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Dyson at Large: A real 'live' drama for newspapers

It started with perceived cuckoldry. Then vengeful murder; maiming; public mayhem; reams of letters littered with police hate and misogyny; and one of the biggest manhunts in recent years.

Raoul Moat was the major story of the week in Britain, and arguably the most dramatic of the year.

Every national newspaper poured resources into Northumbria to watch the chase, record locals’ reactions and await the capture of the body-building bouncer.

While most regional dailies wouldn’t have sent their own reporters – apart from titles based in the North East – all of them piled PA feed after PA feed into their editions, day after day.

But when the grand finale came at 1.20am on Saturday, with initial confusion over what exactly happened not clarified until 2.20am, it was too late for the vast majority of national print editions, regional mornings and nearly all of what once were traditional evening papers.

Not so the Wolverhampton Express and Star.

‘MOAT SHOOTS HIMSELF DEAD IN LAST STAND’ screamed its front page lead on Saturday 10 July, a more striking than usual splash design that only left space for four other reports down the wing – the Star is renowned for an everyday minimum of nine page one stories.

Then a two-page spread on pages four and five with a detailed colour lead, a day-by-day time-frame, no fewer than eight other background reports and nine pictures. If ever there was a better argument for the title’s owners, the Graham family, to keep the Express and Star ‘live’, produced and printed on the day it’s sold, this was it.

I went to three newsagents that stocked the Express and Star on Saturday afternoon, and only the third had any copies left at 3pm.

Its billboard outside was just the right tease, reading ‘GUNMAN MOAT DEATH LATEST’.

And once inside, all the nationals and a competing regional title were piled high with headlines that tried but failed to convey the significance of unfolded events because they’d been put to bed before the climax.

The effect was an anticlimax, including:

‘CORNERED’ in the Daily Mail, an irrelevant description that ran out six hours before anyone woke up;

‘GOT HIM: cops surround gunman Moat’ in the The Sun, a better attempt but still impotent next to a live evening; and

‘GUNMAN ON THE RIVERBANK’ in the competing Birmingham Mail, now fully overnight.

Yes, this was a national story, but one of such magnitude that only five years ago it would have been the wipe-out, breaking splash in every evening title from Exeter to Carlisle.

One of those occasions where regional news desks went home knowing they’ve stolen a march on the nationals.

For whatever reason, the Express and Star has resisted the temptation of huge cost savings found by more than two-thirds of previously evening titles that have now gone overnight.

Principally, these efficiencies come down to not having to own and operate your own van fleets, as titles completed in the evening can be distributed overnight on WH Smith vans already carrying nationals at a sliver of the price.

So how can, and why do, the likes of the Express and Star remain live?

The ‘how’ comes down to independent owners who feel no need to makes cuts to keep profit margins in double figures.

Whereas Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press et al felt the FTSE-pinch when margins of nearly 30pc struggled to reach 15pc, the Grahams have always been happy with single figures.

And even when the recession demanded they too cut costs to remain profitable, there was never a hint of changing the live nature of their daily products.

Indeed, the word from editor Adrian Faber has always been that the Grahams are fiercely defensive of this unique selling point, determined readers should pick up papers that feel smack-up-to-date, with better coverage of big, breaking ‘live’ stories than any national.

It’s not just the splash. Staying ‘live’ means news and sports updates throughout a day: court cases, street corner dramas, politics, new signings, resignations, the latest race cards and share prices.

And whatever is felt about the importance of this ‘live’ content, no-one can argue with the Express and Star’s sales record.

At 120,344 in the latest latest ABCs for the second half of 2009, it’s the largest selling regional newspaper in Britain, though some critics might point out that even it suffered a -7.6pc fall in that period.

I do not just want to wave a flag for ‘live’ evening newspapers – if you want that see my old ‘Editor’s Chair’ blog here.

Instead, there are two things I want to draw out of today’s blog.

Firstly, when big stories are on such precipices, should overnight regionals be taking such gambles on headlines that risk being immaterial and therefore unattractive to customers by the morning?

Wouldn’t it be better to splash on something more local and off-diary, using the ‘live’ tale you have no timing control over as a second lead or perhaps an inside story, hugely boosting the internet for updates?

Secondly, what are journalists’ experiences of the live-overnight dilemma up and down the country?

Has it worked for your former ‘evening’ and, if so, how have you gone about it? Has anyone had adverse comments from readers? Has anyone asked or surveyed?

Meanwhile, though many will see it as anachronistic with its idiosyncratic approaches to life, it’s hats off this week to the Express and Star for a truly superb paper on July 10. Although as a former Birmingham Mail man it pains me to say, they did good.

PS: With live news dealt with, I plan to return to the Express and Star another week for a fuller analysis of its content and whether it truly reflects the area it serves. Until then, those interested can read more about it from regional veteran Peter Sands here.

Read Steve’s previous blog posts here

  • Steve Dyson worked in the regional press for 20 years, editing weekly, Sunday and daily newspapers in the North East and the Midlands from 2002 until the end of 2009. To contact him, email [email protected].

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    Old Mate (14/07/2010 09:27:16)
    There’s a good debate to be had here, but you’re bitterness towards your former employers is showing through again. Why did the Birmingham Mail go overnight when the Liverpool Echo has kept an on-day edition, and the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle (which surely would have been more suitable for review this week) is also on day? In Birmingham, as has been well documented, it was because the papers in Birmingham were losing millions of pounds. Why was that? The Mail’s circulation figure probably has a big part to play here, which tumbled after the £1million relaunch you led. So presumably you shoulder some of the blame for the subsequent decisions which were made. The Mail, if I remember, used to splash frequently on national stories, but that didn’t seem to stop the circulation decline either. I enjoy your blog a lot Steve, but if you want sensible debate, y
    ou need to stop painting your own version of the recent past.

    North Easterner (14/07/2010 09:28:51)
    Surely this was a great opportunity to critique the North-Eastern papers and how they handled the story that was on their doorstep? There was a raft of evenings, weeklies and dailies all covering this story, yet you choose to focus on a couple of papers in the Midlands that simply took their copy from PA.
    Where’s the coverage of the Northern Echo? The Journal? The Chronicle? The Sunderland Echo? Shields Gazette? You say you worked in the North-East, surely you have contacts who could have sent you back copies.
    Some of us look forward to reading this blog, but please, move out of the Midlands – or wherever you go on holiday – for once!

    Steve Earl (14/07/2010 09:35:10)
    As a former Midlands News Association employee, it’s a very well-run ship at the E&S and sister paper in Shropshire. The focus on current evening news is pretty admirable, and the tolerance of lower margins seems to be working given the comparisons with listed media groups, albeit with circulation still dipping and cost-cutting an ever-present reality.
    Best of all here though is that plac – very cheeky.

    Confused (14/07/2010 10:23:55)
    More to the point, why on earth are regional papers in Wolverhampton and Birmingham splashing on a story in north Northumberland ANYWAY? Journalistic self-indulgence instead of finding a worthy splash from within their circulation area

    Steve Dyson (14/07/2010 10:36:48)
    Point made well North Easterner… I feel a journey up and down to A1 (N) coming on…

    northernhack (14/07/2010 11:13:20)
    There’s nothing wrong with regional evenings splashing on a national or international story when it’s the best tale of the day. Particularly when you can beat the nationals with live material. Good on the E and S – a fine paper which still believes in news being fresh. Take note JP, Newsquest, Trinity etc

    Onlooker (14/07/2010 11:20:36)
    The trouble with splashing on national and international news is that most people already know all they need to know from TV, radio & the internet. What are regionals adding?

    Hacked off (14/07/2010 12:22:46)
    Readers of both papers will have just received PA material which was widely available on radio, TV and internet anyway. Live national news is just a regional journalistic indulgence these days.Bit worrying it was so hard to find a copy though, Steve, especially as they must have their own fleet of vans still. What’s the point of making the effort if you don’t have enough copies out?

    northernhack (14/07/2010 13:42:10)
    Fair comments on the national news debate. In the good old pre-internet days the E and S would have had a team there doing extra work, colour pieces etc to make sure their coverage was individual and the best. Ah, the memories!

    Steve Dyson (14/07/2010 14:31:32)
    Hacked off: I guess there’s nothing wrong with a sell-out! Esp. as this was in out-of-core areas (Sutton).

    alaninexile (14/07/2010 14:53:14)
    Perceived cuckoldry — a wonderful phrase I would suspect rarely used since the days when table legs were covered for the sake of modesty.

    Watchin (14/07/2010 14:59:37)
    Yes, it makes the whole Raoul Moat saga sound Shakepearian. Actually, thinking about it, and with Dyson’s great intro, it WAS Shakespearian!

    Jo Henshall (14/07/2010 16:03:38)
    Lots of assumptions here from respondents, with little to back them up. Hacked off: How do you know it was ‘simply PA material’? I doubt very much they’d have produced enough to fill three E and S pages. Which leads to a similar question to northernhack: how do you know the E and S didn’t have reporters working on original stories? I’m not saying they did, but if not they did well to find that volume of copy from somewhere. So it is wrong to make sweeping statements without knowing the full story. Or is that being old-fashioned?? As for it not being a regional story, the copper who was shot came from Stafford – right on the E and S doorstep.

    Hengist Pod (14/07/2010 17:10:01)
    ‘Perceived Cuckoldry’ would be a good name for a band I reckon. I agree this is about point scoring on keeping papers live but what a great example. Anyway, isn’t the whole point of newspapers (regional or national) to get people to buy them and let’s be honest on that day anyone buying a paper would be far more interested in one that carried reasonably up-to-date news on thie Raoul Moat saga

    Steve Dyson (14/07/2010 18:48:44)
    Thanks all for the posts today. Some good points and decent debate. Real opinion based on personal experience is too close to the bone for ‘Old Mate’ it seems, but he/she will get over it!

    Old Mate (15/07/2010 13:20:29)
    I think, if you’re going to use the Birmingham Mail as an example of an overnight fail, you have to consider why the Mail went overnight. I don’t think that is unreasonable. Not sure why you want to give your old staff a public beating. Could we see some reviews from outside the Midlands?

    Steve Dyson (15/07/2010 16:09:15)
    Let’s be clear, ‘Old Mate’, there is no way I would give my old staff ‘a beating’ as you put it. They’re a cracking team and come up with the goods every day DESPITE there being no ‘live’ news. That means HARDER work nurturing contacts for exclusives, FOIs, different lines on breaking tales that will hold and great human interest stories to captivate readers. But just because I edited the Mail should not prevent a review of the biggest newspaper in the UK – the neighbouring Express and Star – especially when so many blog watchers have suggested it. As for reviews outside the Midlands, where were you when I reviewd papers from York, Exeter, Paignton, London (several), Sunderland, Scotland, Leeds, the Lake District… shall I go on? Keep up ‘Old Mate’! But seriously, don’t be so paranoid… there’s no conspiracy here, just comment. Straight, yes, but transparent.

    Mailman (15/07/2010 16:49:35)
    In fairness to the big fella, he was outraged at Trinity Mirror, not hi staff, when arguing about overnight. Given that he went over that issue, I think he’s been pretty restrained here. And it wasn’t his first blog… It must be about his 20th. Though we don’t agree with all he has to say, there’s still plenty here at The Fort who’ve a lot of time for what Dyson stood for.