Farewell then, Oxdown

A weekly newspaper for which thousands of reporters have written stories from interviews, speeches and handouts — and agonised about how their copy will be received — ceased publication last month.

Launched in October 1979, it survived many changes in the newspaper business, including takeover bids by other organisations, continuing for 27 years as the standalone title of its founders.

But on 18 July, the last edition appeared. It looked forward to a walking festival to be opened by an Olympic and European women's walking champion who lives locally — an event which now won't, alas, be reported by up to 250 journalists.

If this sounds an improbable number for a local paper, of course it is. The journalists were in reality writing stories for the NCE, the end-of-training examination of the National Council for the Training of Journalists or for its preliminary exams.

And the newspaper was the Oxdown Gazette.

Local reporting will still feature in the exams, but in new newspapers in locations varied enough to allow for any story to be given a credible setting. The Radston Mercury and the Byford Gazette appeared on the 7 April NCE, with stories about a happy-slapping attack on a chess champion and domestic violence.

"Oxdown was created as a mythical, but typical, English town served by a truly local weekly newspaper — a microcosm of every aspect of life — the perfect canvas for best-practice local reporting, with courts, councils, police, fire, ambulance, local groups and societies," says NCTJ chief executive Joanne Butcher. "Oxdown has played a key role in the development of the NCTJ for many years, but it has fulfilled its role.

"The convergence of print, broadcasting and online media and journalism skills is increasing.

And we decided, after extensive consultation, that Oxdown is too narrow and old-fashioned in this new media landscape."

Memory Lane, Oxdown Back in the late 1970s, examiners felt it would help candidates faced with several stories to write if they were all set in the same town, about which they could be supplied with the essential facts and figures and a map. It would also be easier for the setters, not to have to invent new places each time.

The map first sketched by NCTJ director Alec Newman owed something to Chester, particularly its centrally-placed racecourse. The profile was written by deputy director (training) David Paull, who recalls that the original Oxdown had a population of some 30,000 and a local council with the powers of an urban district. In the most recent edition, the town has 130,000 people and a unitary authority. But the original map remained unchanged throughout.

The first edition of the Oxdown Gazette led on a rail crash — a three-coach passenger train came off the tracks and ran up a ramp on to the platform, killing two railway employees. Nowadays, TV images familiar from Potter's Bar might help trainees visualise the Oxdown situation. In 1979, no such help was available. From the stories written, it was clear that many students had never travelled on a train, or set foot on a railway platform.

But they could find Oxdown Station, top centre on their map. If they set off on a clockwise tour, they would first pass the Crown Hotel, scene of hundreds of public meetings and gatherings of local societies, attended by reporters expected to take shorthand notes of the speeches and ask no questions.

Then past St Mary's Hospital, which over the years coped with a string of intensive care cases — including one member of the Gazette staff, a cyclist knocked down on a nearby roundabout. And so to the docks, where blazing diesel floating towards a coaster carrying explosives for the local quarry featured in an "almost a disaster" story.

Past the Riverside estate, home of a high proportion of the people interviewed for the Gazette, and once disastrously flooded by the River Ox, they would reach Robert's Park, remembering the retired judge who was attacked by a mugger — or perhaps by an ex-con with a grievance about his sentence.

And so to the centre of Oxdown, with its public buildings, shops and oddly oriented parish church, where devil worshippers once attacked the vicar.

Bill Wood, adapter of many real-life events to the special needs of Oxdown and its reporters, points out that some of the most memorable stories, such as the outbreak of badger-baiting, took place "off the map".

For a protest story about a windfarm, the turbines couldn't be sited in the middle of the town.

"Welcome to Oxdown, the mythical town where everything happens — it is like Brigadoon, but newsier" was Bill's standard opening remark on refresher courses for NCE students.

"By many people, Oxdown was adopted with affection," he says.

Students at Darlington, compelled to spend Wednesday afternoons on sport journalism, even formed themselves into Oxdown United FC, turning out in full club kit.

But perhaps the oddest thing about Oxdown was that the big stories always broke just before the weekly paper's publication day. Local radio and freesheets never heard about these events first, so that all stories could be written as ‘first breaks'. In the new titles, will there be an occasional exercise testing trainees' ability to make interesting a story which broke just after publication day and which has to be warmed up for the next weekend?

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