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Dyson at Large: Chasing fire engines

There was definite drama in the air in South Devon last Friday afternoon.

The wail of sirens was too constant to be a false alarm, and the pensive faces of firemen on an urgently passing tender told you they were en route to a real emergency.

So it was with that weird newsman’s tingle that I left my Brixham chalet and strode to the local newsagents the next morning.

Would the local Herald Express daily be able to tell me what had been going on as thousands of families descended onto the English Riviera for Bank Holiday weekend?

Too right they would; and in that glorious, almost breath-taking traditional evening tabloid newspaper style of ‘picture impact’ that still whips other media into insignificance.

’80 FIREFIGHTERS TACKLE PORT BLAZE’ was splashed across page one, the white headline standing out proudly against the grey River Dart in a picture showing Dartmouth covered in thick smoke.

No less than 40 tightly-packed pars reported the fire on pages one, two and three, along with seven great pictures that each told their own sub-story.

And, to continue the theme of ‘citizen journalism’ from last week’s blog, the five best pictures were all from readers.

‘YOUR PICTURES’ shouted the corner-piece flash on each of them, ‘this picture was sent in by reader Brian Longland’ adorning the page one snap. Dave Cawley, Hilary Bastone, Kevin Pyne and Brian Longland again were all name-checked on pages two and three.

In summary, the blaze had torn through a fish and chip shop and flats smack in the middle of the historic town centre, more than 80 fire-fighters on at least 12 pumps and hydraulic platforms from as far away as Exeter battling to keep it under control.

No fewer than nine officials and eyewitnesses were quoted in a report that gave the sense that emergency services had just about managed to avert a major disaster. No-one was injured, and Dartmouth had returned to normal by the time I visited the town on Monday.

But what would the Herald Express have splashed on if it hadn’t been for the Dartmouth blaze? I tease… there were enough alternatives to bring a smile to the most hard-bitten news editor.

‘Man held after car ends up on side following sea front crash’ was on page five, telling the tale of ‘alleged aggravated vehicle-taking’ in busy Paignton. The back-bench had not been able to resist a ‘Flipping parking meters!’ main page one boost to this story, the wrecked car pictured next to the meter it had destroyed.

‘Blot on the landscape house shut for 3 months’ was the second lead on page one, turning to page five, although it was the headline on the latter page that I preferred: ’16 residents have 140 convictions combined’.

Even the page four lead ‘Asbestos alert at former milk depot’ could have made page one on a quieter day, given the numbers of locals who would once have worked at, supplied or drank milk from the premises.

A very respectable 136 separate reads were contained in 23 front end editorial pages, including news, features, comment and letters.

The latter deserves a par alone: on top of two columnists, the editorial and seven letters on the page eight and nine comment spread, there were another 42 missives in a four-page ‘Your Views Extra’ pullout, proof with the news pictures already mentioned that the Herald Express really involves readers.

Sport, however, worried me again, with just 21 reports on five pages. It’s the summer, of course, but only one page was devoted to football (all Torquay United), and there was no rugby or cricket coverage.

Instead there was a page of tennis, sections on squash, bowls, badminton, boxing and cycling. Nothing wrong with these grassroots reports, and I especially liked the detail in the additional results and league tables in six-point for local darts and skittles.

But there is perhaps a general debate worth having on how much resource and space some titles provide for mainstream sport, given that this is an oft-cited reason for purchase for significant chunks of readers.

What did impress me was an 11-page classified section with a healthy offer to place up to four household items under £200 for free. Together with three pages of pictured cars for sale, this section added real reader value.

And this was without BMDs: these ‘Announcements’ instead took up half of page four, a befitting position in a paper covering the tight-knit communities of Torbay.

The 44-page Northcliffe title, edited by Andy Phelan and priced at 38p, sells 21,912 a day according to the latest ABCs, down just 4.6% during the worst recession since shortly after the paper was first published back in 1925.

If the quality editorial I found continues, I’d bet anyone the best fish and chip meal in Brixham that the Herald Express will still be going strong for its 100th anniversary in 2025.

Read Steve’s previous blog posts here

  • Steve Dyson worked in the regional press for 20 years, editing weekly, Sunday and daily newspapers in the North East and the Midlands from 2002 until the end of 2009. To contact him, email

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    steve pain (09/06/2010 09:14:09)
    Nothing personal Steve – but when are you actually going to edit a newspaper again, rather than rattling on about your perceived failings and triumphs of titles you have never had anything to do with?
    The phrase judge, jury and executioner comes to mind. At least the stuff you do at the BBC has some merit.

    Onlooker (09/06/2010 09:35:49)
    I’ve visited Torquay on a number of occasions and have always been impressed by this relatively small daily – usually while scoffing fish and chips in that great little harbourside chippie at Brixham.

    Steve Dyson (09/06/2010 09:51:08)
    Good question, Steve Pain. For as long as htfp’s editor feel the blog gets a decent level of hits, I guess!

    steve pain (09/06/2010 09:57:42)
    I guess so too. Best of luck – but please keep the BBC sweet!

    Happy Hack (09/06/2010 11:08:23)
    Great blog again Steve and an interesting read.

    AJinexile (09/06/2010 11:40:37)
    I see this column as a sort of a Media Michelin. Dare I say that Steve is to regional papers what Michael Winner is to cafes for toffs. Would say more, but the officer wants me to breathe into a tube…..

    Slimfast (09/06/2010 11:58:26)
    He’s certainly a Michelin-sized man!!

    Diesel74 (09/06/2010 12:12:30)
    Obviously well done the Herald Express, although it is perturbing to find out that the best pictures were taken by readers

    ThomasTheTankEngine (09/06/2010 12:25:58)
    Or maybe Diesel 74 – the amateur pictures were a cheap option and not the best?

    Hilary (09/06/2010 12:37:56)
    I wonder if they are stiull printing locally? Northcliffe had plans to shut the press and transfer printing to Didcot, over 200 miles away. What would that have done to the immediacy of that story, I wonder?

    Steve Dyson (09/06/2010 12:44:59)
    Thanks for the comments. Diesel74 and ThomasTheTank Engie: I reckon readers’ pix of live emergencies have always been in the mix. I remember my dad taking one of a kid being rescued by a helicopter from the rock near Newquay beach, and that was published by the local paper back in 1979-ish. The man on the spot with a camera is always going to get the best live picture. Hilary: The Herald Express states in four-point above the barcode that it’s printed by Harmsworth Printing Didcot Ltd. I think that’s in Oxfordshire. ‘Tis overnight, remember, so not quite as important as loc
    al printers used to be with changing daily, live editions…

    Diesel74 (10/06/2010 08:56:30)
    Thomas the Tank – that’s what I meant. Possibly a bit too cryptic :-)