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Dyson at Large – Hard news from the Golden Mile

There was some gripping news in The Gazette in Blackpool on Thursday April 22, but not quite enough of it.

The splash was headlined ‘Rugby star’s mystery death’ and told how a former local rugby star died on a beach after getting into difficulties while swimming on holiday in South Africa.

Fylde Rugby Union is a big club in Blackpool, and reporter Helen Steel did not hold back on providing every detail of Ben Trend’s life to pull in as much reader interest as possible.

His name, age and a collect picture, obviously; plus the area he’d grown up, (Marton); his school, (Arnold); his wife’s name, (Ve, which shows a real eye for detail and spell-checking); and the precise number of times he played for Fylde, (14 appearances between 2001 and 2003).

Steel spoke to three local people who paid tribute to the sportsman-turned-fitness trainer, one telling how he had recently raised £2,100 for a local education charity by running across mountains in the epic Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc marathon.

What impressed me was how Steel then researched this angle, finding a touching quote from Ben on the charity’s website posted just two days before his death: “It was 103-miles of non-stop blisters, sweat and tears, but nothing in comparison to what some people in this life have to go through every day.”

Rather than just relying on the Foreign Office’s police-speak quote citing “secondary drowning” as the cause of death, Steel also neatly explained to readers what this meant, (“death from suffocation, often after a near-drowning experience, caused by a liquid entering the lungs and preventing the absorption of oxygen”).

Several other stories could have made a page one lead on any other day:

  • ‘Gangs targeting the highrollers’ on pages four and five told of a series of three major raids on homes of local wealthy individuals, all with names, pictures and quotes.

  • ‘Lethal drug kills fantastic mum’ on page seven described how a wild party gamble with Ecstasy had left two toddlers to grow up without their mother, again with loads of quotes and a collect.

  • ‘Pool deal proves a real splash hit’ on page eight, which despite a corny headline was actually an inspiring story of how a 3,000-strong march of locals had helped to save a pool in St Annes.

    While these and other detailed and newsworthy reports means The Gazette deservedly boasts its ‘North West Daily Newspaper of the Year’ strapline, I was a little disappointed with the story count in such a thick, 96-page paper.

    In fairness, 48 pages of this was a prominent ‘Property today’ pull-out, but in 21 pages carrying news, business, features and comment there were only 96 stories.

    And while there were more first-rate reports and comment in sport, this six-page section only carried 29 stories, plus a page of race cards.

    Staffers at The Gazette, like many working for Johnston Press, are in the midst of industrial action over the much-dreaded Atex system, so hats off to them for maintaining the quality of stories that were published in the space available.

    Editor David Helliwell can be rightly proud of their performance. But as and when the unrest settles down, perhaps he should demand a little more editorial space from upstairs and employ a tighter design, producing higher story-counts to help tackle a decline that measured -7.8% in the latest ABCs

    This could retain more of the current 24,877 readers who shell-out 45p a day for their local read.

    Finally, a new element for this blog, ‘Pointless story of the week’, on page five, headlined ‘Caravan raid': “Officers are searching for a burglar who forced his way into a caravan at North Drive, Cleveleys, some time between Sunday and Tuesday. Nothing was stolen.”

    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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    Hilary (19/05/2010 10:42:29)
    Be careful about sneering at pointless stories of the week, Steve. If you want a higher story count, I’m afraid that all you’ll get is more of the same. With current staffing levels, no-one has time to go trawling for good stories to fill nibs columns and smaller spaces, or for following up (if possible) the sparse information you get on the voice banks. So it’s either crime wastes-of-space, or rehashed what’s-ons. And even they take time to type out. What’s better: lots of pointless tiddlers like that one, or fewer, thoroughly written stories like the splash above?

    Onlooker (19/05/2010 11:16:07)
    Another interesting blog, Steve. However, I disagree with your assessment of the caravan raid as a ‘pointless story’. Anyone in the North Drive area of Cleveleys would be very interested that a burglar was at large there. They might also be fascinated that their neighbour’s caravan has nothing inside worth nicking !

    Steve Dyson (19/05/2010 11:31:36)
    I see your point, Hilary, but would argue that what we used to call ‘nib files’ are easy to construct. Used to be a daily natural habit for seasoned hacks I knew… The Steve Swingler and Jim Guthrie district types from 20 years ago. Each page lead should and can be a follow up the next week with an update snippet for readers. The caravan short, by the way, is fine for a town-specific weekly, or even for a community news section covering a certain village. But p5 of a strong daily?

    Reynard (19/05/2010 12:23:12)
    This blog is in danger of becoming a predicable naval gazing exercise !

    davy gravy (19/05/2010 12:46:37)
    I agree with Hilary on the “nibs” question. I worked on an evening paper whose Editor had the genius idea of having a column of nibs on every inside news page. Ever tried to fill ten columns of nibs on a saturday afternoon in August? I’d have killed for an actual crime, even if it was the break in at a caravan with nothing stolen. If there are no actaul nibs around, write up the decent stuff in a bit more depth – in-depth reporting and anlysis being what newspapers do best of all….

    Hilary (19/05/2010 14:06:54)
    Oh, so Utopian, Steve! Steve Swingler and Jim Guthrie would be expected to fill a daily edition by themselves today, not just a few tasty nibs. Follow-ups of anything but the top stories were a luxury even in my days in Bolton in the seventies. And Reynard – they only naval-gaze in Portsmouth, Plymouth or Rosyth…

    Steve Dyson (19/05/2010 14:06:59)
    I see your point too Davy Gravy, but would (wearing editor’s hat) contend that story count is important and that good nibs are not hard to come by. I used to get sent to the Post Office for an hour to get some for my first paper (postcard notices re. local events) and also to the Register Office (bands published with occupations). Apart from definite nibs, these trips often turn up great leads themselves (old lady asking for folk to look out for 15-year-old lost dog that means so much to her because he once chased off thieves being a story once found in a Post Office notice; an undertaker marrying a mortuary technician one once found in the Registry Office). Reporters can’t just wait for big stories to come knowcking… by constantly searching out and writing up the little nibs, the good off-diary hack finds the pearls…

    Steve Dyson (19/05/2010 14:09:16)
    I should have explained, Hilary. Both Jim Guthrie (Staffordshire edition) and Steve Swingler (Solihull edition) DID fill their own daily editions, spl
    ash and all, as well as find nibs. They both swore by ‘nib file’ compiling, as this constant review of stories past and present turned up the leads and splashes as well.

    Hilary (19/05/2010 15:58:36)
    This does, in fact, still happen on the Stroud Life, where they have three very experienced senior reporters in a town centre office who also fill Stroud pages on the Citizen. But of course the crucial words are “very experienced senior”. Today’s newsroom ethos employs kids to ring people and fill word quotas, and half the time they’re miles from their patch. And woe betide them if they show any initiative – it upsets the newsdesk. Sigh. Whatever happened to leaning on the right bars?

    davy gravy (19/05/2010 16:04:36)
    Good point about the update on previous page leads. B***er. Wish I’d thought of that all those years ago….

    R McGeddon (20/05/2010 10:12:27)
    I remain a bit bemused about the obsession in this blog with story count – looking at past reviews, the papers with the longest stories and the lowest story counts have the slowest declines in circulation.
    Interestingly this paper gets a kicking for a low story count, whereas other papers which pack their pages with every NIB under the sun and which have identical or higher declines in circulation are praised for their efforts.
    My personal feeling is that the good local paper that does the in-depth stuff well can relegate the dross to its websites. The punters want in-depth, which they don’t get from websites and the BBC.