North star shines bright on Teesside

One
metropolitan evening newspaper is bucking the trend of falling
sales. Dominic Ponsford travels north to Middlesbrough looking for
the secret of the Evening Gazette’s success.

THE MIDDLESBROUGH-BASED Evening Gazette fielded an unusual complaint
recently that could say much about its singular circulation success
story.

A bereaved father who had lost his child in a road accident called
up wanting to know why a reporter from the paper had not been around
yet to pay his family a visit.

Death knocks are a difficult part
of the regional newspaperman’s trade, but according to Gazette editor
Steve Dyson his reporters are almost never turned away.

This
apparent trust between paper and community is one ingredient of a
recipe which has made the Gazette the only big metropolitan regional
evening paper in the country to be currently putting on sales.

In
the last six-month ABCs it was 0.1 per cent up, and when the next
figures come out, in two weeks time, staff are expecting an uplift of
0.5 per cent (100 per cent paid-for sales).

Modest stuff admittedly, but in a near-universally declining market, just standing still is a considerable achievement.

Middlesbrough’s
sometimes grim post-industrial landscape is an unlikely spot go looking
for the regional press equivalent of the Holy Grail; an antidote to
falling sales.

But at the Evening Gazette a strategy which
includes a strong campaigning tradition, a highly experienced staff, an
effective direct sales operation and an overriding philosophy
characterised as being “latest and mostest” could just be the magic
formula.

Editor Steve Dyson, 36, learned his trade at the
Birmingham Evening Mail, where he picked up the passion for campaigning
he has carried through his two and half years in charge on Teesside
(see panel on facing page).

His philosophy on campaigns is that
you can’t have enough of them. Paraphrasing his old boss Ian Dowell he
says: “If you get bored of a campaign put it in the paper more and more
because the readers are just noticing it.”

Over the last
two-and-half years he has chaired five public meetings centred on
Gazette campaigns – the most recent was over the referendum for a
regional assembly. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Tory shadow
minister for the regions Bernard Jenkin were both on the panel and the
event attracted coverage on TV and radio.

“We are at the heart and soul of the community,”

says
Dyson. “Our reporters have no shame in being called community
reporters, we entwine ourselves in the community – they can’t really
not buy us because we are part of it.”

Being part of the
community isn’t just a glib statement at the Gazette . Among the
60-strong editorial team are journalists with decades of experience
working in the town. Middlesbrough FC reporter Eric Paylor has been
covering the patch for 20 years, news editor Jim Horsley has been with
the paper for 30 years, chief photographer Doug Moody 25 years and
deputy editor Alan Sims 20 years.

Staff put their loyalty down to the fact that they enjoy working there and love the area. But pay could also be a factor.

Whereas
regional newspaper journalists are often forced to move on because of
low pay, the NUJ-negotiated minimums at Middlesbrough compare
favourably with papers in the vastly more expensive South East.

NCE-qualified
reporters start on £17,425, subs on £18,895 and department heads are on
£26,240 – though merit payments mean all are currently above these
minimums.

News editor Horsley, 55, believes that the strength and depth of his team plays a big part in the paper’s success.

“The main strength of the paper is its people.

There’s a team of extraordinary specialist reporters and very keen and committed general reporters.

There’s a great atmosphere and a friendly rivalry in the newsroom that seems to click.

“It’s a great news area, but you’ve got to take advantage of the fact that it’s a great news area.

“We
get involved with the community and we deal with the issues that affect
them. When we have our campaigns they are not flimsy or fatuous – they
mean something.

“We engage our readership as best we can and as
often as we can and we make it easy for them to be part of us really.
There’s no panacea – I think we just do the basics extremely well.”

Among
those basics is covering the courts – the Gazette ‘s Scales of Justice
column details every magistrates court result which is considered
newsworthy.

If a member of staff is unfortunate enough to find
themselves in the dock, editor Dyson has a policy of putting them on
the front page. When columnist Paul Frost was caught drink-driving he
not only made the splash, but was told he had to write about the
experience for that week’s column.

Among the outside factors which have played in the Gazette ‘s favour is the recent success of Middlesbrough football club.

Currently
riding high at number six in the Premiership, Boro won their first
major trophy, the Carling Cup last year, and are enjoying the
excitement of playing in the Eufa Cup.

The equivalent of two
reporters, out of a sport team of six, are dedicated to covering
Middlesbrough FC full-time, providing match reports, analysis, and
background features as well as reporting on the youth teams, football
academy and business side of the club.

Last year, a special edition to mark the Carling Cup win sold an extra 20,000 copies.

At
the other end of the spectrum, the Gazette produces a weekly 12-page
supplement called Grass Roots, which provides comprehensive coverage of
amateur sport including darts, snooker, junior football, swimming and
bowls.

A network of club secretaries and parents provide results
and reports. Sports editor Alan Boughey says: “It’s an indication of
how important and how central the Gazette is to the way this community
works that they get their copy in on time every week.

“If they
are late they’ll phone up and say ‘can you get it on Monday or Tuesday
because I’ll be inundated with phone-calls from people wanting to know
where it is’.”

In a period when many evening papers are moving to
earlier deadlines, in order to get the paper into the shops earlier,
the Gazette prides itself on being a “proper evening”. This is where
the “latest and bestest” newsroom motto comes into play.

While
most evenings have first edition deadlines of 9.30am, and some go as
early as 8am, the Gazette team puts its first paper to bed at 10.40am.
The main edition is off-stone at 1pm and an optional third edition at
3.15pm The late deadlines also means that the Gazette ‘s daily two-page
spread of agency-supplied national news is bang up to date.

One
of the benefits of being part of regional press giant Trinity Mirror is
a new £14.6 million fullcolour print plant, which started rolling last
September to coincide with the paper’s switch from broadsheet to
tabloid.

The format change followed two years of research,
planning and consultation with readers and advertisers and was driven
by the convenience factor, rather than any major desire to change the
content. Dyson says reaction to the new look has been “almost
universally positive”.

Backing up editorial is newspaper sales
manager Kath Thompson, who attends the main news conference every
morning to find out which areas need to be hit with extra copies that
day. She also brings in early sales figures, turned around within 36
hours, so journalists can know what stories have played well.

The
bedrock of the Gazette ‘s circulation is 9,500 copies that are sold and
delivered directly to readers by the Gazette ‘s sales team. This
operation was only started in 1997 and is run by a network of 70 agents
who guarantee the paper will be delivered by 5.30pm every day.

The
Gazette ‘s Lottery-funded Media Centre is another weapon in the paper’s
armoury. Built around a spare office at the paper’s town centre site in
2002, it has been turned into a state-of-the-art teaching centre which
can deal with up to 40 children at a time.

With the help of
Government funding it is selfsufficient and last year 14,000 school-age
children passed through it to learn about putting their own newspapers
together. Dyson and his team evidently enjoy what they do and do it
well.

That, as much as anything else, may explain their success.

Local demographics and a relatively static population may also help.

When
asked for the ingredients to the magic formula Dyson says: “The
newspaper sales record here can’t be explained by one thing or by one
quick-fix. It’s about producing consistently compelling newspapers,
being close to our readers and close to communities, having a strong
newspaper sales and distribution operation and being absolutely
determined to put readership and response at the top of our list of
priorities.”

Deputy editor Alan Sims puts it another way: “One
thing I’ve noticed is that, going into the pubs and places like that,
there’s a stronger feeling of credibility than maybe there was in
previous years.There’s been times in the past when people have said
‘it’s a load of rubbish and I never buy it’.

“Nowadays people say ‘what about this or that story’, it feels like it’s a paper people respect.”

Steve Dyson CV

Born : March 5 1968, Birmingham Married with three children

Editor, Evening Gazette : June 2002 to present

Evening Mail, Birmingham :
July 1994 to May 2002, industrial correspondent, deputy news editor,
features editor, head of news , chief assistant editor and then deputy
editor. Worked with Ian Dowell from 1994 to 2000 then Roger Borrell

Sunday Mercury, Birmingham : senior reporter, July 1993 to July 1994

Metro News, Birmingham : (free weekly, previously the free Daily News): reporter, May 1992 to July 1993

Caters News Agency , Birmingham : April 1991 to May 1992

Part of the winning formula 

A CAMPAIGNING ATTITUDE

Logos from Gazette campaigns are scattered across its pages – Curb
the Crawlers, Let the Boats Come In , Tees Pride to name a few – and at
any one time around half a dozen are ongoing.

Dyson’s view is that campaigns are about choosing causes which
resonate with the readers, and staying at the centre of the debate –
even if they are not always successful.

He admits that he didn’t
expect last year’s Save Our Steel campaign against the closure of the
Corus steelworks to be successful – but he said that readers expected
the Gazette to take a stand. In fact, the paper ended up playing a key
role in stopping the plant’s closure and saving thousands of jobs.

“It’s
a close-knit community and it’s their paper. It’s always been a strong
paper and it’s not lost that,” Dyson says. “They want it to be run with
passion and with drive and they are angry if it’s not.”

Other Gazette campaigns have not been universally popular.

With Curb the Crawlers the paper has promised to run pictures of every man convicted of curb-crawling in the town.

Its
attracted flak from families of the shamed men, but Dyson says: “We are
trying to make Middlesbrough a place to be and a place to visit, but
with prostitution rife it is not seen as that.”

With Let the
boats come in, the Gazette was the only paper to campaign last year for
a so-called “toxic ghost fleet” of 13 World War Two-era ships to be
allowed across the Atlantic to be recycled in neighbouring Hartlepool.
It was another controversial stance, which wasn’t popular with all the
Gazette ‘s readers, especially those living near the proposed recycling
plants.

But Dyson says: “It could create a few hundred jobs and if it works we could become the country’s centre for recycling ships.”

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