19 April 2014

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Dyson at Large: Traditional paper still serving time-warped town

Everything about my trip to Colchester took me back in time.

The hotel where I stayed (The George on the High Street) was one of those great but ancient coaching inns with sloped ceilings, no lifts, creaking floors and erratic hot water supplies.

The pubs I found (The Hole In The Wall and The Hospital Arms) were worn but warm places where people immediately engaged you in real conversation, unhindered by tinned music or raucous crowds.

The beer was well kept (I supped Tribute Cornish Pale Ale and Adnams Southwold Bitter) and perfect for building up an appetite for a freshly cooked supper at a time-proven, flock-wallpapered venue tipped by numerous punters (chicken Ceylon at Curry-India, established 1962).

The whole of Colchester town centre – don’t worry, I’m getting to my point now – seemed stuck in the mid-1980s with its shops including at least six (maybe more, but I counted six) newsagents.

I don’t mean places that sold a few newspapers, as there were a dozen or more Spars and Tesco Express-type stores scattered around as well; I mean old shops that, in the main, sold newspapers and magazines as their primary products, along with perhaps a rack of sweets, tobacco and birthday cards.

Claydons Newsagents (‘Serving Colchester for over 50 years’), N C News, Crouch Street News, Globe News, Sweet News, RJ Kay’s Newsagents – every street I turned seemed to offer me somewhere else to buy my Colchester Daily Gazette.

And so it was no surprise to find that this newspaper itself appeared set against too much change, with old-fashioned lay-out, supplements with archaic titles and good, tight news story intros.

Just look at the lay-out of the front page on Monday 28 October – not even a sniff of a modern design.

The Gazette splashed on a solid local schools story, and one that started with the kind of tight, 15-word intro that any self-respecting journalist would love: “Colchester’s secondary school crisis will be solved by creating 2,250 places, it has been revealed.”

Other news reports with spot-on headlines and well-penned intros included:

  • ‘Forgotten Somme heroes like Frank finally honoured’, a local war history story leading page three, with an 18-word intro;
  • ‘Relic raider ran off with our church treasure’ leading page five, a crime tale with a 16-word intro;
  • ‘Jay’s step-brother: My knifeman scare’ leading page eight, a murder-related court report with a 21-word intro; and
  • ‘Don’t turn Jumbo into office block’ leading page 17, a story about the town’s famous water tower with an 18-word intro.

Monday’s pull-out section was called ‘New Woman’ – a title and design that again seemed very 1980s.

But having stayed in Colchester for half a week, I reckon this traditional approach suited much of the Gazette’s audience.

And it didn’t detract from the quality of features: Esther Rantzen had joined a fight to keep a local OAP activity centre open, while other New Woman content included:

  • ‘When my trousers split on the dancefloor, I vowed to lose weight!’ on page 27, reporting on a local’s Slimming World diet success;
  • ‘I was told I was infertile at 15… I was devastated’ on page 28, telling how a woman ended up defying doctors’ predictions; and
  • ‘Sock it to them with a big bun’ on page 29, a ‘how to…’ hairstyle feature with a step-by-step guide in pictures.

In total, there were 175-plus stories on 42 news, features and sports pages in a 48-page book – not a bad story count, despite a rather steep 65p cover price.

I wonder how much this cost has hit sales at the Newsquest-owned Daily Gazette, its last ABC for the first six months of 2013 recording a -15.5pc drop to an average of 12,889 copies a day. 

Longstanding editor Martin McNeill retires at the start of next year, and his replacement will face the age-old dilemma: modernise and relaunch to attract new readers and slow the decline, or move carefully so as not to offend the hard core of traditional readers the paper still has.

He or she will decide well, I’m sure, but I’d advise a gradual approach – this is an old town, not a cosmopolitan city – with developments that don’t lose the decent content, capable writing and high editorial ratio that McNeill has instilled.

9 Comments

  1. Pat, Surrey

    ‘Just look at the lay-out of the front page on Monday 28 October – not even a sniff of a modern design’
    Maybe I’m older than you, Steve – but that sans serif font on the front looks suspiciously modern to me

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  2. Martin McNeill, Essex

    Of course the Colchester Daily Gazette’s increase in cover price from 43p to 65p had an impact.
    It was good for the bottom line but we knew there would be a sales dip. Currently, however, sales are running at about 6% down year on year, which compares well with many other dailies.
    I don’t share Steve’s view that Colchester is stuck in a time warp, but I’m glad he recognises the paper upholds traditional journalistic values. We’ve got a great editorial team who take huge pride in their work.

    Martin McNeill
    Editorial Director, Newsquest Essex

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  3. Steerpike

    Modernise how, exactly? That front’s better than a lot of the papers I’ve worked for, where periodic redesigns were seen as a substitute for investment by a succession of purblind new brooms seeking to impress by fixing something that wasn’t broken. Spend what you would have wasted on a design consultancy on hiring a new reporter or two, is my two penn’orth.

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  4. streatham2

    ‘I was told I was infertile at 15… I was devastated’ on page 28, telling how a woman ended up defying doctors’ predictions; and

    ‘Sock it to them with a big bun’ on page 29,

    As these were on facing pages, I wonder if the link was intended

    Report this comment

  5. s

    I couldn’t get past the “it’ll” in the front page subhead.

    Report this comment

  6. Subber

    If Dyson wants to see an example of the timewarp paper at work he should take a look at the website right now…live press conference on missing girl…way ahead of anyone else….brilliant stuff

    Report this comment

  7. Worried about the future

    Dear Martin,

    Well done, and I wish you a happy retirement!

    Before you go, could you have a word with the boss of johnston press? Because he has ‘fired’ ( voluntary redundancy ) my partner – apparently newspapers no longer need photographers.
    Maybe you could share your wisdom on the more traditional approach and remind JP that embracing the new is great, but not always at the cost of the old.

    Thank you

    Report this comment

  8. Jimmy, clacton on sea

    Its a funny world we live in. I no longer buy a national newspaper because of the amount of rubbish they print. I have my Gazette delivered and look forward to it daily. Old fashioned, that’s how I like it, down to earth with interesting local stories.
    Well done Gazette team keep up the good work
    Merry Christmas.

    Report this comment

  9. Captain Nemo

    I’d say not a sniff of logical, well-thought-out design at all. A splash that wraps around a completely unrelated picture caption, stories that run nearly up to the rule that separates the advert from the editorial and a disproportionately small strap. I’m not sure if Steve is applauding this or deriding it. From a design perspective I find the whole thing offensive. Is there anyone with any typographical awareness left in this godforsaken industry?

    Report this comment



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