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Dyson at Large: My magnificent seven regional heroes of 2016

GilsonEditors come, editors go. And if you surf through HoldtheFrontPage you’ll quickly find scores of appointments, sackings and ‘mutually agreed’ departures throughout 2016.

Some come with statements by editors expressing it’s the “right time to move on”, and others carry spin from publishers that so-and-so has “decided to leave to pursue other interests”.

But of all the exits in the last 12 months, it’s one of the most recent that has prompted me to name Mike Gilson in my list of regional heroes for 2016.

Mike’s career as editor had seen him in the chair at the Peterborough Telegraph, The News (Portsmouth), The Scotsman and the Belfast Telegraph, before joining The Argus (Brighton) at the beginning of 2015.

Earlier this month, it was reported that Mike had ‘left’ The Argus, with many feeling it might have been his incompatibility with the style of publisher Newsquest that caused the split.

Mike himself has stayed silent on his exodus, but whatever the reasons it was his thoughts on what regional journalism should be that make him stand out for me.

Writing in The Argus earlier this year, Gilson said: “It is not healthy for any journalist to have too cosy a relationship with the leaders in our community, its institutions, the movers and shakers if you like.

“Respectful yes. Give credit of course. But simply become a vehicle for unchallenged views as some media outlets seem to be today?

“Journalists are outsiders. The safeguards that govern democracy demands it be thus. Show me an editor who wines and dines regularly with the powerful, or with whom they are on constant speed dial and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t really understand the job.”

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Also on my list of regional heroes for 2016 is Gareth Davies, until recently the multiple award-winning chief reporter at the Croydon Advertiser.

Gareth took redundancy from the Advertiser in June, and probably risked his pay-off by castigating publisher Trinity Mirror for reducing his paper to “listicles…scraped from the website” that had “destroyed” it.

In a series of tweets, he claimed: “Reporters no longer have any input or involvement in the paper product, including no chance to proofread. A paper with a proud 147-year history reduced to being a thrown together collection of clickbait written for the web.”

Gareth, who collected his fourth Weekly Reporter of the Year award at this year’s Regional Press Awards, went on to say: “The few reporters who are left are not allowed to meet contacts unless there is a guarantee of a story.

“What do readers get in return? A website focused on live blogging everything … It breaks my heart. I couldn’t stick around to watch the paper be destroyed and I would not help them do it.”

While Trinity Mirror bosses rushed to rebut Gareth’s claims, he simply told it like he thought, didn’t let senior management stop him, and made the entire industry stop, think and consider whether its cuts were going too far, too quickly.

…..

Richard Coulter makes my list of heroes after launching three new monthly hyperlocal titles and declaring that print “remains profitable” despite the rest of the industry’s “mad rush to work out the digital conundrum”.

Richard, a former Bristol Post assistant editor, launched the filtonvoice in 2011 and now runs 13 separate editions across various Bristol suburbs with a total circulation of 120,000 copies.

He said: “Journalists need to get real about digital and if there is no revenue, then it is not a realistic business proposition. The evidence is there that, if done in a way which suits the readers, print is undoubtedly sustainable.”

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While publishers and editors make the big sector stories, it’s hard work and quality on the little local stories that make regional newspapers shine.

Derbyshire Times reporter Jon Cooper makes my list of heroes for the way he stood up to local police who wanted to keep a Polish rapist’s identity secret.

This was impressive on two counts: first, because such a stance in court always takes some nerve; and second, because Cooper’s argument had to sensitively deal with Derbyshire Constabulary’s claim that naming Marcin Lucasz Jaworski would increase racial tensions in the town of Shirebrook.

Cooper successfully argued that naming Jaworski was both in the public interest and in the interests of public safety, and that these outweighed any counter concerns of potential unrest.

As the judge said, open justice is “a fundamental principle” of the law, and “the media plays a vital role in the upholding of that principle on behalf of the public”.

.….

Reporter Rom Preston-Ellis is another of my heroes for his story about how 89-year-old Joe Bartley was inundated with job offers after placing an advert in the Torquay Herald Express urging potential employers to save him from “dying of boredom”.

I liked the old-fashioned way Rom followed up the advert, and then the modern way he conducted a video interview with Mr Bartley about his reasons for placing it.

This not only made the splash for the Herald Express but quickly became national headlines, showing how well an off-beat human interest story can work across print, web and broadcast media.

…..

With so many cut-backs across the industry, an editor who stood up to be counted has also made my list of regional heroes.

Trinity Mirror announced in May that is was axing three out of five staff on the Dudley-based Black Country Bugle, and planned on moving the title 30-odd miles away to Tamworth.

John Butterworth, the Bugle’s editor since 2013 and a journalist for 44 years, was among those whose jobs were under threat, but instead of going quietly he publicly challenged the company and came up with alternative plans.

John accepted that his job was over, but he successfully argued that the Bugle should stay at smaller offices in Dudley and that it needed to keep three journalists – one less than Trinity Mirror had initially proposed.

John said: “I was fighting for my own future and I’ve failed in that sense, but I’m proud to see any future for my staff and for my paper. I’ve had a brilliant 44 years in journalism and shall go down feeling I’ve left the Bugle in good shape.”

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My final regional hero for 2016 is Lord* Edward Iliffe, for heading his family company’s courageous return to regional publishing despite the industry’s perilous state.

The Iliffe family has been in regional newspapers ever since launching The Midland Daily Telegraph – now the Coventry Telegraph – in 1891, and at one stage they owned The Birmingham Post and Mail and latterly the Cambridge News along with a string of weeklies.

The company – perhaps unwisely – joined Local World in 2012, and when Trinity Mirror swallowed the group last year for £220m it backed out of a deal to sell the Cambridge News and nine other local papers back to Iliffe.

As a result, Iliffe reformed a media company and launched the Cambridge Independent as a rival in September, and then earlier this month bought 13 papers in East Anglia off Johnston Press for £17m.

Edward heralded the deal as a sign of his family’s “commitment to the sector” and his firm belief in “the future of local newspaper publishing across all platforms”.

He added: “The structural changes and challenges for the traditional newspaper industry are well documented. But we strongly believe there is a demand for quality journalism, useful information and entertaining content published across multiple formats to local communities.”

* Amendment, 2pm, 21 December: Many thanks to a Htfp reader for pointing out my error about Edward Iliffe. He is not, of course, Lord Iliffe; that title is currently his father’s, Baron Robert Iliffe, while Edward is the heir apparent.

9 comments

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  • December 21, 2016 at 9:37 am
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    “Mike himself has stayed silent on his exodus” … Er, I didn’t realise you could have a one-man exodus. Something of a contradiction in terms. He may have joined the exodus of editors … or is that too much akin to a choir of angels? An unlikely gathering in our trade.

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  • December 21, 2016 at 11:47 am
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    I’m pleased hyperlocal gets a mention … I think there’s a sniffiness in some quarters but I wonder that it could be the future.

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  • December 21, 2016 at 12:14 pm
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    A superb piece by Dyson, and full marks especially to heroes Gareth Davies and Lord Iliffe for their courageous stance. Strangely, I don’t see Ashley Highfield’s name in there. Obviously an oversight…

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  • December 21, 2016 at 5:14 pm
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    As for Mike Gilson’s departure. A calamity to lose such an experienced editor with the paper facing so many challenges, not least its dreadful sales figures that have been mentioned before on HTFP.

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  • December 21, 2016 at 10:34 pm
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    Good people, no doubt about that. But if Steve thinks these folk are the heroes of our business, he’s living in the past.

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  • December 22, 2016 at 12:45 pm
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    Dyson at Large follows no quota, ‘Clever username’. But do a little research and you’ll find women often appear in my blogs. And several were lauded in my ‘Heroes’ lists of 2012, 2014 and 2015. On merit. 😉

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  • December 22, 2016 at 1:37 pm
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    There are two categories of RP heroes of 2016 in my opinion;
    Those who have left the industry for whatever reason and are realising the grass is very green on the other side and making a real success of their new careers,many flourishing in the independent publishing sector and secondly,those who remain,usually to do the work of their ex colleagues,under intense pressure and in demoralised companies surrounded by the nodding donkeys who are clinging on in there hoping ( foolishly) the axe doesnt swing their way.

    A very merry christmas to the first group,a happy new year to the second,i think it will be an interesting one for you

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