27 November 2014

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Dyson at Large: A dish fit for the gods

Methinks there are more than a few old-fashioned hacks who hanker after days when broadsheet newspapers owned by local families ruled the roost in regional towns.

And so, just for them, I meandered down to Shakespeare country to pick up a copy of the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, a title that in many ways is frozen in time.

Just look at the traditional layout, archaic masthead, detailed headlines and the sheer amount of copy on page one on 3 March 2011.

Stratford Herald

My own favourite element of this paper has always been the carefully-crafted introductions tapped out by the brilliantly-named Preston Witts, his style easily defying the modern-day rule of ‘no more than 25-words’ for an intro.

Try these 36 words from the royal splash on page one: “Excitement about the Queen’s visit to Stratford tomorrow (Friday) gathered pace this week as inquiries flooded in about where – and at what time – people would stand the best chance of getting a glimpse of the monarch.”

Or these 39 words from the page two lead: “Five members of the ruling Conservative group on Stratford District Council abstained in the vote on the budget at the full council meeting on Monday because of their concerns about the effects of a £1.8m cut in spending.”

Or these 43 words from the page three lead: “Residents who thought they’d finally seen the end of an ‘eyesore fence’ by the Shell garage in Evesham Road, Stratford, had a shock when they discovered at the end of last week that another fence had been put there – at half the height.”

Each example carries the no-holds-barred poise of a correspondent who knows his intro has the best chance of grabbing readers by giving the impression of telling the whole story – while in reality drawing them in with intrigue.

Herald readers are lucky to have such experience: Witts began in Stratford for The Birmingham Post in 1968 before heading to Parliament for Central Press and the BBC; he went on to present alongside Alastair Stewart on Southern Television in the 1970s, then entering PR; and now, in his mid-60s, he’s back in the town where he started.

His assured presence, I’m sure, helps other reporters to write with belief on topics that might be considered with disdain by some young hacks, but are allowed to shine with detail in the Herald.

An example is another story from page one on plans for a 22,000-panel ‘solar park’, reporter Rebekah Smith taking care to collect the most interesting objections.

“These things actually need quite major security fencing around them,” said Cllr Tony Copeland, “therefore it wouldn’t just be a few shiny things nestling in a field but spiky railings along the side of the road.”

Oh no, spiky railings! Other gems included a page three story highlighting leading actors – including Judi Dench – objecting to a house extension overlooking the River Avon; and on page four, councillors were reported to the police for “using the council’s official letterhead without consent”.

I was then wowed by the lay-out of the ‘Letters’ section on page six, at first glance a Lego-style tower but somehow still beautiful, filled with earnest yet readable contributions from the pillars of local society

Top of the letters pile was a call to arms over a ‘Dog Poo Alley'; then came an RAF veteran who served in Iraq decrying cuts to the armed services; and, amongst others, the leader of Stratford District Council sticking up for his £10,125 ‘allowance’ for a 50-hour week.

Turning to the village reports on page 11, I smiled at the Herald’s ‘Parish Pump’ title before scouring the four-point copy in search of a gem, this tiny report from Kineton village catching my eye:

“The long-running saga of the Old Library railings is over. At last these railings in the centre of the conservation area, which have been such an eyesore for so long, have finally been repaired and reinstated. All they need now is a coat of paint. However, there is a sad irony to this story, as the library has moved to the village hall and could close in July.”

In the back end, three pages of varied sport included a decent rugby section, with athletics, swimming, shooting, table tennis, darts, squash, snooker, hockey, netball, indoor bowls and scuba diving accompanying local cricket and football.

The main book had a total of 16 broadsheet pages, carrying 113 news and features stories and 44 sports reports; there were another 22 broadsheet pages making up the packed property section, and a 52-page ‘Focus’ glossy mag, largely containing colour ads with a few soft features.

Not bad value for a cover price of 50p, probably kept low by the presence of ad-hungry opposition: the Stratford Observer is a Bullivant Media free weekly that would give its right arm for the property.

Family-owned since it was first published in 1860, the Herald stands out as a paper that believes in its strength and history and is unwilling to change for the sake of modernity alone. Even its website looks and feels like a broadsheet.

It has not entirely escaped the recession, owners George Bowden & Son Ltd announcing a 30pc cut in editorial staffing last year.

But it is still the main media in town, selling 13,498 a week with some impressive penetration figures.

Long may it prosper and live up to the quote from the Bard it displays beneath its masthead: “I wish no other Herald, no other speaker of my living actions.”

14 Comments

  1. Confederate

    two planning-related stories on front page. Over-written intro. Doesn’t row my boat as far as nostalgia for boring broadsheets in concerned. (I did work for one and was constantly asked to over-write).

    But being independendly-owned. Now that is a result is these days of one-size fits all papers dictated by big companies like JP Newsquest et al. Long may this worthy paper thrive.

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  2. Nobby Lugosi

    How journalists feel about doing this style of local journalism is interesting, but neither here nor there.

    If we have the slightest concern for readers, then it’s time to stop acting as though the local press is just a miniature version of national tabloids, stop trying to win awards judged by other journalists, and start giving readers of local papers what they want and need — the information to live their lives by, to take part in local life, and lots and lots of names and faces, in coverage that reflects their lives.

    Yes, that includes challenging authority, exposing abuse, but also includes planning stories, winners of the WI jam contest, speeding drivers fined in mags’ court etc etc. If all that is beneath most journalists, they should take a long, hard look at themselves and the myths they live by.

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  3. Johnson

    This article is all a bit “grovelling up their bottoms”….

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  4. Myriad

    Are any other subs aghast at the letters page layout?

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  5. Myriad

    Long intros like the ones mentioned send the reader to sleep – this paper seems to be stuck in time!

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  6. Mr Osato

    There’s a lot to be said for a paper looking busy and a bit old-fashioned.

    Like, y’know, they were in the days when they sold in far greater numbers than they do now.

    Unfortunately, the centre-justified headlines are making me feel distinctly queasy …

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  7. Watchin'

    I want to love it. Does it make money? Is it holding its circ?

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  8. Davy Gravy

    I think Nobby has got it bang on. Too many journalists try to make humdrum local news seem as if it is something more – look at the comments on the Dorking shoplifter story elsewhere on HTFP for example – and readers are not fooled. Planning in Stratford may be dull if you don’t live there, but local papers are supposed to be for local people, and I imagine you’re very concerned about housing estates, or new, spiky fences, if they are proposed down the end of your street.

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  9. Hilary

    Look at those headlines! Perfectly crafted shapes for centred! The wordiness doesn’t matter that much as long as it’s well written and on a subject that – the the minds of the readers – deserves the treatment. There is a danger that they go OTT on items that should be fillers, though, and picture use could be more exciting. As to the letters page…severe case of they all came in the same length, I fear. I’d have tried to have a long single column down the right-hand side, meself, but it’s really quite tidy. Long may it survive!

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  10. Mike Reynolds

    Not knowing the patch, Steve Dyson misses the point that Preston Witts’ verbosity is simply helping to plug the huge gaps in the Herald’s coverage of other areas it is meant to be serving – Shipston, Warwick, Wellesbourne and all the surrounding villages. There was a time when they were very well represented in the paper, but now there is next to nothing. The Herald is a shadow of its former self and has become very very lazy.

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  11. SteveDyson

    Thanks for all input. Heading north next week, Bacup area. Any preferences for the next review? (I will get round to the Salop and S Yorks papers I’ve promised to emailers when I’m in those areas.)

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  12. J T McTurk

    I like old-fashioned broadsheets with an emphasis on parish pump news for several reasons.

    1: They have a certain gravitas and trustworthiness that garish tabloids lack.

    2: They retain individuality, whereas most conglomerate-owned compacts now look the same.

    3: They tend to carry news that’s relevant to their readership, with plenty of names and pics of local people and a real feel for local issues.

    4: They are not Fleet Street wannabes, apeing the redtops with flash intros and daft punny headlines.

    5: They are usually staffed by journalists who really care about their communities and are resistant to flammed-up nonsense a la the Daily Star.

    6: They generally hold their circulations better than trendier rivals, largely because of the points made above.

    The best example of all, I suppose, is the Cornish and Devon Post at Launceston, which still – certainly the last time I looked – carries ads all over its front page, just like most weekly papers did in 1898.

    For those among you who get sniffy over parochial stories, consider how much more important a planning inquiry often is alongside ‘Peaches Geldof gets pissed’ or ‘Posh looks glum – again!’ Long live the old-fashioned broadsheets with their busy front pages, high story counts, unshakeable integrity and solid commitment to community causes.

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  13. J T McTurk

    If you will allow me to chip in again, your reference to the ‘brilliantly named’ Preston Witts reminds me of a trade magazine article many years ago that spotlighted Britain’s most memorable bylines.

    Preston’s name would most certainly have warranted inclusion, but would it have taken top spot, I wonder, alongside Delwyn Swingewood, Hector McSporran, Kevin Blackadder, Nita Nutt, Selwyn Proffitt and a sports writer called Phil Tank (I always felt he should have been on the motoring beat).

    In the West Country, there was once a young journalist called Petroc Trelawney and the unfortunately monikered Albert Knob, an agricultural correspondent if my recollections are correct. Any advance on poor old Knobby?

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  14. Ouch!

    “Town council want its £150k grant back”…how did that get through on the front page?

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