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Dyson at Large – Attention to detail wins the day

It was refreshing to find a newspaper so proud of itself and yet also humble to the crucial role played by its readers.

The Essex Chronicle last month won Newspaper of the Year in the EDF Energy East of England Media Awards and the 28 January edition I got my hands on made no excuse of shouting about what was a hat-trick of such victories.

‘Weekly Newspaper of the Year 2008, 2009 & 2010′ was the strapline subtly placed beneath its masthead on page one, nestled next to the date, and I’m sure will remain there for 12 months to remind readers and media competitors that this product knows its marbles.

‘Newspaper of the Year for third time in a row’ was then the down-page second lead on page seven, together with a picture of the jubilant team at the ceremony.

But just one paragraph into the story was where the euphoria ended, and the Northcliffe newspaper made a point of reaching out to its readers.

“We are determined to keep improving,” read the second paragraph, later amplifying this with: “Our celebrations did not last long and we are already working on ways to improve your Chronicle.

“We want to know what you think: what issues are we not giving enough coverage to? What would you like to see more of on our pages?

“You are our eyes and ears, and we are constantly striving to offer a strong, diverse newspaper that represents you.”

As if to show they mean what they say, there were 22 readers involved in two vox pops on pages two and four, with another 20 views expressed on two-and-a-half pages of letters on pages 16, 17 and 18.

Those who know Essex Chronicle editor Alan Geere, left, would expect nothing less, of course.

As enthusiastic and energetic as Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout, Geere spoke at several training courses I attended in the late 1990s and was nearly vicious on how important readers were to newspapers’ futures.

Anyone know ‘The Daily Rant’ column in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle? That appeared as a direct result of a Geere talk back in 2000, picked up by then Newcastle editor Alison Hastings.

My favourite story of Geere was when he went as a consultant to a struggling US newsroom to help it modernise and become more open – to each other as well as readers.

Geere told how he was stunned by the number of editorial executives shut up in their offices all day long, and one of his primary proposals was for them to work in the open.

This was ignored, so when staff arrived the next day they found Geere had been busy overnight with his screwdriver, removing each office door from its hinges!

Another pet hate of Geere’s was meetings out of editorial: “I can’t come,” he used to advise us to say, “I don’t do meetings, I run newspapers.”

Anyway, you get the picture, and it was warming to see Geere’s own paper enacting so much of what I’d heard a decade ago.

Last week’s splash was a hard, Freedom of Information revelation about Essex Police keeping almost 28,000 innocent people’s DNA records on file.

A good read it was too, but before you got too serious there was an uplifting ‘Smile, we’re the happiest place of all’ story on page three, on a survey that found Chelmsford to be the happiest place to live in the UK.

“Light and shade, light and shade,” was another of Geer’s simple but important training mantras….

Geere’s fingerprints were also spotted in the concentrated detail on every editorial page.

Indeed, page one was almost TOO detailed for my liking, the splash package including THREE panels and a cross-reference WOB as well as the full story and three images.

But that’s what Chronicle readers evidently get for their 70p a week with Geere in the chair.

Page two was another good example: alongside the lead ‘Free treatments at NHS dentists’ was a full list of the 20 Essex practices in the scheme, each getting a bullet point containing name, address and phone number.

Beneath this was ‘The Chronicle Says’ regular page two leaders, and here again was a point of detail I’ve rarely seen.

‘Opinions divided on DNA issue’ was the first header, with a bullet point underneath reading: ‘Comment on Police admit 28,000 innocent people’s DNA on record from page 1′ to ensure that readers knew exactly where they were.

The same was provided for the second ‘Rallying to help nation in need’ header, the underline guiding readers that it was a ‘Comment on I can save my family if they come to the UK from pages 8 & 9.’

There should be more of this in newspapers, leaving readers in no doubt over what is where and why, rather than isolated comments that often leave them to guess what’s been said about what.

This detail was throughout:

  • Page three – the ‘Smile, we’re the happiest…’ story was accompanied by a top ten ‘happy’ towns panel and a bottom ten ‘unhappy’ towns panel, as well as a carefully-crafted vox pop picturing 13 smiling Chelmsford shoppers.

  • Page four – the DNA splash turned to not only a new lead but also a detailed ‘For’ and ‘Against’ debate involving a detective chief inspector and a university criminologist, another vox pop AND a fact file.

  • Page eight and nine – a touching Haiti feature used most of the usual headline space to print a line of 14 detailed facts about the country and disaster.

  • Page 12 and 13 – a spread on the opening of a £5m museum was crunched by half-page adverts on both pages, but still managed to use NINE pictures, with 50+ local faces clearly recognisable, (‘People make pictures sell papers,’ Geere, c. 2000).

    I could go on, but am running out of space and don’t want to lose your attention. Suffice it to say that my advice to any newspaper needing a revamp or input of ideas should send their executive editorial team down to the Essex Chronicle for a day to watch a demanding Geere putting his pages together.

    Just two more points for this main section from page 26, one positive, one negative.

    Positive: everyone’s doing court lists these days, and I believe they are a must-read for most readers. But what a great idea to organise them like this with offence headings.

    Negative: I loved the ‘Peeping Tom fined for spying in cubicle’ story, with snatch picture of the offender. But such a good, readable and ‘talk of the pub’ story buried this far in? It deserved at least the second lead on page one.

    Other points to highlight:

  • There were 122 stories and 74 pictures used on 25 news pages (the page seven awards report told how story counts had increased by 40pc in the last year).

  • There were 53 stories and 19 pictures on seven sports pages (these stories included renosed division shorts within the same columns).

  • A 32-page ‘FindaProperty’ and 28-page ‘go!’ entertainment section gave a total of 144-pages.

  • The paper’s average weekly circulation in the period January to June 2009 was 30,328, 98.6pc of which was paid-for.

  • As well as editing the Chronicle, Geere is also editor-in-chief of the Essex Chronicle Media Group and editorial director of Northcliffe Medi
    a South East… I hope he’s still managing to avoid too many ‘upstairs’ meetings!

  • 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].

    Steve’s blog is available via an RSS feed. Click here to subscribe.


    BarryJesus (03/02/2010 13:52:52)
    I enjoyed that. Good piece Mr Dyson.
    Nice to see a real journalist (Geere) still going strong and resisting too much numptyish interference from The Overlords.

    watchingclosely (03/02/2010 15:11:51)
    good to see that barryJ not implying that dyson is ‘real’.

    Fort sniper (03/02/2010 15:50:50)
    In fairness to the old ed, he seems ‘real’ enough… was that him today breaking the Sion Simon resignation news in a BBC radio interview??

    Essex girl (05/02/2010 09:56:16)
    Attention to detail, right? Front page error visible from this distance – trusted tycoon looses (sic) battle with cancer…

    Steve Dyson (05/02/2010 11:19:37)
    Ooo – nice spot, ‘Essex Girl’, and you’re right… one Mr Geere (and this reviewer) should easily have seen. Methinks a proofreading job offer should be yours from Mr G!

    davy gravy (05/02/2010 13:56:25)
    Nice to see Alan returning to his old stamping ground – his first Editorship a bit deeper into East Anglia at the Diss Express in 1984! God, I feel old…..

    hoofer doofer (05/02/2010 14:20:09)
    ‘”Light and shade, light and shade,” was another of Geer’s simple but important training mantras….’ i bet accuracy is too

    GEORGE (07/07/2010 20:24:28)
    Such a shame the way that he (Mr Geere) has spoken ‘down’ to so may people since he has been at the Chronicle. Too much of ‘look at me, I’m great’! How are the sales of what was an excellent and highly regarded newspaper going since he arrived? Not up, I am sure – the Chronicle has gone downhill. Why does it specify on its ‘Letters Page’ to ask letters writers to ‘keep your letter to 250 words’ and then we have to trawl through more like 2,000 words of a letter. It seems a case of ‘let’s just make the deadlines and fill the space’. It USED to be such a good newspaper. Never mind, I am just a reader, (who used to be important to a newspaper) who he (Mr Geere) does not seem bothered about!!

    GEORGE (07/07/2010 20:30:43)
    I agree with ‘Essex girl’ re-attention to detail. We read every week that the Chelmsford City Football Club manager is Glenn Pennyfather. His official title is ‘head coach’ and not ‘manager’. The other local newspapers always get Mr Pennyfather’s ‘title’ right, as do local radio and indeed does the CCFC matchday programme. Shame that the ‘premier’ newspaper and its sports staff (in the last year) cannot get its/their facts right. Oh, are we allowed to make comments about what may be wrong with the newspaper?

    George (08/07/2010 16:07:07)
    Today’s (July the 8th 2010) Essex Chronicle back page makes reference to Braintree Town goalkeeper Ian Holloway. The player’s name is in fact CRAIG Holloway and not IAN Holloway (can we assume that the reference was to the Blackpool Football Club manager and not the Braintree Town FC goalkeeper?). ‘More attention to detail’ comes to mind!!