25 October 2014

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Dyson at Large: Names, faces and homes the key

I watched and waited for the thump of the Sutton Coldfield Observer through the letterbox on Friday 11 June.

But when it came, I was beaten to the door by Mrs D, her face lit up as she thumbed through the pages, a little yelp of pleasure when she found the column she was after.

And we were not alone in competing for that week’s freely delivered, 156-page cat-killer.

There were mums, dads, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins from 6,000 families rushing to pick it up and many, like us, cutting out and keeping the page that mattered.

Because 6,000 was the record-breaking number of people who entered Sutton Coldfield’s 2010 Great Midlands Fun Run, expected to raise more than £200,000 for local charities.

‘Sun shines on fun runners’ was the page one headline across a picture that showed hundreds of smiling faces at the starting line, once you pulled the paper out of its advertising wrap.

It was a cracking picture taken from a slight rise, showing at least 100 recognisable faces (before I gave up counting).

Page two to 10 and an extra spread on pages 32 and 33 contained 26 reports and another 46 pictures from the 8.5-mile slog, the majority close-up shots identifying a minimum of another 250 runners.

On page 44 came the best detail of all, sub-titled ‘The first 700 home’, containing the full name, category and, in six-point, the time accomplished by serious runners.

If you look closely, you’ll spot a ‘Thomas Dyson’ at 16th; that’s our 17-year-old who covered the distance in 54 minutes and 14 seconds.

Yes, I shamelessly include his detail with a touch of pride, but also as a great example of how to pull in the readers.

The Observer has sponsored the fun run since its inception in 2003, and provides blanket coverage in the run up and aftermath each year, a superb example of how to do it for any newspaper considering the same.

There was, of course, other news taking place in Sutton Coldfield that week, including:

  • ‘Supporter pitches in… with real grass’ on page 16, telling how legal secretary Dan Taylor had fitted out his living room with 100 square feet of turf, hand-painted as a football pitch, for the World Cup;

  • ‘Dentist to face fraud charges’ on page 17, telling of the arrest of a local practitioner for allegedly claiming £1 million from the NHS with fake patient invoices; and

  • ‘Modern design twist as arson-hit church prepares for a comeback’ on page 22, describing a £4 million project to rebuild an historic local place of worship.

    There were a total of 121 reads (including letters and ‘Your Time’ leisure reports) on 38 editorial pages in the front end, another 20 local junior and amateur sports stories in three back-end pages, and several property reports in a 74-page homes section.

    Not bad for a free newspaper, especially when you consider the work involved for a team of journalists severely cut back by owners Northcliffe because of the recession.

    A depleted joint team of 18 journalists now create content for the Tamworth Herald, Lichfield Mercury, Walsall Observer, Great Barr Observer and Sutton Coldfield Observer from a Tamworth office headed by editor-in-chief Gary Phelps. The papers are subbed at a production hub in Stoke.

    Despite these cutbacks, the Observer still ‘owns’ Sutton Coldfield. It was only launched in 1985, but quickly knocked the once mighty Sutton Coldfield News into second place.

    This dominance was fuelled by the concentrated local management efforts put into winning and retaining the advertising pull-out for the town’s healthy property market.

    And it was confirmed years before the recession with the early and then heavy and continual editorial and product cutbacks at the News, owned by Trinity Mirror.

    Today, the Observer wipes floor with the meagre News, the latter containing 80 reads (that’s news, letters and sport) on 18 editorial pages on June 11. In all, the News had 34-pages inside its ad wrap.

    That’s not to knock the editorial team who put the News together: they strive to compete with the thinner resource and pagination they have, for example getting a picture for their version of the above-mentioned dentist’s alleged fraud story.

    Both the News and the Observer proudly claim to circulate around 57,000 copies to households in and around Sutton Coldfield.

    But the latter’s healthy pagination, strong campaigning stance, committed sponsorship of so many of the events that matter – charity balls and business awards on top of the fun run – means the weaker News’ arrival to many homes is almost an annoyance.

    This is especially the case when readers see the News’ relegation of the town’s story of the year – the fun run – to a single report with four pictures showing just 13 runners on page 19. This tokenism simply underlines the Observer’s fine sponsorship of an event so close to the hearts of locals.

    The titles’ websites tell the same story: the Observer is on Northcliffe’s celebrated this is platform whereas the News’ is still stuck on Trinity Mirror’s largely discarded ‘ic’ generation.

    I remember all this was the reason for an action plan demanded by one of Trinity Mirror’s former regional managing directors in the Midlands, Steve Brown, when he was sent on his rescue mission at the end of 2007 after the failed sell-off.

    As one of his ‘key 25 challenges’, he asked one of his fellow ‘rescue’ directors to plough some energy into thinking through the editorial weaknesses and commercial opportunities in Sutton Coldfield. A return to number one was the target.

    But the momentum for any turnaround plan disappeared with the onset of recession, initial cost cuts and then Brown’s sacking for not going further.

    With Brown out of the way, then came the loss of the News’ own editor and the consequent £6 million ‘cost savings challenge’ imposed by Canary Wharf.

    The latter programme led to my departure from Trinity Mirror’s Midland base at The Fort, but I still remain a resident of Sutton Coldfield and I’ve seen no sign of anything but acceptance of a conquered status quo for the News ever since.

    This is a shame for a paper first launched in 1869, but must be manna from heaven for the Observer.

    Read Steve’s previous blog posts here

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  • 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.dysonmedia@googlemail.com.

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

    Comments

    Nigella Cox (23/06/2010 13:46:14)
    A real David and Goliath struggle but given the gulf between them I think the News does a decent enough job of holding its own. I think it’s unfair to criticise its coverage of an event sponsored by its rival. I’m based in London but hail from Sutton Coldfield and I still return there regularly. I recall when the Sutton News sponsored the ‘Sutton Fun Run’ as it used to be called and I seem to remember the
    ‘Obbo’ wouldn’t touch the event with a bargepole. In this case The News had a front page pic (with Observer logos cleverly hidden on the runners’ numbers) and a small spread inside, so it didn’t ‘ignore it’. I think calling it ‘tokenism’ is unfair Steve. And yes, before you ask I did once work on the Sutton News so old loyalties still tug at the heartstrings. Though I totally agree that Trinity Mirror seem to have given up the battle as far as Sutton Coldfield is concerned.

    Shakespeare (23/06/2010 15:45:00)
    Stop rewriting history Steve. You were in charge of the reorganisation in the Midlands which led to the News being all but eaten up by the Mail. You showed chuff all interest in either the print title or its website, and as for Canary Wharf giving you a cost challenge, wasn’t that more to do with the fact the company in the Midlands was down to lose at least £8million that year. At least part of that problem can be put down to your failed relaunch of the Mail, including the damned stupid idea to drop the word evening out of its title – although at least this made it a little easier to take the Mail overnight, so well done for that. You chose to leave the company last year, and out of respect to your former colleagues still there and battling very hard, perhaps it would be wise to stop painting such a rosy picture of yourself. Answer this question: What steps did you take to help the News? Answer on a postage stamp please.

    Hengist Pod (23/06/2010 15:55:14)
    There’s a saying in Sutton Coldfield – “if you want to buy a house or a car then get the Sutton Observer. If you want to find out what’s happening then get the Sutton News.” I quite like the David and Goliath analogy Nigella and reckon given the disparity the Sutton News punches well above its weight.

    Bucharest Man (23/06/2010 16:08:52)
    Interesting article this week.
    Just a quick comment, when Norhcliffe bought the Observer they put an experienced team in place chaired by Alan Goode(ex Editor and a real newspaper man) who were able to access modern full colour printing years before Trinity even decided where to build new presses for the Midlands. They won the property battle were able to continue to invest in good content. Game over for the News!

    Plus of course the inability of successive management teams in Birmingham to run Sutton as part of Birmingham rather than part some ill conceived group of disconnected weeklies.

    anon (23/06/2010 16:11:10)
    Good piece on Sutton and very interesting at the bottom of the story. Puts it into perspective for a wider audience. However, just to point out that it was of course the Sutton News that started the idea of a Sutton run and sponsored the hugely successful Sutton Fun Run which I think was 10 and 5km. I have with the official poster in the background saying Sutton Fun Run June 1988 Sutton Coldfield News ‘Walk or Run it’s Family Fun’.
    The Observer’s takeover is near complete judging by your own observations. What abject surrender.

    Steve Dyson (23/06/2010 16:30:23)
    Thanks for the comments. Nigella Cox: Re. covering a rival’s event, I see your point; but I would argue that the fun run is SO huge it’s worth more than nine pars and a half page of pics. Nigella/Hengist Pod: I agree the News editorial team hold their own given resource and pagination; I think I said as much. Bucharest Man: Yes, full colour was an early win for the Observer… I’m sure that helped them pull off winning Property. And Shakespeare: I’ve no need to re-write history mate… just linking to facts for context. You’re entitled to your views on those facts. For the record, though, I did nothing to help the News; I edited the Mail.

    Anon (23/06/2010 16:55:20)
    If it meant so much to you, as a resident of Sutton Coldfield, you could have helped it though. Don’t criticise when you just stood by.

    Chopper (23/06/2010 16:58:47)
    What a shock….my comment has vanished!
    Perhaps the truth about how NNG treated their staff was too honest!

    Steve Dyson (23/06/2010 16:59:15)
    Different paper/editor/managing editor, anon. Fact of life. was always happy to advise, but Tony Lennox (managing editor most the time) and Ross Crawford (recent and current editor) are more experienced than me. What they couldn’t help was recession/cuts/strategy.

    Anon (23/06/2010 17:04:49)
    And who help devise that strategy? Will you be reviewing the Birmingham Mail, which feels much newsier these days?

    Martin Warrilow (pasted from Facebook) (23/06/2010 17:05:07)
    Ah, happy memories of my two years (1990-92) working there [Observer]as sports editor under a ‘redoubtable’ editor called June Warner. There was a well-populated office in Birmingham Road which I think housed nine editorial staff. I think it’s now a furniture shop.



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