Robert Ridley: Regional high-flyer to driving instructor

Last year assistant editor of the Manchester Evening News Robert Ridley packed in a 32-year journalism career to become a driving instructor.

Now 11 months on, as he launches his own business, he spoke to Press Gazette about the pressures which made him embark on such a radical change of career.

“The reason I did it [leave the MEN] was because things were getting tougher and tougher, longer hours with fewer people,” he said.

“I was 52 years-old and there comes a point where quality of life takes precedent over money.”

The announcement last October of Ridley’s departure after 11 years at the MEN came two weeks after editor Paul Horrocks told staff he was leaving the paper.

At the time, Ridley said Horrocks’s departure was unrelated to his own as he had taken the decision to end his newspaper career the previous May, but agreed to stay on until later in the year to help the paper through a period of transition.

During that time, then owner Guardian Media Group closed all the paper’s district offices and axed 150 to help drive costs down.

Four months after Ridley joined those who accepted redundancy terms, the MEN was sold to Trinity Mirror and relocated to the publisher’s print site in Oldham to reduce costs further.

“You can see the financial sense why they would do it [move to Oldham] but I personally think it is a shame the MEN is not in the centre of Manchester as a whole entity,” he said. “I think the paper should be in the city centre.”

A decision to significantly alter the distribution pattern of the MEN for the second time in three years was also taken after Ridley’s departure. He is critical of the new policy, saying the decision to give the paper away for free in the city centre two days a week while charging full price on the other four days confused readers.

The MEN now sells at full price from Monday to Wednesday and on Saturdays but is free in the city centre on Thursdays and Fridays, after rowing back in December from an experiment started in 2006 that saw it give away up to 90,000 copies in the city centre but continue to sell the paper further out.

Ridley told Press Gazette the daily part-free, part-paid approach had been a good development as it encouraged more regular readers. Before its adoption sales in the city centre were around 4,000 to 5,000 each day. However, he said he thought the new system “had got a bit complicated”.

Ridley left the industry after three decades to follow his passion for motoring by training as an instructor and establishing the Riddler Driving School, in Bramhall, Cheshire.

“I had 32 years in the profession and I had done an awful lot in that time,” he said.

“At 21 I was made deputy editor, at 24 I was the editor of the Oldham Advertiser and by the time I was 26 I was editor-in-chief of the Advertiser Group of papers. I was a fast riser,” he said.

Ridley, who was also a founder member of the Press Complaints Commission in 1990, was eventually appointed editorial director of the Advertiser Group in Ashton-under-Lyne before becoming editor of the Manchester Metro News during its heyday as Britain’s biggest free newspaper.

He then joined the Manchester Evening News, holding posts of assistant news editor then picture editor and before his departure, assistant editor – by which time MEN Media’s adoption of integrated web and print publishing and the addition of the Channel M TV station had turned it into a virtual 24-hour news operation.

But the dream of an integrated Manchester media company across TV, internet, radio and print proved to be an impossible goal.

GMG was forced to mothball Channel M and axe the majority of its staff earlier this year after Trinity Mirror declined to take on the station when it bought up MEN Media’s newspapers.

Despite praising Channel M as a bold move which had been staffed by hard-working employees, Ridley questioned the resources given over to the local TV station.

Too much emphasis was placed on Channel M by MEN Media at a time when the newspaper market was in decline, Ridley said.

“There was too much money channelled toward Channel M, we could have been focusing more on the marketing and promotion of the paper. I think it was a mistake.”

Read the December edition of Press Gazette for the first in-depth interview with Manchester Evening News editor Maria McGeoghan.

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