More war or bore war?

There is nothing journalists love better than a good old conflict. The chance to work through the night getting special editions together full of vivid pictures and great colour pieces inspires all but the most tired, dull hack.

But when the conflict runs to several weeks and months, the most taxing question in the regional press is: when have the readers had enough?

Of course, no one is suggesting not having coverage every day – but when should a war lose its front-page prominence?

Regional editors spent a lot of time weighing up whether readers were buying their paper at that time to get their take on the war, or because they were expecting to see other local news.

And by now they will have built a decent picture from the sales figures to know whether they got it right.

Everyone will have expected a lift after day one, but it’s what was happening after week three that will tell the most interesting tale.

Of course, unless a paper is absolutely haemorrhaging sales, many editors will have felt that they needed to keep the war on the front day in, day out because it was a huge global story.

By the end of week four of the war in Iraq, when I was writing this column, there appeared to be a bit of a split in the industry on which approach was working best.

Mike Sassi, editor of the Lincolnshire Echo, ditched the war from the front after day three. Apart from a modest lift on day one, he then saw his sales going down – and that’s a paper based in a strong RAF area.

Any major twists in the story promoted it back onto the front, but Sassi was confident his readers wanted to buy the local paper for other things. He was also concerned about splashing on stories that looked great at the time, but were proved to be wrong a couple of days down the road – and that includes supposed chemical warfare finds and a couple of “Saddam is Dead” reports.

Fellow Northcliffe editor Mike Lowe at the Bristol Evening Post, however, was firmly in the ‘hold the front page’ camp.

He had been splashing on the war every day and continuing with the next six pages as a matter of course and is convinced about the high level of interest his readers had in it.

Although he admits that there has been no significant sales boost, he thinks the combination of working in an area with strong links with the Navy and having many working class, conservative readers means he was on the right course.

Up in Stoke, editor of The Sentinel, Sean Dooley, took a similar approach – but with a twist. He describes his readers in similar terms to Lowe, and also works in an area that had many men and women on duty in the Gulf.

He was therefore providing eight pages a day – but as a wraparound of the normal paper. The wrap meant extra pagination, and inside was a normal-looking front page with masthead etc.

This should appeal to everyone – apart from the news editor, maybe, who had to produce a normal splash on top of everything else. Dooley has also dispatched a reporter out to the Gulf with the second wave of regional journalists.

Clearly he has had to think long and hard about this on safety issues, and he is also having to lobby the Ministry of Defence hard to ensure the reporter is attached to the Queens Royal Lancers which recruits heavily in his patch. This does appear to be the crux of the matter in sending regional journalists out there – unless they are going to be reporting back on the local troops, you would have to ask, what is the point?

I can’t have been the only hack who was stupidly wistful about being out there in the thick of it, until the first wave of journalist deaths hit home and I realised that it was probably the last place I would want to be.

Having said that, Richard Edwards from the Western Daily Press and Gethin Chamberlain from The Scotsman have been mentioned by nearly every national and regional journalist I know for having consistently produced excellent copy. This will give their papers great credibility and a USP – as well as probably making the individuals’ careers.

The long-awaited news that Johnston Press had appointed an editor for its flagship Yorkshire Post should have been greeted with excitement by journalists in Leeds. Not only were they getting a woman, but an award-winning one with plenty of experience of the regional press.

The rumour-mongers were half right when many predicted an appointment from the quality nationals. Rachel Campey has spent the past couple of years on the newsdesk of The Times, but the large proportion of her career has been in the regional press – and that combination should go down well with her new staff.

I couldn’t find any of her former regional employees to say a bad word about her, and the good news for Yorkshire Post staff is that she is known for letting people get on with it – once they have proved themselves.

I may be biased but I also think it is great news for women in the industry that another editors’ chair has been won by a female. Campey is about as nice as they come – and her Press Gazette Regional Newspaper of the Year award for the Plymouth Evening Herald in 2000 clearly shows she can head up a good team.

Having been brought up in Yorkshire she will probably not need any tips about journalism in the area, but if she does she can always pick up the phone to near neighbour Liz Page in York. Page also comes into the category of experienced editor who is great fun, and she has always spoken out strongly about the lack of women at the top.

So it was ironic that in the week Campey got her job, Page vacated her editor’s chair – but to be promoted to publisher of the same group. There are probably even fewer women running newspapers as there are editing them, so, all in all, a good week for women in the industry.

I wanted to extend my sympathies this week to the Lynn News which managed to make it into the nationals for running identical horoscopes four weeks in a row.

Apparently, readers complained – I’m not sure whether that was after week two or later – after noticing Russell Grant’s predictions becoming a little, well, predictable.

Even Pisceans, for whom life had been one big party since 7 March, were coming down off that high, while Virgos’ continual “lack of confidence” was depressing.

This all reminded me that it’s often not the biggest howlers that cause the switchboard to melt down – but simple things like getting the crossword and the horoscopes wrong.

Newspapers can often get away with offending readers with graphic images, but woe betide the features editor if the recipe lands people with a flop in the oven because a vital ingredient was missing.

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

Next week: Chris Shaw

by Alison Hastings

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