The first casualties in the Northcliffe firing line

The
departures of veteran editors Mike Lowe and David Gledhill signal the
start of a major shake-up at the regional group, raising fears about
editorial quality

By Jon Slattery

The phone lines between the offices of Northcliffe editors have been
buzzing after two of their own – Mike Lowe at the Bristol Evening Post
and David Gledhill at The Bath Chronicle – were unceremoniously axed.

Fevered talk was that Lowe and Gledhill’s departures were just the
start of a major shake-up in the group. It seems that within a week the
delicate balance of power between editors and their management in
Northcliffe had shifted decisively in favour of the latter.

According to insiders, both Gledhill and Lowe had resisted plans to radically overhaul their editorial operations.

Gledhill was less than enthusiastic about considering the options of turning the Chronicle weekly or bi-weekly.

Lowe
did not look favourably at merging parts of his editorial operation
with that of the Post’s sister morning title, the Western Daily Press.

Editors
come and go, so why the shock? The departure of Lowe and Gledhill seems
to signal a change in Northcliffe’s culture. Insiders look back
nostalgically to the days of Ian Park, the group’s revered managing
director until 1995, who was respected for his understanding and
championing of editorial.

The feeling now is that it is all about upping the company’s profit margins.

One
Northcliffe insider claimed: “We all agree we have to improve our
margins, but it is sad that Northcliffe, which has always been highly
rated when it comes to editorial excellence, should suddenly panic and
pull the plug.

“The pressure is on from the City shareholders who
ask why Northcliffe hasn’t the same 30 per cent margins of the likes of
Johnston and 28 per cent of Trinity. The answer is those kind of
margins are probably unsustainable if you are going to retain editorial
quality.”

Northcliffe’s operating profit margins are about 20 per
cent and the current group managing director Michael Pelosi is believed
to want radical measures taken to hit 25 per cent. Some editors think
this is achievable, but not overnight. That is why there has been talk
about “the accountants being in charge” and the editors being
characterised as the “awkward squad”. There is also a feeling the group
is becoming more centralised. Both Lowe’s and Gledhill’s departures
followed visits by Pelosi to Bristol and Bath.

Lowe symbolised
the abrasive, new breed of young editors Park appointed in the 1980s
when he wanted to revitalise the group’s evening papers. Beforethen,
editorships in Northcliffe often went to long-serving staff in the
group in their last few years before retirement.

Lowe was one of
a number of future Northcliffe editors who worked for Alex Leys, editor
of the Lincolnshire Echo and later the Derby Evening Telegraph. Like
Leys, Lowe took no prisoners when he set about changing the old-style
Northcliffe papers. Out went long screeds about local councils and
old-style features from head office in London. In came sharp new
designs, big pictures and opinionated front pages.

Some of the
old guard looked on in horror as their papers were turned upside down.
One compared it to being “occupied by the Nazis”. But Lowe took to it
with relish. After working for Leys he moved on to the Hull Daily Mail
and The Sentinel, Stoke-on-Trent, before becoming editor of The
Citizen, Gloucester.

A Mancunian and fanatical Manchester Utd
supporter, Lowe could strike fear into his staff, especially those new
to the business. Tales about his antics on and off the pitch for
Northcliffe football team are legion. Another story goes that when he
arrived at The Citizen, he threw a typewriter out of a window to create
a stir because he thought the newsroom was too quiet.

But he
inspired loyalty among many of his senior staff, who liked his unstuffy
and uncorporate approach. Many regional editors, both inside and
outside Northcliffe, cut their teeth working for Lowe in Derby and
Bristol. They include Simon Irwin, Kevin Booth, Keith Perch, Mike Sassi
and Simon O’Neill.

Lowe has fulfilled the image of the
hard-living, 40-fags-a-day newspaper editor. His alter ego is his
Devil’s Advocate column, bylined Barry Beelzebub, which takes a
resolutely unpolitically correct look at the news, a kind of Richard
Littlejohn of the regions. But he is far from cynical about being an
editor, insisting it was the best job in journalism. He also believed
Northcliffe was the best regional group to work for editorially.

Some
might see an irony in the young, hotshot editors drafted in by
Northcliffe to revamp its staid papers now being regarded as awkward,
grumpy old men who won’t do the bean counters’ bidding. Like Victor Meldrew, they just can’t believe what’s happening.

David Gledhill

A PASSION FOR LOCAL JOURNALISM

When David Gledhill was appointed to the editor’s chair at The Bath
Chronicle, the paper’s owner, Westminster Press, fearing for the city’s
more conservative-minded residents, ordered him to remove his ponytail
and dispense with his diamond ear stud. It was to be one of his few
acts of conformity, although the stud returned a couple of years later.

Back in February 1994, the Chronicle was losing money, losing sales
and losing credibility. With just a few years left on the lease of its
Dickensian city centre premises, the paper showed every sign of being
unloved; it needed someone with Gledhill’s passion, enthusiasm and
professionalism to keep it alive. Three months and many late nights
later, he delivered a stunning and classy relaunch, renaming the paper
and introducing regular use of colour.

A hands-on journalist,
Gledhill made a point of involving the paper in all aspects of city
life. His much-trumpeted Chronicle correspondents’ scheme may never
have had 800 active correspondents, but at some time those 800 souls
had penned something for the paper. Across the city people began once
more to feel it was their paper.

His passionate support for, and
belief in, the city was and is palpable. His frustration that it wasn’t
run his way spilt over into his columns. If young journalists could be
given a dose of the Gledhill treatment and be fired up to deliver, why
couldn’t the city fathers?

His weekly column may occasionally
have been too personal and emotional for some, but it was written from
the heart. In 1999, it won Gledhill the Samuel Storey award for editors
who continue to write for their papers. In 1995, the paper was named
community newspaper of the year.

When Westminster Press lost
interest the Chronicle was passed to Newsquest, which, after admittedly
spending some money on a new home, offloaded it to BUP, cementing that
company’s monopoly in the West Country. BUP now belongs to Northcliffe
Press.

Within the village that is Bath, speculation continues
over Gledhill’s demise. Had the flame of passion, so evident 11 years
ago, finally gone out? He had certainly become increasingly cosy within
a very small city. Has he taken the rap for a failure to properly
market the product? Or, as some say, did he rediscover his stubbornness
and refuse to bow to Northcliffe’s demands to turn the paper into a
weekly or bi-weekly publication?

Three years ago, Gledhill
organised a marvellous party and an excellent 48-page supplement to
celebrate the Chronicle’s 125 years as a daily paper. Many people in
Bath are wondering if, in 2007, there will be a 130th anniversary to
celebrate.

Tim Bullamore, Bath-based freelance

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