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Dyson at Large: Naff splashes bore the readers

I love display front pages when the quality of the story merits them, and I like well-used quality pictures.

But too many newspapers are developing the bad habit of wipe-out splashes for no good reason, and half-page images that actually only deserve a single-column panel.

Take the Oxford Mail from July 26, which decided to fill the whole width of page one with what I felt was a low grade crime story.

I mean, it’s not even as if nightclub owner Luis Carrera has the looks that would have triggered middle-aged mums to snatch him from the newsstands, (no offence intended, Luis, I’m no oil painting myself!).

Similarly, the ‘Watch out’ upper and lower headline had all the impact of a box of Co-Op tissues, and was unaided by a straight but bland sub-heading in caps: ‘TRADERS GET RADIO LINK-UP TO HELP CATCH CRIMINALS IN THEIR AREA’.

I’m sorry, but I yawned! Yes, an OK business page lead, but I felt this just was not newsy enough for page one of a busy urban daily.

After this poor start to the book, it wasn’t long before the above-mentioned overblown use of standard pictures irritated me.

Like the static bobby talking into a radio on page two; a bunch of school kids at a slight jaunty angle on page four; a tie-less Nick Clegg addressing a public meeting on page five; or this dull picture of a man and a tree on page nine.

These pictures were OK to place with the stories they illustrated, but they each took up far too much space and just did not help the ‘stickability’ of the news pages.

Criticisms aside, the Mail did employ some good tactics.

I liked the ‘News you can use’ column on page four, listing roadworks, Lottery numbers, weather, local share prices, ‘holiday activities’, late chemists’ details and ‘key numbers’ for emergencies.

I’m also a fan of court listings, and was impressed at the Mail’s use of 17 detailed convictions from Didcot and Oxford Magistrates on half of page 14.

There are always fascinating reads in such listings, like this one from the Mail: “Abolfazi Katanforoush, 40, of Bartlemas Road, Oxford, admitted shoplifting two bottles of aftershave valued at £59.98 from Superdrug and three bottles of champagne from Tesco to the value of £103.77. Jailed for six weeks…”

I mean, come on, give the romantic geezer with a great name a break!

Commercial departments should also take note… ‘The scales of justice’ section was sponsored by a local solicitor, the first time I’ve seen this.

Another sure winner for me was the four-page pull-out entitled: ‘A walk down Oxford Mail memory lane’.

This black and white section used a total of 22 stories and 12 archive pictures, and so I reckon whoever subbed that section should be pulled into the news planning pool to up the count in the early news pages.

Talking of which, there were two very strong news leads, either of which could easily have beaten the lame ‘radio link’ story as the splash:

  • “Crimefighters are getting younger…” on page three may have had a soft nose, but a hardened up version of this story about a brother and sister, aged nine and seven, who’d helped their Detective Constable dad nab two burglars, could have made page one anywhere.
  • If that story didn’t suit, I’d have pulled forward the page 11 lead, headlined “No-show Tesco dubbed ‘bullies'”, telling how no-one from the supermarket giant had even bothered to attend a meeting of more than 100 people angrily opposed to a new store.

    I highlight these potentials not to be clever but to praise editor Simon O’Neill and his news team. They had some cracking stories that people would have bought the paper to read, they just weren’t displayed on page one on the day I happened to be in Oxford.

    Another high point was a total of 131 stories on 25 news and features pages, which I thought was quite a respectable count for a Monday paper.

    That said, there were only 14 tales on six pages of sport, including a page of cricket results and another of race cards, which seemed a bit tight to me in a 40-page paper.

    The Oxford Mail, owned by Newsquest, has a decent cover price of 40p, and sells 22,019 daily according to the latest ABCs, down just 5.9pc.

    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

    Steve’s blog is available via an RSS feed. Click here to subscribe.


    Onlooker (18/08/2010 09:36:48)
    Circulation down “just” 5.9%. It’s not acceptable to go on saying that’s good in comparison to other papers. Maybe it is, but it’s still bad. (PS Not sure what I’m arguing here, just stating the bleedin’ obvious. The reality seems to be that people increasingly don’t want local daily newspapers. And in truth, the papers perhaps haven’t got enough decent stuff to fill every day, hence the Oxford Mail’s poor, overblown splash).

    Mr O (18/08/2010 10:12:05)
    Like many other small city daily newspapers, the Oxford Mail is dying a slow death.
    It loses around 1,000 readers every year. It has done for the past 10 years – at least.
    At the current rate, it will be an unsustainable business by 2020. And you simply won’t address this by looking at the content – a bit like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Newsquest – and all other regional newspaper publishers for that matter – know this and know in the long term the plug will be pulled.
    It’s sad, but hey – that’s business. When you strip away the two biggest costs to your newspaper business – people and production – you’ve got a business model. And that’s what will happen to papers like the Oxford Mail. Extinct and online only by 2020.

    Steve Dyson (18/08/2010 12:47:34)
    Not sure I agree with either comment…
    Onlooker: there IS enough decent stuff, in my opinion, it’s just that the wrong splash was chosen on the date reviewed (in my opinion).
    And both your’s and Mr O’s comments seem a little pessimistic. You only have to wander into newsagents anywhere in the UK to see countless local papers – so many that I’m frequently undecided which to buy and review next.
    Millions upon millions of people buy them, DESPITE new media. The trick, surely, is to strive to keep standards high, elongating the lives of the regional media… not to just give up the ghost!

    Traffic Chaos (18/08/2010 13:09:34)
    If the intro on the dog-fighting story reflects a tone set throughout the paper I’d be very concerned. And bored.
    Is the strongest line really that police officers are warning people not do something that’s illegal?
    It’s a story that has the potential to shock and appall, but it’s somehow been turned into a police press release – complete with pointless photo.
    The splash is limp, and the page one boosts are plentiful but worryingly drab.
    I don’t like the business of criticising one another’s papers, but with “just 5.9 per cent” turning their back on this paper every year it’s perhaps in need of a slap. Like most others.
    As for our futures. Steve’s saying what we’d all dearly like to believe, but why does he remind me of Saddam Hussein’s information minister?

    ros (18/08/2010 13:14:47)
    That has to be one of the worst front page splashes I’ve ever seen

    Davy Gravy (18/08/2010 14:02:00)
    Steve’s right. The splash is woeful. In fairness, we’ve all sat around in newsrooms in the midd
    le of August wondering what on earth we’re going to put in the paper, but here it was just an error of judgment. The Tesco story would be a natural – or even the “Fighting Dogs” story might have made it if there is enough detail.

    Jack Thompson (18/08/2010 18:17:59)
    Splash and dull stories stories inside says everything about the truly woeful state of the British regional press and none of these titles will be missed when they expire…which will be soon. Can you really see someone under 30 picking up this paper? 40p for the Oxford Mail or 40p for a pack of Polos. I know which one I’d choose.

    Steve Dyson (19/08/2010 09:29:39)
    And so what, ‘Jack’, drives you to read and comment on this blog, which is aimed at reviewing, encouraging, positively criticising and building pride in our regional media? If you don’t mind, bog off!

    Neil (19/08/2010 10:50:32)
    Out of touch powers that be in the meeting to thinks that splash is worthwhile. Most city centre ‘traders’ use a similar scheme

    Davy Gravy (19/08/2010 12:46:01)
    Too right Neil. The real angle here is why it has taken Oxford traders until 2010 to come up with such a scheme. I remember writing about a similar one elsewhere in the country 25 years ago… didn’t make the splash, mind.

    HaxisofEvil (19/08/2010 15:53:30)
    Hopefully the example Steve Dyson has picked up on is just an anomoly. Having briefly worked on the Oxford Mail I was impressed by the reporters and the stories they were getting.
    What bothers me is the attitude of people like Mr O and Jack Thompson. Regional and local papers have a huge important role to play in people’s lives and, if they are lost, we will all be worse off. While the bigger stories will still be covered by the nationals, hundreds of issues will go unreported,local authorities won’t be held to account and local history will go uncharted. That’s a depressing state of affairs in my book.