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Dyson at Large: Confessions of an English paper-eater

Before I picked up a copy of the Westmorland Gazette, I admit I grimaced at what I might find.

I’d first seen the Kendal-based weekly when a student near the Lake District 23 years ago, and my memories were of a giant broadsheet with multiple traditional sections, strong on local content and farming detail, and even with its own cartoonist.

In recent years, I’d read that the production of the paper had been switched to Blackburn and that the traditional role of an editor had been removed, a ‘senior content editor’ now answering to a group editor in that same town.

These are controversial changes: how can important local media remain challenging and retain decent content if they do not have an independent editor based in the area served?

And how far away can you create joint production centres before you lose quality in headlines and copy sub-editing?

But this is where my own pseudo-literary headline comes in, (tweaked with apologies to opium-addict Thomas de Quincey, one of the Gazette’s first editors 180-plus years ago).

Confession number one: The Gazette on April 22 boasted a striking shop window. Though a tabloid since August last year, it had no less than 11 entry-points on page one.

The splash was no generic puff-piece, the ‘Anger at 2,000-ft zip wire for fell’ telling how local ramblers objected to a slate mine owner’s zany development idea.

The second lead would have been worthy of a splash any other week, telling the story of a local businessman stranded at a trade show in Milan by volcanic ash. Instead of moaning, he’d bought a bike and raised £1,000 in sponsorship by cycling home.

Confession number two: Shelbourn the cartoonist was still there, now into his 26th year of drawing for the Gazette! In these days of scraping the freelance budget barrels, I commend Newsquest bosses for maintaining an element of content that I believe helps form a newspaper’s character.

Confession number three: Editorial quality continued inside, with a cracking GMC hearing report on page three, headlined ‘Jekyll and Hyde GP made little girl cry,’ about a doctor who upset and lost 800 patients in four years. Other good reads included:

• ‘The pub with no beer’ leading page seven, a legal technicality hitting the trade of a hostelry in the middle of Kendal;

• ‘Churches ban BNP from meeting’ leading page 11, a brave decision by local ministers hosting election hustings that went on to make the nationals; and

• ‘Pollution fears over lake toilets’ leading page 14, telling how a lack of ship-to-shore sewage pumps could result in yachts flushing directly into Windermere.

Confession number four: Whatever the evils of subbing hubs, I struggled to find any literals and the Gazette’s headlines grabbed my interest as I thumbed through the pages. As well as the above examples, others included:

• ‘Wainwright would not have approved’ on the page two turn of the splash;

• ‘The mother of all reunions’ on that page’s lead story about an adopted Lakeland woman who’d traced her parents back to an Indian reservation in Canada, where she was now due to visit; and

• ‘Volcanic cloud has a silver lining for tourism in the Lakes’ on the page five lead, local hoteliers claiming delayed flights had resulted in a mini-boom for bookings.

Confession number five: The Gazette continues to carry what many may consider ‘traditional’ content, including 119 reports from no fewer than 38 village correspondents in a four-page ‘Community’ section.

This contained many great, quirky paragraphs such as this one in a report from Over Kellet Parish Council: “Chairman John Crewdson said he had presented a card signed by members to Mrs Lewis on her 106th birthday. It was agreed it should be recorded in the minutes.”

Other sections included the ‘Farm & Country’ section and ‘Prices from the auction markets’ in six-point, always a rural favourite.

Confession number six: The 119 community reports contributed to a total story count of 367 in 43 news, feature and business pages; there were another 70-plus on seven sports pages.

Sport, by the way, included meticulous reports on fell-running, cycling, sailing, orienteering and other Lakeland pursuits.

Top marks to senior content editor Andrew Thomas, assistant editor (news) Mike Addison and their team for such fantastic local detail in an 88-page paper costing 75p.

It is these committed efforts that assisted the Gazette’s circulation performance of -4.2pc in the latest ABC report, pretty decent at a time when most weeklies exceed this, with many in double minus figures.

Confession number seven: Perhaps I should have expected this because, whatever the pluses and minuses of plc-owners, and however deep their profit-hungry cutbacks, group editor Kevin Young has already established a reputation for driving such quality on the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, as I reported on my Birmingham Mail blog last year.

His demanding style of journalistic structure and copy discipline is evidently strong enough to also inspire his weekly Gazette staff, even if they are 50-miles away in Kendal.

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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    Terry Goodfellow (05/05/2010 10:17:38)
    Journalists love producing newspapers which impress other journalists. Unfortunately they seem to have forgotten how to produce newspapers that sell well. Steve Dyson seems to love papers with falling circulation. Editors who bring their newspapers to the brink of annihilation are not good editors.

    Steve Dyson (05/05/2010 10:43:02)
    The point is, Terry, in the current downturn, scarcity of print investment and media fragmentation, many newspapers are 10%+ falling in sales. Those achieving figures like the Gazette’s are doing well comparatively. Keep this up and, in the eventual upturn, they’ll grow again… or flatline.

    Terry Goodfellow (05/05/2010 12:13:06)
    OK, so the Gazette is doing relatively well – relative to other newspapers which are edited on broadly the same principles. What I am saying is that the industry as a whole has got it wrong. If Tesco was losing sales, the chief exec of Tesco wouldn’t be able to say, “But I’m not losing as many sales as Asda”. It’s time for a radical rethink of what makes a good newspaper.

    Steve Dyson (05/05/2010 14:55:52)
    You’re right, Terry, a radical rethink… But to my mind this should be as much about the resource expended on marketing the product, owning an area with brand, giving the readers the feeling that a title is really able to cover in depth. This may be more about the style of leadership and, crucially, profit margins and their for ownership. Do plcs want a group of papers returning 5 per cent profits? No? Well might be time to sell to owners who do, or else continue to strip them to an extent that kills them off.

    Steve Dyson (05/05/2010 14:58:53)
    …Pls read ‘therefore’, not ‘their for’!! Oh the horrors of thought to screen to publis
    hed web commebnt in seconds via fat thumbs on Blackberry!

    steven (05/05/2010 15:09:26)
    Really encouraging to read about a paper that is doing so much so well, and has been for the last few years.
    Sounds a cracking read which serves the area well and knows what readers want. Well done.

    hilary (05/05/2010 15:25:32)
    If proof were needed of what you say about owners prepared to settle for smaller profit margins, head north next time to Carlisle and look at the CN Group papers.

    Terry Goodfellow (06/05/2010 11:49:07)
    Two points:
    1. The sort of paper which made Steve Dyson grimace 23 years ago had a far higher circulation than one he now lauds. Editors will argue that decline is due to things like demographic differences, changes in people’s reading habits and competition from other media, most notably the internet. But the main competition to the Westmorland Gazette newspaper is from the Westmorland Gazette’s own (FREE) website. As for demographic changes and reading habits, if newspapers had hung on to their readers in the 1970s and 80s instead of alienating them by aping the national tabloids, young people would have developed the same habits their parents did. What actually happened was that parents stopped buying newspaper because they didn’t like the way they were changing – so their children never got the newspaper habit.
    2. Steve thinks newspapers are suffering from scarcity of print investment. But on his analysis of the Wesmorland Gazette, the paper has improved massively whilst suffering from this lack of investment. Any newspaper MD reading his account of the Gazette would think : “No need to invest, because papers are getting better while we cut funds. Carry on cutting!”

    davy gravy (06/05/2010 11:57:23)
    Terry is being a bit harsh. I think the point Steve’s trying to make is that the traditional values of the Gazette are standing up very well, despite the downturn which is killing newspapers all over the country. And surely all students think local weeklies are laughable. I certainly did, but now, 30 years after college, I can appreciate much more clearly how they are, when done properly (viz. the Gazette)an important part of local communities.

    Former hack off for a cup of tea (and possibly a b (06/05/2010 16:19:57)
    Well done to all at the Gazette. Yes of course newspapers have to change the way they are going to tackle the future. But wiping their sense of history away in order to chase profit margins is not the way to do it. This paper is a fine example a local paper and the role it plays in the community. A good blend of news and comment.