There's strength in the weekly

The latest audited circulation figures for the regional press make interesting reading. What leaps out immediately is the continued success of the weeklies – and the continued struggle by the dailies to get that magical plus figure.

It is a triumph for the weeklies that 59 per cent of them have put on readers – and they deserve it.

People working in this part of the industry have always had to put up with being looked down on.

There is a definite caste system in the industry. National newspaper journalists think those on regional dailies are not bad but always ensure they are well down the food chain if they make the move to London. Regional daily journalists always wonder how colleagues from the weeklies could cope with deadlines every day (as if the weekly is thrown together once a week).

Hacks on relatively well-staffed, aggressive, free newspapers are relieved they are not working on defensive freesheets.

I’ve worked on all of the above, bar nationals, and there have been good and bad journalists at all of them.

So congratulations to the weeklies. Undoubtedly, it is easier to get closer to your readers in smaller areas – but there is clearly much to be learnt from their methods.

The main piece of good news in the latest figures for the dailies is the improvement in discarding bulk sales. Any editor worth their salt would only ever rely on base sale measurements anyway – and management has come round to this way of thinking.

The improvement does mean, though, that those with lower figures in the actively purchased column do tend to stick out like a sore thumb. It will be worth keeping an eye on the following to see if improvements are made next time round: Birmingham Post (83 per cent), The Doncaster Star (83 per cent), Yorkshire Evening Post (90 per cent), Manchester Evening News (90 per cent), Reading Evening Post (84 per cent), Southern Daily Echo (91 per cent), Yorkshire Evening Press (90 per cent) and the Belfast Telegraph (90 per cent).

But there was another set of figures out recently that should give a smile to all those in the regional press – that of most trusted professions.

OK, we may have come behind broadcast journalists (which is usually what happens when you are trying to interview someone at a press conference anyway) but we left the likes of senior UN officials, Labour Government ministers and people who run large companies trailing in our wake.

And that’s not to mention journalists on mid-market nationals and redtop tabloids (the latter only being trusted by 14 per cent compared with our 60 per cent).

With figures like those, it’s not surprising that some national newspapers were less than happy with Coronation Street’s recent portrayal of the pack busy at work on a big breaking crime story. The NUJ said it was irresponsible to reinforce stereotypes which can only make reporters’ lives more difficult.

The Press Complaints Commission, presumably when asked, pointed out that the fictional reporters could easily have fallen foul of several areas of the Editors Code.

Granada responded by making it clear that it was drama and not a public service programme. The spokeswoman added: “Journalists are expected to take this with a sense of humour.”

Having seen at first hand Granada’s press office busily at work complaining to the commission about their stars’ privacy being invaded on a fairly regular basis, I wonder who is having the last laugh.

Sticking with the PCC, the select committee for culture, media and sport’s inquiry into it was always going to make a fascinating spectacle. Here MPs would have the power to summon national newspaper editors and probe their working practices (or give them their ritual bollocking as Piers Morgan so memorably told them).

Members of the public who felt they had been badly treated by the press and/or the PCC would also be given their chance to speak their mind. Actually this particular aspect did not prove to be a fascinating spectacle – because unlike the other sessions it was not open to the rest of the public.

As someone who has supplied a written submission to the committee, I have been receiving regular e-mails from them on who will be giving evidence – and the session with the members of the public was not even mentioned. The sessions with editors, however, was marked well in advance – and plenty has already been written about their evidence and the fairly marked difference of opinion on the way forward between the tabloids and broadsheets.

Simon Kelner at The Independent has come in for much stick for his views. As far as I am concerned he is perfectly entitled to them, but I would like to pick up on one point.

He seems very concerned about the committee containing working editors, and appears to fear that the lay members will be bowed into submission by these powerful characters who will naturally dominate proceedings, and decisions.

I can understand his fears – these were my preconceptions before I sat on the PCC for four years until last autumn.

However, I can reassure him that nothing is further from the truth. The lay members, particularly those who have sat on it for many years, are very strong characters who have built up an excellent knowledge of the way the press works – both good and bad.

To give the impression that characters such as Sir Brian Cubbins would be intimidated by national newspaper editors is absurd.

Paul Dacre may have built up a formidable reputation in his own office, but at the PCC he is just one of many members who only speaks when he has something pertinent to say.

I have never witnessed any of the editors, all strong personalities without a doubt, dominating proceedings, trying to get anyone off the hook or gunning for a rival paper.

Even if they were so inclined it would be utterly transparent to all concerned.

As for working editors not being able to sit on the PCC – this is something that should reassure critics rather than worry them. It has meant that the people at the top of newspapers at the present time are very acutely aware of the code.

They know exactly what sort of behaviour and coverage causes complaint – and the effect that has on ordinary people – because they have to read the committee papers and examples every week.

To have the PCC stuffed with former editors (and I speak as one) would weaken rather than strengthen it – for the members of the public it serves as well as the industry.

My piece last month on strained relations between football clubs and local papers obviously hit a nerve. Plenty of e-mails arrived, proving what I have long thought – we are all spending too much of our time trying to deal with said clubs.

No one mentioned that they had a great relationship (although you may be out there) but there were plenty of stories of continual grief received by papers up and down the land.

Mike Norton, editor of the Derby Evening Telegraph, has come up with one solution. He has made Derby County into a mini-specialism for one of his news reporters.

The reporter has built up a very good working knowledge of football finance and has been able to analyse business aspects of the club without it affecting their seat in the press box – so far at least. A recently formed fans’ trust at Derby, which now has its own column in the Telegraph, has also been helpful. It not only gives fans another voice but also allows them to criticise the club without it always looking like it is coming from the paper itself.

I would endorse Norton’s ideas. In Newcastle the business reporter kept on top of the plc, and a news reporter always had the unenviable task of following up the shagging/gambling/

assault-type allegations. Any other ideas to keep the clubs at bay are warmly welcomed.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk She’ll be back in four weeks.

lNext week: Chris Shaw

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