PG archive interview: Eastern Daily Press editor Peter Franzen

People become journalists for all sorts of different reasons: egotism, nosiness, a desire to change the world. Peter Franzen’s motivation, though, was rather less noble than most. He fancied a bit of a lie in.

As a young man he’d bumped into a friend, Keith Martin, at a bus stop at about 10 O’clock in the morning. “I said to Keith, ‘you’re a bit late for work aren’t you?’ to which he replied, ‘we newspapermen don’t start work ’til gone 10′. That’s when I thought: ‘This is the job for me.’ “

Years later, his lack of enthusiasm for an alarm clock has led him through the ranks of regional newspaper journalism to the editorship of the Eastern Daily Press and now all the way to Buckingham Palace, where he’s due to collect the OBE he was awarded in the New Year’s honours list for his contribution to journalism.

On the way, he’s been a campaigner for new technology into newsrooms, been at the forefront of the broadsheet-to-tabloid revolution – and made the odd blunder too. One of his most memorable of these was as a young sub in Ickenham, for Middlesex-based Post Newspapers, a result of the aforementioned busstop chat. “It was a 100th birthday party for a lady called Ada Dredge, I remember her name to this day.

I had to write a caption for the story. She was blowing out her cheeks for the 100 candles on her cake and I wrote ‘she’s been storing up wind for a hundred years and here it comes!’ The chief sub screwed it up and said ‘you’re a prat’ and chucked it at me. You got verbally assaulted in those days.”

There was also a fair amount of drudgery. One of his first tasks was to light all the paraffin heaters in the offices. He must have done a good job as he was soon sent to Uxbridge, to what is now Westminster Press, where one of his fellow trainees was an ambitious young man called Greg Dyke.

He later secured a job at Eastern Counties Newspapers, now Archant, as a sub. “I was one of the last subs to work in hot metal and it was brilliant.

You had all these NGA guys [printers] breathing down your neck and you’d quake with fear. You had to make that headline fit otherwise the dreaded word would come back that it had ‘bust’.”

‘Vicious’

Franzen worked his way up to become production editor, a role where his uncompromising style secured him a nickname that he’s now a little coy about – Pete Vicious. It was an image he was eager to shed.

“You get older and wiser and you realise that you can achieve a lot more without kicking open doors that aren’t locked and kicking over bar stools,” he says. “I’ve learned to encourage people and teach them the right way. Bullying people is pathetic and most of the bullying done nowadays is by dinosaurs, normally inadequate people who can’t do their job properly. The great thing about being in a senior editorial position is seeing young people go on to do wonderful things.”

Franzen’s stint as production editor was at a time in the 1980s when computers were making their debut in the newsroom, and he helped design Eastern Counties’ editorial system around the new technology. He was also involved in trade union negotiations to get outof- work print workers retrained as journalists.

His editor of that time, Stuart Garner, who went on to become editorial director at Thomson Regional Newspapers, eventually gave Franzen his first editorship at the weekly Yarmouth Mercury. “I thought, I’m being sent to Siberia, what have I done wrong?Franzen returned to the Eastern Daily Press as executive editor and then editor. It was a broadsheet, and he took the decision to shrink the paper to a compact format six years ahead of the Independent . With the conservative nature of Norfolk’s readership, he
knew a strong element of tact was essential.

“We moved the broadsheet’s position towards a compact before the relaunch for a whole year both in our story coverage and the way we presented news. Then I appeared on television battling against the forces of conservatism that were saying ‘you’ve ruined our newspaper’. We moved it back up market again and changed to a compact format. It was a compromise and it must have worked, as our decline lessened.”

Such is the difficulty of producing a regional morning newspaper, decline seems an inevitable part of the equation. All six of the UK’s regional mornings reported circulation drops in the latest ABCs.

‘Community glue’

Still, the EDP remains the biggest-selling regional morning in England. Franzen describes the regional press as the “glue” that keeps people together in an age where many are losing their sense of community.

That said, he also argues that the Eastern Daily Press is a “quasi national newspaper”. It is one of the few regional newspapers in the country to have sent correspondents to cover the Iraq war and to maintain a lobby staff in Westminster. He is also proud of what he believes is a newspaper first – getting the law changed to enable permanent endowment funds to receive financial help from the National Lottery. This was a result of many hours of meticulous work led by deputy editor James Ruddy.

The paper has its fair share of national exclusives and Franzen admits having reservations about Archant’s new syndication system that aims to sell its own pictures and stories on to the nationals in competition with freelances and news agencies.

“It’s an experiment and we are co-operating with it. I compete with the national morning market, my papers are next to the Mail and the Express. It’s different for the evening paper because they don’t really have any direct national competitors. As a journalist I find it quite hard to be giving my pictures and my stories to a rival, even if it is a day later.”

Another problem with the syndication service, from which the author of each story only gets a 10 per cent cut of the profits, is the fact that a journalist may not have got the story off his or her own back. If you happen to be the duty reporter on the day a good story breaks, you get the money. The journalists on the Eastern Daily Press decided to give
all their profits from it this year to the tsunami appeal.

Franzen points out that he owes much of his success to the newspaper and to those who have influenced him, such as Evening News editor Maurice Beales and an editorial director called Alfred Jenner. “They were the post-war traditional editors, they taught me a hell of a lot. They gave me the foundations,” he says.

But one of his biggest editorial influences, he admits, was his mum. “I always took stories to her to see if they interested her. I got to know which stories would keep her talking all day and learned you have these worthy but dull stories that have to be there because they’re important, but no one gives a stuff about them. She was my inexpensive market research department and gave me a dose of reality to all this journalistic crap floating around.”

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