some of it is just a phase we are going through. I can’t see a lot of sense in some of the decisions being made.”

Dooley
talks about the need for a “publishing philosophy”, which will let the
industry and its staff know where they are going over the next decade.

“What is needed is the vision to look forward.

The
focus is all on saving cash and pushing up the profit margins a few
points. We should be putting down the seed corn to take advantage of
what’s happening now across different media platforms – magazines, the
internet, radio and television.”

On the thorny and perennial issue of low pay for journalists starting out on regional papers, Dooley is forthright.

“In
the regional press you are expected to skirt around the pay issue
because you are giving people a start in journalism, which I think is
totally wrong.

I always tell them start-off pay is abysmal and if
they are lucky it will move on to disgraceful after a year, and by the
end of the training it will be only just short of appalling. In return
you have to train people well, have a stake in their career and tell
them you will help them get wherever they want to go. We also stick
rigidly to a 37.5 hour week, that’s part of the contract. It is the
only way I have felt I could have a staff that was contented.”

Dooley
is critical of the NUJ, claiming: “The NUJ, on at least three
occasions, had a great opportunity to make its presence felt and raise
pay, but instead chose to get worked up about some dictator in Latin
America.”

He believes there was a chance for journalists’

pay
in the regions to be transformed when new technology wiped out the
composing room, saving the industry millions in print workers’ wages.

“It put journalists at the heart of newspapers. It should have shifted their importance and value, but it didn’t.”

Born
in St Helen’s, Dooley entered journalism as a 19-year-old and worked
for Mercury Press founder Terry Smith’s Merseyside news agency.

“The
place was a cross between a journalist’s academy and a Japanese
prisoner of war camp. Smith was a brilliant journalist and I never knew
how much I’d learnt from him until years after I’d left. He was a
merciless employer, but he taught me that people can live with tough,
providing you are fair with it.”

He later started shifting on the
nationals in Manchester, but found it less that satisfying. “In
Manchester I was a bit of a fireman. You would hang around drinking,
waiting all day for a story and then you would be lucky to get three
pars in.”

He left Lancashire for the Lincolnshire Standard before
switching to Northcliffe’s Lincolnshire Echo. In 1973 he moved to
Swansea as assistant editor of the South Wales Evening Post. Dooley’s
first editorship was of the Gloucestershire Echo,before taking up his
present post in 1987.

He says: “The great benefit of regional
newspapers is that they are of immense value for the people you are
writing for, and that comes back to you an awful lot and it is a great
satisfaction.”

A quietly-spoken man, Dooley can be cuttingly funny about some of the characters in the industry.

He
describes one editor, distraught at being left empty-handed at the end
of an awards evening, as “behaving like a prima donna ballerina who
failed to get the lead part in the Red Shoes”.

He is also likely
to dryly remind his journalists that half the people are buying the
paper for the sport rather than their marvellous prose.

Dooley
fears that many modern regional journalists have lost touch with their
readers as they remain in their new out-of-town-centre offices, doing
most of their work on the phone. “I sometimes think readers are an
endangered species as far as some journalists are concerned, they never
meet them.”

But he remains robustly optimistic about the future of regional newspapers despite the current gloom.

“Regional
newspapers have an unrivalled record of successful metamorphosis – and
have done it repeatedly for well over a century. I am confident they
can do it again, providing we don’t rip the heart out of our assets and
piss off our best brains to such an extent they drift off into PR or,
like me perhaps, euphoric senility.”

 

In his own words

DOOLEY ON…

… Dave Blackhurst – The Sentinel’s award-winning health reporter “He
does it year in and year out with better and better exclusives and
authoritative reporting. He has a giant role in our community and is a
constant reminder to everyone on just why we joined up.

“Reporters
like Dave never leap out of bed at 3am to cover a story for the greater
glorification of the company profit-and-loss account – but they do it
without hesitation for The Sentinel. It’s a subtle difference you’d
probably have difficulty explaining to a consultant.”

… The
Sunday Sentinel The Sunday Sentinel, the broadsheet launched by Dooley
in 2000 has won a string of awards including daily/Sunday newspaper of
the year twice in the Press Gazette Regional Newspaper Awards.

It was launched after The Sentinel got wind that a free Sunday was thought to be moving into its patch.

Some
in the industry have been sceptical about its longterm future. One
former managing director of Northcliffe described Dooley’s Sunday plan
“as an interesting way to resign”. Some fear that without Dooley’s
commitment the paper might be at risk.

But he insists: “The Sunday Sentinel makes a significant contribution and has done from six months [after launch].

It
is not being carried.” One of his last tasks has been writing a paper
on whether the Sunday should switch to Berliner or tabloid size.


former Northcliffe managing director Ian Park “He knew when, and by how
many notches, to tighten or loosen the belt, but was always hungry to
get back to publishing when the climate allowed and was never afraid to
preach investment.”

… the BBC’s “ultra-local” plans “The thing
that pisses me off so much is that no-one is tackling this incursion by
the BBC on the back of the licence fee trying to get hold of markets
hard-won by newspapers for years and years. I am furious with the
industry for allowing it to happen – partly because they don’t
appreciate the value of what they’ve got.”

… after the cuts “What
concerns me is what happens when the costcutting is over. The regional
press has a truly fabulous collection of established and trusted brands
that most Footsie companies would die for. Irrespective of the medium
or mix of media that takes us forward into the future, we are going to
need the infrastructure and the publishing skills to ensure they
continue to deliver the kind of margins that kept the national
newspaper industry afloat during their lean times.”

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