There was a great potential splash in the Bury Times on Thursday 7 January, although it was found on the pages 14-15 ‘Letters’ spread, not page one.
Readers were furious that inclement weather had resulted in just one bin collection in five weeks, a fairly smelly problem with piles of rotting Christmas refuse.
The finger of public blame was pointed at Bury Council for its lack of gritting.
“The weather was used as an excuse,” wrote one reader, “but this incompetent council did not grit in advance.”
He added: “They cannot use the excuse that there were no warnings, as snow was forecast several days before.”
Another reader joined in: “Bury Council are responsible for gritting and despite their proclamation that this was done the residents know better.”
An ironic third wrote: “Bury has its own microclimate that defeats standard road gritting strategy…An alternative conclusion is that Bury just fouled up.”
An earnest fourth: “Where are our gritters?”
This was good, newsy copy that mattered, so why not a strong page one package, readers perhaps pictured with bags of rubbish on icy streets?
The actual splash was a ‘GHOST TOWN’ picture headline on a snowy, deserted Bury town centre, (although I counted at least ten pedestrians).
The Times’ general weather coverage was fine, a decent selection of traffic chaos pictures on pages two, three and five, with lovely snowmen, a snow dog, a snow giraffe and a snow Dalek to balance on pages four and six.
But why not investigate readers’ concerns at failed council gritting and piles of uncollected rubbish? Who was holding Bury Council to account?
I was niggled, and looked up the previous two weeks’ copies of the Bury Times in case I had missed something.
‘Roads WERE gritted insists council’ was the December 23 splash. The council was allowed a denial headline and intro on a story yet to be aired, with complaints from FIVE motorists (four named, none pictured) waiting until paragraph 16 onwards on page three.
There was a seven par stick alongside headlined ‘Town hall closed as bins stay unemptied’, a paragraph assuring readers that the council next week hoped to collect “two extra bags” from households missed.
In the 31 December edition a basic page six lead headlined ‘Residents clear snow amid row over road gritting’ contained no mention of any continuing bin problems.
So when by the 7 January edition readers revealed that a lack of gritting had meant bulging Christmas debris going uncollected AGAIN it was surely time for their anger to be properly projected on page one?
Not in the Bury Times. Apart from the lead package of four furious letters – in fairness, a cracking read – the only mention of gritting was a page two kicker headlined ‘Gritters are working around the clock’ which told how hard the council was working.
A final paragraph read: “Bury’s environment and transport lead member Cllr Dorothy Gunther moved to quash rumours that some areas of the borough were being favoured over others.” No counter claim was reported.
Amazingly, the lack of bin collections were referenced in a single, 14th par of the page two lead, headlined ‘Borough battles through the snow’: “All bin collections were suspended until further notice.”
This was the line that needed direct council explanation, in answer to numerous readers’ complaints found more than ten pages further on.
I don’t want to be too critical. Despite foul weather, the editorial teams got newspapers out on time with readable content.
But I reckon far more papers would have sold last week if the Bury Times had splashed on the story staring them in the face.
The Bury Times was launched in 1855 and is now owned by Newsquest. The editorial office relocated from Bury to Bolton in early 2009, merging staff with The Bolton News daily, a five-mile move that caused some opposition.
The closure of weekly titles’ offices in the towns they serve is happening around the country, one of the sensitive but argued as necessary reactions to falling revenues as publishers strive to retain profitability.
When this happens, it is crucial that editors and news editors maintain regular visits for themselves and reporters, as being remote from the patch served can risk missing the ‘word on the street’ on particular issues.
The Bolton News’ editor and editor-in-chief of the weeklies is Ian Savage. These are difficult days, but with Ian’s background as a former trainee and then editor on the Bury Times, he undoubtedly strives to resource the weekly as well as possible.
And I’m sure he will get the news team to follow up Bury Council’s bins shocker.
Other points to highlight…
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Mr_Osato (13/01/2010 10:18:32)
I think the most telling comment in your piece, Steve, is that the Bury Times no longer has its own editor. Ian Savage is an extremely talented journalist as anyone who has worked with hinm will tell you, but how on earth can he be expected to provide leadership to the Bury paper when he’s got his plate full in Bolton? That leaves somebody more junior, probably with another job to fulfil, trying to do the editor’s role without having that authority. It, and the fact that the paper no longer has a home in its home town, provide a grapic example of how the people at the top of the astronomically profitable local newspaper industry know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. This is a newspaper that is loved – almost 1,000 people joined the ‘Save OUR Bury Times’ Facebook group – yet did the management ever lift a finger to address those people’s concerns? You tell me?
Miss Cynical (13/01/2010 10:24:27)
I like this blog.
If local papers are to survive, they must hold the councils to account and not resort to ‘lazy’ journalism.
Every single person in the UK can see that it’s snowing and that the roads are quieter. That’s not news.
However, what they are all talking about is why, despite paying council tax, their rubbish is mounting up. They don’t have answers – but the paper is in a unique position to get the facts.
People will leave papers unless they provide information which Average Joe is unable to find for himself.
By holding these ‘lazy’ stories to account, I hope Steve drives up standards.
Twiki (13/01/2010 10:51:15)
To be fair, I’ve had no problem with Bury Council over gritting. All the main routes were passabl
e and I’d hate to see my council tax bill if they were to grit every minor road going so I don’t see why the newspaper should hammer the ocuncil for the sake of a few moaners.
Failure to set up alternatives to bin collections is poor though. A comparison with all the other councils in Greater Manchester, as the Manchester Evening News did, shows Bury to be the worst
Steve Dyson (13/01/2010 11:31:50)
Thanks for the feedback. Your right, Mr_Osato, although in fairness to Newsquest they are NOT the only group centralising editors to be editors-in-chief. A topic well worth debate. Twiki: I wasn’t suggesting “hammering the council” necessarily, but I do think the story hidden in letters deserved projection on page 1. Your comment about MEN’s survey and Bury’s performance kind of underlines that.
Ian Savage (13/01/2010 12:01:21)
I hope you don’t mind me taking a few sentences to respond to your review of last week’s edition of the Bury Times.
The first thing to say is that I really don’t want to be seen as a whining editor, too thin skinned to take criticism on the chin. I welcome all comments about the titles I oversee and concede that on occasion we may not get the choice of splash right. As you know, in a busy newspaper office that can and does happen.
So my response is a brief explanation of the background and thought processes that led to last week’s edition.
Several of our journalists live in Bury and, despite the move to Bolton, do know their patch well and get out there regularly. It was clear to us that, despite the heavy snow, Bury Council had indeed done a pretty good job of gritting the main roads.
The issue (and this as I am sure you know was replicated in dozens of towns in the UK) was that people struggled to get onto those roads because side streets were treacherous.
As a newspaper it is our duty to hold councils to account and criticise them when justified – and I can assure you that we do. But we really believed that it was unreasonable to suggest that the council should grit and clear all side roads. As a result bin wagons were unable to access many homes, hence a few gripes. And here’s the crucial thing – we were not inundated with complaints, which is generally a good barometer of public opinion. But we were happy to print the letters – and did.
To lead on a story about a gritting crisis/bin collection crisis would have been poor journalism in my view – knee jerk council bashing based on (although heartfelt) relatively few complaints.
We felt that the more interesting and valid front page story was the effect on the town centre at a time when there would normally be thousands of people in that street. I would argue that ten pedestrians in that context is indeed an indication of a ‘Ghost Town’ and shows what effect the conditions had on the borough.
Throughout the bad weather we badgered Bury Council about their grit stocks and how they were coping and we did ask all the right questions. It was certainly not, as one commentator here has suggested, lazy journalism. My reporters and all my staff are dedicated, committed and worked all hours (and in all locations!) to produce editions throughout the terrible weather.
Incidentally, I was pleased that there were some positive comments; we do aim to keep the story count high, we do cover court and council, health and education, as I feel passionately about scrutinising local services. To me, it’s the bread and butter of local journalism.
Hope this helps to clarify any points.
Editor in Chief
The Bolton News and Bury Times group
Steve Dyson (13/01/2010 12:06:14)
Hi Ian… Thank you for taking the time to give the review that context. I see where you are coming from, although I still think no bins for 5-weeks was a good tale in itself, whether it knocked the council or not. But really good to hear the thought process behind the treatment. Thanks again. S
FAST WOMAN (13/01/2010 14:04:22)
Would like to nominate this as the best ‘gritting scandal’ story of the week:
Bluestringer (13/01/2010 14:39:06)
There are very few things in a journalist’s life less edifying than an ex-editor sticking his knife into a working editor, whether it’s done up as a blog or just a snide remark in a public bar to sniggering colleagues.
“I don’t want to be too critical,” he says in paragraph 906. Yeahright.
BarryJesus (13/01/2010 14:40:50)
Being a soft southerner, I have no knowledge of any of the people involved, but I thought that was a very good response from Ian Savage.
I read the blog and was tutting away to myself.
However, I was a little uncomfortable as I was thinking how would I feel if someone delivered a damning critique of my paper without finding out my thinking behind certain decisions.
The fact is we can all pull apart each other’s papers and find fault, particularly during these hard times.
And we all know a paper produced outside the town it’s reporting on is far from ideal.
But to leap to so many conclusions in a blog like this can create a false impression.
Reading Mr Savage’s comments, I feel much of what Dyson wrote just isn’t very fair.
BarryF (13/01/2010 15:28:49)
is beauty not in the eye of the beholder…?
Miss Cynical (13/01/2010 15:30:09)
So, we’re now all feeling guilty about the way one ex editor reported another editor’s reporting?!
If even WE can’t agree on how events should be reported and then re-reported, how can we get it right for the readers?!
I agree taht Ian S gave a very articulate and measured response. He comes across as a genuinely nice bloke and I credit him for tackling the issue head-on. But even he said: “I oversee and concede that on occasion we may not get the choice of splash right.”
It’s really important that we do a little self-reflection and look at journalism objectively sometimes – and that means constructive criticism.
After all, a reader won’t care why a particular decision was made – but they will think ‘Yeah, I know it’s been pretty snowy lately’ when they look at the front page.
Paperback Writer (13/01/2010 15:32:53)
I am enjoying the blogs but did wince at this one. I think a response from the editor would be a good idea.
Steve Dyson (13/01/2010 15:33:09)
BarryJesus: The point of this blog is a weekly ‘review’, and a bit like a review of anything the reviewer writes as he sees – a bit like a reader would. The comments are fully open for any context/reasoning. I too appreciated Ian’s good reply, and am sure his team are committed and performing well. But my opinion as a review of Jan 7 remains. I’ll certainly be having a look to see if the bins are collected this week!
Paperback Writer (13/01/2010 15:33:56)
I mean within the blog itself rather than in the comments field
GreenInker (13/01/2010 15:42:07)
Is it right that deep in the copy of page 2 was a line that ALL bin collections were suspended until further notice?? Whether due to council failings or not, this in itself sounds like it would have made the beginnings of a good splash for readers. Dog s**t, vandals and bin-collections… they love it!
Donna Gee (13/01/2010 15:44:10)
As a veteran journalist who lives in the Bury Council area (Prestwich), I read Steve Dyson’s crit and Ian Savage’s response with great interest. The fact that people don’t complain is not necessarily a good barometer of public opinion – from my experience this country runs on apathy, and I suppose I am as guilty as anyone. I have hardly been able to leave my home since before Christmas because I cannot get my car out of my drive and as far as walking goes, the pavements are treacherous for older people. Breezemount, the cul de sac where I live (maybe they should they change the name to Freezemount!) is virtually impassable to traffic other than 4x4s and apparently not to the refuse lorries, either. I am furious, as are my neighbours, yet we know that complaining will get us nowh
ere. There was a time when councils did grit side roads, but those days have long gone. To me, the motto of local authorities now seems to be ‘’increase council taxes and reduce services’’. The binmen will come when the council run out of excuses for halting collections. If we get a repeat of this appalling weather, everything will grind to a halt again and the excuses will start once more. If everyone refused to pay their council tax, then maybe something would be done – but I wouldn’t bet on it. All I would say in Bury Council’s favour is that it is in fact only three weeks since my bins were emptied, not five. I am heading for Spain this Sunday and won’t be coming back until spring. It’s the only way out, short of trying to walk to the shops, slipping over – and killing myself.
Northern Hack (13/01/2010 15:48:04)
Well said Bluestringer. Frankly I wouldn’t pay too much lip service to anyone whose strapline begins ‘ex’….
Miss Cynical (13/01/2010 16:03:49)
Well, one thing’s for sure – Dyson’s a good choice of blogger.
He’s received 17 responses and generated debate. That’s what it’s all about.
Steve Dyson (14/01/2010 09:52:45)
I get your point, Paperback Writer, and if there are ever really controversial publications that appear to have way gone over the top or made a terrible, culpable blunder I will, of course, get a comment from the editor. In general though, I won’t be doing so, as this is a ‘review’ blog, and reviewers tell it how they see it, not via comment (which can, of course, as long as needed/wanted, come in the ‘have your say’ spaces). The papers reviewed so far were neither controversial nor blundering. The NEP had a good review; the Bury Times was a decent enough paper where the choice of splash choice was not the best, in my review opinion. Certainly no claims whatsoever of misdemeanours or lack of professionalism. After all, we don’t see theatre reviewers asking Lenny Henry for his comment on why his lines or eye contact were a little under par on press nights, do we? Nevertheless, good input and I’ll bear it in mind when appropriate. Thank you
Paperback Writer (14/01/2010 13:16:47)
Thanks for taking the time to reply Steve.
Enjoying the blogs and debate generated, keep it up!
Rob (15/01/2010 13:24:26)
This is the original eunuch at an orgy. Appalling idea for a blog, just to lace into other people’s work with no idea at all. Out here in the real world there are all sorts of pressures operating on us. We don’t have time to sit in an office ‘counting pedestrians’ like this tragic imbecile. Rest assured, any critique Dyson levels at our paper will be carefully considered and then totally and absolutely ignored. This blog is a waste of time and the waste of a life.
Steve Dyson (15/01/2010 14:07:00)
Best regards to you too Rob…
Rob (15/01/2010 15:55:14)
Come on Steve. This stuff is just an overly critical appraisal of other people’s work. Taking them to task over stuff like this is out of order. Don’t you think we have enough to worry about without you wading in with no understanding of individual patches? We are all doing the best we can.
Jim Wilkinson (18/02/2010 11:00:09)
Love the simple fonts and colours used for the heading for this blog but the pic of that rather jowelly, overweight unfashionable bloke rather ruins it
Steve Dyson (24/02/2010 09:04:56)