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Dyson at Large: Choosing the wrong splash

As a former news editor, the first thing I consider when picking up any paper is the ‘splash-worthiness’ of its front page.

And on Friday 18 June, I reckon the Burnley Express got it wrong… possibly twice.

In fairness, the actual splash was not a bad tale: a chilling, fist-sized cut-out of a rodent sitting under a ‘PLAGUED!’ headline and ‘Big rise in rats is blamed on dirty backyards and empty properties’ sub-heading.

The story was an off-diary look at the 3,500 rat complaints dealt with by the local council between 2007 and 2010, the figures obtained via a Freedom of Information request.

Assuming this was the Express’ own FOI request and therefore an exclusive, why not save it for a quiet week when no ‘live’ news competed with it?

Even if the ‘rat splash’ had to be used, my view is that it could have been a good read on pages three or five, given what I believe were two better stories.

The first was ‘Burnley sex beast caged’ which had been shoved into two columns on page three, telling how a local paedophile had been jailed for a minimum of eight years for rape, assault and indecency with six children.

I scratched my head and looked into this disturbing but important story to try to work out why it wasn’t on page one, given that the culprit lived in Burnley and one of his six-year-old victims was from nearby Nelson.

My first thought was that it must have been because the conviction happened the previous Friday, and perhaps the Lancashire Telegraph had already led on the story in its Burnley editions. But as far as I could find out from searching its website, this was not the case.

Even if they had, this surely shouldn’t have stopped the Express from working up a different angle from the local victim’s mother (quoted at the end of the story) or from former neighbours.

My second hunch was that there was no picture, and that this had kept it off page one. But a simple search on Google revealed that a picture of the convict was available.

I’m sure not everyone will agree, but I think a series of crimes of this magnitude by a man living in a town the size of Burnley deserved the thorough naming and shaming that only a page one picture story can provide.

Crime aside, the other story that in my view should have beaten the rats was Burnley’s 2010-2011 football fixtures, released with seemingly perfect timing on Thursday 17 June – deadline day for the Express.

Traditionally, this talk-of-the-town content would have made live headline news in the Lancashire Telegraph’s Burnley edition, but since going overnight the daily can only publish them on the same day the Express hits the newsstands.

Yes, the Express boosted the fixtures on page one, led the back page on the highlights and published a useful, colourful, rip out and pin up ‘poster’ on page 55.

But if I remember correctly, one of the dead-cert circulation boosts of the year is football fixtures… if they’re given the right shop-window display.

With the first game against Nottingham Forest, the former club of Burnley FC manager Brian Laws, surely there was merit in creating a classy headline and reactive write-off splash to pull in the Claret’s fans, notoriously casual buyers?

Whatever your view, the definite positive about any news list debate is that fact that the Express had at least three stories worthy of page one.

There were 140-odd news stories, letters and community reports in the front end of the Express on 20 editorial pages, with another 35 on six pages of sport.

What struck me about all inside editorial pages was poor design. Content, of course, is king, but the dominance of its crown can be hindered by what to me seemed slapdash, template-driven lay-outs.

Whether this is down to stressed subbing hubs in Preston, the early days of Atex or both, it would be wrong not to tick Express owners Johnston Press off for allowing cost-savings to result in sub-standard looking pages.

I just hope that Johnston’s East Lancashire Newspapers bosses resist the temptation to follow their sister company in South Yorkshire, where a recent memo from managing director Paul Bentham suggested that editors “should not continue with the old practise of reading every story”.

The cover price on the Express is 72p, which I though a tad too much for a 56-page paper.

Despite Burnley’s elevation to the Premiership last season, the latest ABC figures for July to December 2009 saw sales fall by -7.1% to 15,292 on Fridays, and by -5.3% to 10,337 on the thinner Tuesday editions.

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

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


    Davy gravy (07/07/2010 09:59:39)
    Plus, the revolting pic of the rat on P1 is pretty much guaranteed to keep the title nailed to the shelves for any casual readers of a nervous disposition…you might as well write “Don’t buy this paper” in the headline.

    Steve Anderson (07/07/2010 10:09:26)
    When editors – and, in this case, former editors – cannot even write a grammatically-correct intro then, perhaps, it’s time for them to retire.
    To quote: ” As a former news editor, the first thing I consider when picking up any paper…”
    If Mr Dyson had basic knowledge of English, he would have realised that the words “As a former news editor,” should have been followed by “I”. Or perhaps he believes that the term non-sequitur refers to a garden tool that doesn’t cut small branches…

    P Staugh (07/07/2010 10:10:44)
    I wonder what the editor has to say?

    Andrew Hunt (07/07/2010 10:21:57)
    Steve Dyson commenting on how any newspaper does things is a sad joke. He is the editor who imploded the readership at the Birmingham Mail. Total nonsesence hey Steve! 😉

    Des Sign (07/07/2010 10:41:12)
    The design for this page 1 is awful. Where’s the rule under the masthead?
    What’s the point of the exclamation mark? Why use a cutout? Cutouts should be used sparingly for maximum effect, and when they are done well they look the bee’s knees. But cutouts for cutouts’ sake just look, well, crap.
    My old news editor used to scream “where there’s a paedo, you lead-o”.* The Burnley Express should take a leaf from his** book.***
    *He didn’t
    ** He was a woman.
    *** She didn’t write a book.

    Bean Counter (07/07/2010 10:50:21)
    It’s not total nonsense, it’s total irony.

    a. nonymouse (07/07/2010 10:58:37)
    Why not use the Paedophile on the front? well, he was tried in Huntingdon, so its unlikely the paper had a court reporter there, and all the offences took place in Berkshire, not Burnley, and he obviously only lived in Burnley for a very short time, so no-one would have known him. Not very local, in other words.
    A front page splash should affect as many people as possible or surprise the reader.
    The rat story has both of those, while the paedophile has neither…

    Steve Dyson (07/07/2010 11:08:49)
    Good to get
    a debate going, so thanks for posting. There was a local element, A. Nonymouse, a six year old in a neighbouring village. And he lived in the heart of Burnley. My view is that this made it a huge local story. But again, as said in the piece, the positive was that the Express had plenty of stories to choose from in the week concerned. My view – happy for it to be shot down – was that the wrong choice was made. But good to have the choice, so obviously a decent team in Burnley

    Subbed Out (07/07/2010 11:26:41)
    If this were a free newspaper, a huge picture of a rat on the front wouldn’t make much difference. But it costs 72p ! I’m pretty sure a lot of potential sales were lost by people choosing to give the paper a miss that week after a cursory glance. It seems basic commonsense not to put rats, facial disfigurements, or other visual nasties in your shop window if you want to tempt readers to buy.

    Davy gravy (07/07/2010 12:37:21)
    There seems to be a few people blaming the messenger here. Surely Steve’s just as entitled to his opinion as everyone else? People in the newspaper industry regularly suffer from this – we shouldnl’t do the same thing ourselves

    Steve Dyson (07/07/2010 12:50:56)
    I’ve just re-read the comments and seen Steve Anderson’s grammatical steel rule!! You’ve lost me Steve! I think rules can be used, but if too strictly you can read like a script rather than like chatting in the pub… (Or maybe I’m just a tad illiturut…) 😉

    Parvenu (07/07/2010 13:01:55)
    One point worth considering is the effect Atex layout-before-text is having on content. This may explain why better candidates for leads are hidden away deep inside the book. Unless you are watching like a hawk, and you have the time, inclination and staff to unpick stories that are already on templated pages, the system openly encourages you to fill the holes on the page and then move on, regardless of the strength or the potential of the page lead. It has actually been admitted that if it means “burying” a good story inside the paper instead of using it as a splash, then better that than not getting it in the paper at all. The emphasis is on planning and filling the page early and then quickly moving on.
    Not progress really, and personally I’m fighting it, but perhaps an explanation as to why good stuff might be hidden away in Atex-produced papers.

    RT (07/07/2010 14:19:04)
    This is the second time Steve has criticised a choice of splash without really having the detailed knowledge needed to back up his views. (The previous occasion was a man who died in a park, and from memory was from Bolton. Steve’s suggestion for an alternative splash, while a far stronger story, was from miles off patch and was the lead in a district edition).
    If I was the news editor, I’d have clocked the line about Thames Valley Police leading the investigation and realised immediately the bulk of the offences must have been from many, many miles off patch and thus the local angle was likely to be fairly weak.
    Rats are likely to be of interest to more people than a run of the mill sex offender who may only have spent a few months in Burnley.

    James Cagney (07/07/2010 14:34:11)
    Mmm, that dirty, double-crossin’ rat. (Blonde Crazy, 1931).

    Alex (07/07/2010 14:35:08)
    Steve A, if you’re going to be such a pedant perhaps take a look at your own writing. Among the most basic of Orwell’s writing rules is avoiding the use of redundant words, such as that. You’ve used “that” in a redundant way at least twice. See, pedantry isn’t big and it isn’t clever – unless you’re a sub, in which case it’s both.
    Dyson, I completely agree with your logic: you can lead with one and have the other below. They could have easily used their off-diary story the following week, particularly as it was an exclusive.

    a. nonymouse (07/07/2010 16:17:59)
    While the rat story might have been off-diary, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have leaked to other outlets over the course of the week.
    What a lot of authorities do is release the details of all FOI requests to their website, which means anyone can pick them up – it dilutes the impact of a story if they do that. If I get an FOI story I use it straight away in case any other news outlet is on the hunt.

    Steve Dyson (07/07/2010 16:34:04)
    Thanks again for more comments… RT, what I am trying to do on this blog is to play the part of the casual reader. That elusive but much sought after part of our world. And they do not know the nuances of every decision in the newspapers they purchase. Yes, I could have called and dug and found out what was what, but remember readers can’t. So I won’t be, unless there are exceptional circumstances. I want to be tickled as a reader, prompted, interested and satisfied. I believe papers have to think this way and explain (in placement) exactly what is the best splash, etc. a. nonymouse: good point; even if an exclusive, there may be times you want to use your FOI to keep it that way. It doesn’t mean it has to be the splash, though, if better stories are around.

    LadyHack (07/07/2010 16:44:00)
    Interesting blog; and good debate. Must say I enjoy this for one thing… we’re discussing journalism and newspapers and print and ink. Am getting fed up of the usual pointers on the web to ‘crowd source’, ‘SEO’, ‘reverse publishing’ and the like. All good, I’m sure, but I’m still keen to refine the way I work on the paper I work on which still brings home the gravy…

    Paul (08/07/2010 10:47:57)
    Football fixtures as a splash? You’re having a giraffe right? The front page plug is perfect.