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Dyson at Large: Beware of party wraps

Don’t you just hate it when political parties try to muscle in on a local newspaper?

It can’t be done via editorial, of course, and so they then attempt to buy their way in.

I’m talking about the current and increasing prevalence of political advertising wraps on free newspapers, like this one carried by the Croydon Guardian on 10 March.

A front page headline of ‘Labour’s Tax Bombshell’ with blatantly biased political garbage masquerading as an article made the paper feel like a Tory weapon, despite the tiny ‘Advertisement’ line.

I understand that free newspapers have to incorporate ad-wraps to make their P&Ls work.

But someone senior in an Ivory Tower somewhere should surely be insisting on minimum design standards, taste and, especially at this pre-election time, political neutrality.

I reckon this responsibility is the publishers, in this case a Newsquest director, and that he/she should lay down rigorous expectations to would-be advertisers. Rant over.

I know it was only last week that I reviewed the paid-for Croydon Advertiser, but I just couldn’t resist following that up with a blog on the Guardian that competes with it.

Yes, partly because I was annoyed at the wrap, but also because I was genuinely impressed with the newsy enthusiasm of a free paper with less than half the staff.

As you can see from the splash, there was a certain pride in an exclusive follow up to a story carried in the previous week’s Advertiser.

You may remember that last week I mentioned the Advertiser’s page 11 chat with a man who’d walked free from court after fatally stabbing an alleged armed intruder at his home.

The Guardian had chased this tale from the other end, interviewing the dead man’s family, the resulting story reflecting their anger at a perceived injustice.

This was no freebie’s attempt to imitate a newspaper with eight-par summaries.

As well as a detailed six-par write-off to pull the reader in, reporter Harry Miller also penned a 20-par interview and 10-par backgrounder filling page 10, (the first page with no ads).

Being a free, the ad shapes in the rest of the paper were a little intrusive.

But in half page gaps throughout were stories you’d have happily paid for, and despite the ratio there were enough for a decent read.

There was a fair bit of court and crime, but also several revelations challenging powers that be.

One I particularly liked was “The burning issue of waste firms’ histories” on page 17, highlighting the controversial background of four businesses bidding for a local waste contract.

Working for a free against a paid-for can be a thankless challenge, as you can feel out-staffed, out-paginated and ‘looked-down-your-nose-at’.

I remember this well from days at the then Reed-owned free Birmingham Metro News weekly (child of the former Daily News free) in the early 1990s.

Yet the Croydon Guardian reminded me of the type of journalism we tried back then: concentrate on two or three exclusives to annoy the paid-for, impress the reader who’s getting it for nothing and give yourself, the journalist, a satisfying glow on Fridays.

This is the impression that the Guardian’s team appear to enjoy putting across, and it worked for me. Well done them.

One bit of advice is to improve the boost content around the splash. The over-detailed 10 March message was redundant because it told people where to get the paper, but if you were reading it you’d already picked it up!

My traditional eye was troubled by the webby masthead: ‘Croydon’ is the biggest online boost I’ve ever seen. Good or bad? Discuss.

The Guardian is proud of its website, with the in-paper boost “No other website comes close”. It was OK but nothing remarkable, seemingly a local section of a regional Newsquest site.

I clicked ‘Contact Us’ and was presented with a little confusion: first I was offered ‘group editor’ Andrew Parkes, then Croydon Guardian editor Sean Duggan and finally Croydon’s assistant editor Matthew Knowles.

In the paper, Knowles is highlighted as the main editorial contact on page four, but the small print underneath advises any complainants to contact ‘group editor’ Duggan.

So who is ‘group editor’, Parkes or Duggan? And is Knowles the main man for the Croydon Guardian or not? Perhaps I’m a pedant, but to me it’s crucial to know who’s in the chair.

Finally, the bus-spotting bit. Discounting the four-page wrap, the remaining 102 pages contained 47 news stories, a page of seven letters, 19 entertainments reports in ‘Leisure’ and 15 sports tales.

Not exactly a high story count, but not bad for nothing, and what was there was decent quality.

And I bet the 40 pages of ‘Homes’ property advertising is causing the managing director at the opposing Advertiser to salivate.

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

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    IJ (24/03/2010 10:25:50)
    The wrap is a disgrace, and I can only imagine the editorial team are thoroughly dispirited. The ‘Advertisment’ heading is so small as to be irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how good the editorial content is inside, this undermines everybody’s efforts. What a shame.

    cpeel (24/03/2010 10:44:43)
    Shocking. Is this allowed in terms of the way it’s presented as ‘editorial’?

    cpeel (24/03/2010 10:54:31)
    Shocking. Is this allowed in terms of the way it’s presented as ‘editorial’?

    cpeel (24/03/2010 10:58:16)
    Shocking. Is this allowed in terms of the way it’s presented as ‘editorial’?

    DeadManWalking (24/03/2010 11:10:37)
    I think everyone can see the pitfalls of political wraps, and clearly they are not a good idea. Personally I hate them, and in an ideal world wouldn’t touch them.
    But that’s the key, it’s not an ideal world.

    I work on a similar free paper.
    Resources are very tight. Although my paper’s ad revenues are steady, across the group they’re falling, so I’ve suffered cuts too.
    Yes, I’m angry at the owners, but I’m not at the stage yet where I’ll walk away or let the paper become so appallingly bad as to be pointless.
    We still produce good quality editorial and take pride in what we do. The 2.5 staff are probably doing the job of at least six people, but the paper is still strong, and indeed was shortlisted for an EDF award not so long ago.
    A wrap can be worth a couple of grand to us, and be the difference between a decent week and barely breaking even.
    If we only break even each week, more “efficiencies” will have to be found.
    So, I would rather swallow my pride, smack Advertisement Feature (albeit significantly larger), and still be able to keep the paper going.
    Most readers are intelligent enough to realise an advert is not the view of the paper.
    My community will be far worse served by my paper going bust than my paper printing some Tory or Labour nonsense which is clearly labelled ‘advert’.

    RWhite (24/03/2010 13:54:12)
    It’s not wraps that offend me on my paper…they have to happen. But in March before a May General Election to have political “articles” on p1 makes us look like that party’s paper. Don’t like that.

    Lensman (24/03/2010 14:20:09)
    Where is it written in stone that local papers have to be politically neutral? When papers started back in the 17th century, they were often anything but neutral and the national press have always favoured one party or another. If the Croydon Guardian’s ad dept gets its act together it could screw some much needed cash out of the other political parties as well.

    OLDHACKexNewsquest (24/03/2010 16:29:56)
    The Guardian series of newspapers of which the Croydon title is one of the best always stated its political independence in the contents panels.
    Perhaps they feel a wrap is not content. – Discuss.
    I bet many of their reporters would have being unaware of the wrap’s content until it was published and that would include the subbing department too
    I think this was an error of judgement by the publishing director.
    I suspect the ad manager was hoping to get it in and not tell anyone about it.
    Andrew Parkes is, as far as I remember, a man of some integrity, so I’m a tad surprised if he sanctioned it.
    Parkes stopped the advertising of sex ads in the paper a while back so has some backbone – unusual in Newsquest middle management..
    But also knowing the mind-set of senior Newsquest personnel they simply went for the money and hoped that Labour would commission a wrap to create political balance.

    Johnston Press Fan Club (24/03/2010 16:44:20)
    When jumped-up little ad reps take the controls, whaddya expect? A poor, poor example of journalism being trampled all over in exchange for a fast buck. Sadly, the know-nothings don’t realise a shell of paper cobbled together by a skeleton newsroom is noticeable to readers.

    Roy (24/03/2010 17:11:13)
    A paper crying out for a senior editorial figure with the balls to kick up a stink over this kind of wrap (Ok, much easier said than done, I know, but I hope at least they put up a fight).
    And Steve, 40 pages of property advertising will only make the opposing MD salivate if it’s being sold at a decent rate rather than being given away as a loss-leader, which is the case at some of the other Newsquest South London titles.

    AndyP (25/03/2010 09:24:32)
    And what if the BNP wants to spend 2k on a wraparound? Surely they can’t accept one blatant propaganda sheet while turning down the next. It’ll all end in tears…

    Rog (26/03/2010 09:24:49)
    I hope Matthew Knowles doesn’t feel too belittled by this wrap. He needs to stand tall even when the advertising department come up short.

    Ajinexile (30/03/2010 11:40:03)
    Some of the comments decrying the Croydon wrap tend to underestimate the intelligence of the paper’s regular readers — who will be aware that it is an ad, and treat it as such. It’s the rest of the content that matters. I can’t help wondering whether or not the paid circulation would have gone up if it had been an Anne Summers wrap?