Southwark News: 'We never realised how hard it was going to be'

When Dave Clarke, editor and founder of the Southwark News died suddenly in 1997, the future of the paper looked bleak. But now, 10 years on, the paper enters its third decade as London’s only independent paid-for newspaper.

Clarke had built up the paper from a 20p newsletter, then the Bermondsey News, produced using a typewriter and photocopier from a run-down Rotherhithe warehouse, and had only two journalists working with him.

When he died of cancer in August 1997, just months after toasting the paper’s 10th anniversary, it seemed that the paper he embodied would not make it to another issue.

With an inexperienced team, the paper struggled on with the backing of local funeral firm boss and long-term News investor, Barry Albin-Dyer. Former reporters who had been given their first break by Clarke, such as Robin Campbell, now head of media relations at Westminster City Council, and Matt Smith, who went on to work for London Tonight, came into the office at nights and on weekends to lend a hand.

Another journalist, Chris Mullany, joined in 1999, and the four-strong editorial team – including local boy Kevin Quinn –  often worked 80-hour weeks and 30 hours straight on press days. Fax machines and chairs were pilfered from nearby skips to furnish their new home – an office in the old Peek Freans biscuit factory in Bermondsey.

Many journalists across the industry start their career on their local paper. But not many end up becoming editor within a few years, as both Kevin Quinn and Chris Mullany did in 2000.

Even fewer become proprietors too. But that was exactly the prospect the pair faced in 2002 when Barry Albin-Dyer offered to sell them his share in the business.

Opportunity

Mullany, now 33, says: ‘We were editing the paper and Barry came along and said: ‘Why don’t you buy it off me?’ The two of us were at the point where we’d been on a local paper and were looking to move on. We had to decide: Do we want to go on the route of the nationals, or do we want to be businessmen, which wasn’t what we wanted when we signed up for newspapers.”

Quinn, 31, says such an opportunity so young was too good to turn down. And besides, if they didn’t, the paper would die.

‘Although I’d been at the paper longer than Chris, we were both green, a bit wet behind the ears,’he says. ‘We’d done the grounding, and I’m local, so I knew the area, but those first three years we didn’t have a clue about business.”

In what Quinn describes as a ‘scene from Dragons’ Den’the pair, both in their early 20s, went to the bank to ask for a loan to buy out Albin-Dyer. They were successful.

When Press Gazette visits the paper’s office, its youthful editors-cum-proprietors are cheerful. They have just put to bed an anniversary edition, complete with a timeline history of the paper.

The biggest shock was Dave Clarke dying, says Quinn. ‘I’d only been at the paper for a year. He died so suddenly, and the next thing you find yourself being the editor, which was a big uphill struggle at 21.

‘When Barry came to us with the offer to buy him out, we said: ‘I dunno…’, but when we looked at it, it was such an opportunity. How many people at twentysomething become newspaper owners in an industry dominated by multinationals?”

Mullany agrees: ‘We didn’t want the paper to die – we loved it, we were obsessed with it. But it’s a big decision. We’d gone from knowing nothing about editing to knowing enough to get a paper out every week and run the business.”

Quinn, apart from his university years and a brief spell in the USA, has always lived and worked in Southwark. As the paper’s joint proprietor, his job involves a lot more than counting money. Last week, when the paper’s regular admin officer didn’t turn up, Quinn found himself taking all the births, deaths and marriage notices throughout the day.

Mullany says he has become an IT ‘expert’in the past five years and can often be found crawling under desks chasing wires.

From sorting advertising and distribution deals, recruiting staff, sourcing IT equipment and running the business, the pair have always been the paper’s reporters, sub-editors and overall editors.

‘When there were four of us, it was four kids having a laugh – fun and games,’says Mullany. ‘It’s not that we don’t have fun now, but once you take on the business and the sleepless nights thinking about how you’re going to pay people’s wages and things like that – it stops being kids playing about any more.

‘If we realised how hard it was going to be six years ago we might have thought twice about it. We thought it would be hard for the first year.”

They both laugh at their hopes, when they took over, of taking half a year off each to travel the world or do some freelance work.

‘People say that when you own your own business you have it easy – you’re the big boss,’Quinn says. ‘The truth is there is a reason why most new businesses fail within the first three years.”

Quinn and Mullany relaunched the paper as a full colour tabloid in 2002 and now, under editor Anthony Phillips and four journalists, the News sells close to 10,000 copies at 30p in 400 newsagents throughout Southwark.

In 2004, the Southwark Weekender was launched – a free entertainment sister title distributed inside the News and direct to pubs in the area, in an attempt to attract the borough’s transient residents.

Both are proud of their achievements, keeping the borough’s independent paper alive. But they seem wistful about the opportunities they might have missed as reporters. Quinn says writing is still his ‘passion’and says he would like to do more in the future. ‘But I don’t think I would change anything,’he concludes.

Quinn describes Clarke, who was 53 when he died, as a ‘proper, thorough editor’who never accepted second-best and is still the guiding spirit of the paper. Clarke pushed his reporters to find out what was going on in the borough – even if it meant being chased by men with baseball bats.

Doorstepping

Quinn recalls how he was sent to knock on some doors to ask about a local murder. Behind the first door was the boy’s mother.

‘She went absolutely mental. She called her sons down, they all come running after me with baseball bats. I ran out of sight to a market, rang Dave who said: ‘Did you get the pictures?’ and I said: ‘To be honest, Dave, they are going to kill me’.

‘He said: ‘Go back there! It comes with the battle.’ I went back and she went mental again.”

But the following day, Quinn went back and convinced the mother, Lucy Cope, to talk about her son’s death and explained that he needed her cooperation to get the story right.

Cope later founded the Mothers Against Guns movement and after many years working with the News on many stories is now a good friend of the paper.

When another son of hers died a few years later, she telephoned Quinn within two hours of leaving the morgue, saying: ‘Kev, he’s died. I need you to come over now”.

Quinn says the paper’s strength is its persistence in following up stories. ‘National papers would have never gone back.”

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