After a miserable week of angst at the latest regional cost-cutting, it was inspiring to pick up an independent series of local weeklies published by Gateway Newspapers in Essex.
‘TOO WET TO BURY DEAD’ announced the front page of the East London Enquirer on Thursday 24 January, showing how having the insight to put planning applications into context can make a great tale.
The wettest year on record had stopped burials in Romford, Essex, the splash revealed, as plans were submitted for a £1.7 million extension at another local crematorium to provide thousands of new graves.
This was the sort of tale that gets tongues wagging, with morbid information that readers could easily picture: “New graves dug would fill with water, and digging to the required level for burials would lead to the grave collapsing.”
The sister Essex Enquirer edition had a similarly crisp headline on the same day, with ‘BRUTAL AND CHILLING EXECUTION’ announcing an alleged house party murder hearing at Chelmsford Crown Court.
“This defendant fuelled by alcohol, cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine using his fists and his feet murdered a 39-year-old,” were the poignant opening remarks from the prosecutor.
The Thurrock Enquirer, the third and newest edition in this gutsy series, had too many front page adverts to fully display its splash of the same week, although it did manage to cleverly squeeze ‘A WIN: BUT WAR WILL GO ON!’ into five centralised decks.
This space also carried a write-off turning to a page eight and nine spread on the long-running local planning battle by residents against heavily-laden lorries rumbling past their homes in Stanford-le-Hope.
Only a few of the papers’ 15 news pages were shared across all three editions, and these seemed to carry stories strong enough for the wider readership.
Examples included ‘Woman injured as six raiders burst into home’ describing a Purfleet robbery on page two, ‘Despicable theft from elderly lady’ reporting a crime in Aveley on page 13 (page five in Thurrock), and ‘Inspectors go in as chiefs face grilling’ on the troubles of Basildon Hospital on page 15.
Many news pages changed in each edition, focusing on neighbourhood issues to create localised reads.
Eye-catching examples in East London included ‘MP launches campaign to stop police station closure’ on page three, ‘Nine year old hurt in hit and run’ on page six and ‘Newsagent fined £400 for underage alcopops’ on page seven.
Apart from its grisly splash, the Essex edition had weaker leads of its own, although it shared stronger ones with East London that were relevant to both, including ‘Councillor slammed as he quits hostel review’ on page 14, reporting on a local politician condemned as “immature and foolish”.
But it was Thurrock that had the most stories exclusive to its own edition, including ‘Call goes out for new hands on pumps’ about the need for more retained firefighters in Corringham on page three.
And it was Thurrock that displayed a real skill in digging out planning stories, with ‘Trailer park bid slammed’ on page six and ‘Garden build rejected’ on page 10, as well as its splash and spread on the noisy lorry route.
Overall, there were more than 170 separate stories on 33 news pages across all three editions, another 30-odd tales on 10 shared features pages and a dozen or so reports on three shared sports pages.
This was an impressive count for a series of free newspapers, especially when the content for all editions seemed to have been created by hands-on editor Neil Speight and just two other journalists, along with a part-time photographer.
Neil deploys the ‘old hack’ skills honed during 30-plus years of regional journalism, including previous stints as editor of the Holderness Gazette, Wakefield Express Series, Scarborough Evening News, Suffolk Free Press and Thurrock Gazette.
And so it was hardly surprising to read last month that the 54-year-old has just been nominated for Print Journalist of the Year in the EDF Energy’s East of England press awards.
Watch out if he wins… this is the strap under the Essex Enquirer’s masthead reflecting the paper’s success in last year’s EDF awards: “Officially Essex’s best FREE newspaper”.