Thick grey hair, ruddy face, quarter-inch thick spectacles, a six-foot, 16-stone stature, and a voice from the Reform Club; they just don’t make heroes like they used to.
But appearances aside – and I can talk – my top hero of 2013 was Robin Burgess, the seasoned and kindly owner of the independent CN Group, publisher of the Cumberland News, the North-West Evening Mail and various other titles.
Executives from the regional newspaper world appeared to be heading sheep-like towards the digital cliff edge at the Society of Editors’ regional conference in April, but Burgess had them all gawping when he declared: “The reader must pay.”
He added: “For some time, I have thought that we can’t continue giving our content away … A subscriber is a subscriber, and if you want our service, by whatever delivery method, or through all of them, you will pay.”
Already, you can taste my heroes of 2013 are going to be alternative and, so as not to disappoint you, my second is that wonderful West Midland scribe Mike Lockley.
Lockley, who edited the weekly Chase Post before it closed, is now the colourful, enjoyable and multi award-winning columnist for the Birmingham Mail, and was slammed for perceived homophobia after writing a controversial piece about Gay Pride.
All he’d done was tease sensitive, PC-types with phrases such as “Shut that door”, “Oooh, missus” and “Widow Twankey”, in a memorable column headlined ‘I didn’t mince my words at festival!’
I read his words on the day they appeared and laughed my pink socks off along with 99pc of the Mail’s readership, but was confused and worried when some called for his head for alleged bigotry.
I needn’t have been concerned, as Lockley bounced back with a clever riposte to one complainant: “We no longer use typewriters. Even if we did, what he suggests would be physically impossible.” Brilliant.
What I loved about Stokoe was his calm silence as the newspaper world raged about his departure; and then his revenge served cold as he began writing for the monthly Whitby Mag, despite his ex-employers trying to stop him.
I’ve just got hold of a copy of the Whitby Mag, by the way, and in its early days it’s very much an A5 ad rag, but Stokoe’s new ‘centre spread’ contributions are a treasure island of news and prose that provide the seaside town with a real local flavour.
There were, of course, many other deserving regional heroes of a more traditional kind in 2013, including:
- Stephen Shakeshaft, the former Liverpool Echo picture editor, who reminded us all how important great regional photographers can be with his exhibition of Ken Dodd images;
- Kit Mallin, a photographer who retired from the Northants Telegraph after 49 years service, working under 14 editors, and who classically said he would not miss taking photographs as it was not a particular hobby of his, but would miss the “power naps”;
- Martin McNeill, soon to retire from the Basildon-based Daily Echo and the Colchester Daily Gazette after 40 years in the industry, 23 of them as a regional daily editor;
- Mitch Irving, who retired from the Hinckley Times after writing more than 200,000 stories in 44 years service – with only two days off sick;
- Sir Ray Tindle, the newspaper boss who rejected the idea of retirement at the age of 87 after 65 years in the industry, proudly pointing out that his company had launched 21 new titles since the latest recession began; and
- Les Reid, the Coventry Telegraph’s political reporter, who bounced back from threatened redundancy by arguing for and keeping his job – and then winning a hat-trick of awards. Unsackable!
Whatever the reasons, and whoever was to blame, Mark concentrated on the important things: firstly, that any staff involved are all to be offered jobs on the Liverpool Echo; and secondly, as he wrote in his closing message to readers, that this extra resource will help the Echo “continue to fight for your interests and to uncover the important truths that officialdom would be happier to keep under wraps”.
Well said, Mark, and best wishes to you and all your staff for 2014. And a merry Christmas to all HoldtheFrontPage readers.