Each week HTFP asks a leading regional press figure five set questions about their career – including how it started, their best story or headline, and which other journalists and publications they most admire.
What was your first job in journalism?
Trainee Reporter at the Hemel Hempstead Gazette, which was then a very paternalistic independent company called Bucks and Herts Newspapers, owned by the de Fraine family. The editor was a dear old veteran newsman called John Keen. I was without a job for a few weeks after leaving the NCTJ course at Harlow College and was going up and down the country for interviews. I think John took a shine to me because I liked my sport and could talk to him about football and cricket.
Who or what inspired you to go into journalism?
It just seemed natural. It had never considered anything else. It was what I wanted ever since I started to consider what to do after school. My teachers told me I had a talent with words and a good imagination (handy for a journalist!).
What would you rate as your best story, headline or picture?
There’s so many – how do you pick out just one? Hull City getting promoted to the Premier League in 2008 for the first time in their 104-year history was very special. I was also very proud of our coverage of the devastating floods in 2007.
But, for a combination of story, headline and picture, I would have to go for the culmination of the search for missing 22-year-old JobCentre clerk Joanne Nelson. She went missing on Valentine’s Day and it soon became clear that she had been murdered. Thousands of people joined searches as we covered the story across several pages, day after day.
Finally, Joanne’s body was found on the evening of the 39th-day of the search. We began putting together a special edition and waited for pictures from the scene. I was working with Mel Cook, then Deputy Editor, now Editor of the Scunthorpe Telegraph, and Alex Leys junior, then Design Editor, and now part of Alan Geere’s team at the Essex Chronicle. The pictures came in and, initially, our hearts sunk when we saw just grainy pictures of a farm gate leading to the woods where the body was found.
Despite this, we wanted the picture to tell the story, so we decided not to have any copy on the front, but the headline had to be spot on. Eventually I suggested The End, alongside a head and shoulders picture of Joanne. The two words reflected both the conclusion of a police investigation unprecedented locally in its scale and the ending of weeks of terrible uncertainty and anguish for Joanne’s family.
It was very simple, but brilliantly effective and sensitive to the feelings of Joanne’s family and friends. The page was named Front Page of the Year in the 2005 Regional Press Awards. It was especially significant because it was the first time we had won a team award at the RPAs and it began a run of successes in those awards over recent years.
Who would you rate as the best journalist you have worked either with or for?
The most influential journalist in any newsroom is the editor. They provide the leadership and set the standards, tone and values of the newspaper. Therefore, the best journalist has to be the best editor I have worked for and that is, without a shadow of a doubt, Geoff Elliott.
I worked for Geoff at the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1986-90 during a golden period for the paper. Geoff went on to be editor of The News in Portsmouth and then a lecturer in journalism.
He was a figure of enormous authority who inspired huge respect and not a little fear, certainly among the younger members of the editorial team. We used to call him “the old man” – though certainly not to his face – even though he was probably only around 40, because he seemed in stature to be set apart from the rest of us.
Geoff oversaw a brilliantly vibrant newspaper. There was a superb editorial team and we knew we were part of something special.
Among the other very best operators I have worked for are Alan Kirby, then News Editor and later Editor of the CET, who was the most brilliant newsman; Mike Glover, then Editor of the Telegraph & Argus, Bradford, and founding Editor of Yorkshire on Sunday; and Neil Benson, then Deputy Editor of the T&A, now Editorial Director, Trinity Mirror Regionals.
Apart from your own title, which regional or national newspaper do you most admire and why?
I have too many friends among regional newspaper editors to pick out any single title. Also, it is often a matter of a moment in time, which doesn’t necessarily last. As an editor, one of the most difficult things is to keep the paper developing and improving. You need a very special combination of the right leadership, people, culture and conditions to achieve that.
What I will say is that there are still many excellent daily and weekly local newspapers, despite all the challenges we face in these most difficult times for the industry.
In terms of nationals, I enjoy The Times, for its authority and its creativity in developing and presenting content, and The Sunday Times for its unrivalled analysis and commentary.