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Dyson at Large: Daily survives maelstrom of change

You could easily forgive the average reader, advertiser or even staff member at the Manchester Evening News for asking: “What on earth’s going on with this newspaper?”

Not long ago it went part-paid (suburbs), part-free (city centre) every day, with yellow-suited distributors flooding the streets.

This led to editors from across the land arriving in Manchester for fact-finding trips, and apocryphal tales of OAPs taking it in turns to bus into the city to collect piles of free editions for their neighbours.

Suddenly it’s free in the city only on Thursdays and Fridays, reverting to full-sale on other days. (Picture octogenarians now scratching their heads earlier in the week!)

Separately, half the editions went ‘overnight’ long ago, although there’s still a ‘live’ morning print run. (Cue confusion for emergency services not knowing whether an urgent story can make that day’s edition or not.)

There’s more. The regional newspaper industry – advertising agencies too – read with interest of an angry, circulation-counting row.

DING. August 2009, MEN withdraws from ABC.

DONG. January 2010, MEN agrees to return to the ABC.

Like many regionals, there were heavy job cuts, consequent staff disharmony, strike ballots and compromises.

On top of all this, editor Paul Horrocks announced his surprise departure last September after 12 years in the chair.

And in December, neither GMG nor Trinity Mirror denied rumours that they were in early talks over the possible sale of the MEN.

With all this and more going on, it is a minor miracle and a great tribute to editorial staff that the MEN continues to be such a scorching, in-depth read.

That was my take on the paper on Thursday 14 January, when the edition I bought splashed on the exclusive news that a 15-month-old girl at the centre of a murder probe was already ‘known to social services.’

The grainy pick-up of little Violet Mullen was a selling image on page one, the 21-par story squeezing every detail a good news editor would require out of a sorry but compelling tale.

Names; ages; addresses; dates; meaningful quotes from named eyewitnesses; all woven with the legal care needed after two arrests.

For my tastes, the page one design as a whole carried too many words: nine in the splash head and 13 in the main boost. There were also four mini-pictures, three other headlines and two write-offs down the end leg, making it very busy.

But at least this design was consistent throughout the book: fine detail; care on every sub-head and caption; a small but bold headline font making room for long stories but still giving impact.

Thursdays and Fridays can be an editor’s nightmare in terms of space on news pages. There’s always a glut of consumer ads for the weekend, and every single one seems to demand ‘early right-hander.’

As a result, this MEN’s early pages suffered from too many large ads and, therefore, too low a story count, just one on both pages three and five, two on page seven, etc.

The total story count of 55 stories on 25 news/news-feature pages was the result, although those that appeared were of high-quality.

‘Schools closed by snow could open at weekends’ on page four; ‘Mice-infested store boss blames wife for not cleaning’ on page five; and ‘Riddle of war veteran who died in lawnmower fireball’ on page 12 all enticing lines that might have made fascinating splashes themselves on quieter days.

There was nice slowing of pace on pages eight and nine with the leaders, a strident columnist and a news-feature on a snow-bound rural publican.

That said, on this particular day the tightness of pages may have benefited from one of these pages reverting to snappier news.

There was certainly no shortage of this in the pull-out Business section: 60+ stories packed into 11 editorial pages, and that included three 1,000 word-plus analysis features.

The clever use of ‘Briefing’ columns containing short, informative stories with no headlines successfully increased the count in this section.

Another 14 careers reports on just two editorial pages within the 16-page Jobs pull-out added to this value.

Ten-and-a-half of the other pages in Jobs were packed with between 400 and 500 real vacancies, by the way, not a bad number during the depths of recession.

So let’s return to the strategic schizophrenia: what next from the chiefs upstairs?

Well, one thing’s for sure in the opinion of this humble reviewer: experienced acting editor Maria McGeoghan is evidently doing a cracking job in the chair. Snap her up for the long-term position while you can!

And yes, we all know that the Guardian Media Trust ‘only exists to further the survival of The Guardian,’ or some-such grandiose principle.

But hey, guys, how about a spell of stability with not too many more wild ideas for this grand old (yet very modern-looking) newspaper?

Other points to highlight:

  • There was only a tiny page one boost for Jobs. Surely worth a much bigger space with 10+ pages and hundreds of vacancies on offer. Always a good sales driver.

  • There were only 18 sports stories on nine pages of sport… (although in fairness one of the 1,000+-word analysis features within Business was on the ‘debt penalty’ scored by the Red Devils.) Surely sport is worth more in Manchester?

  • There were 80-pages in total on 14 January, with a 42p cover price.

  • Of the 55 news stories, I counted 16 that were either court or crime; around five each on education, health and local government (at least two very challenging for the powers-that-be).

  • According to the last figures from early 2009, the MEN had an average daily circulation of 153,724, with 81,781 of these given away free. (This has almost certainly changed dramatically in the last year).

  • Let’s end on two highlights. 1/ a simple, compact design resulted in 17 readers’ letters on a single Postbag page, with ‘On this day’ and ‘Birthdays’ also sneaking in. A genius stroke of guidance stated: “Letters MUST be clearly written on one side of paper only.” 2/ Average news intro length of 22 words… just right to pull ’em in to the second par.

  • 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.dysonmedia@googlemail.com.

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

    Comments

    InsiderInfo (20/01/2010 09:35:17)
    … re. the Trinity story, rumour going around that the deal is all but done for £24 million!

    OldHack (20/01/2010 10:19:54)
    That doesn’t sound much – when the Notts Post went for £96m tean years ago

    Reader (20/01/2010 10:45:43)
    As a reader, I agree with Steve on this. The MEN continues to be a very good newspaper even after the mass cull of staff last year. News and features are very strong – I agree that sport could be better, particularly the Monday pull-out.
    However, they have only managed to keep the quality at the expense of their formerly-bumper weeklies like Stockport Express and Rochdale Observer, which are now run as afterthoughts from Manchester city centre 20 miles away and look suitably anorexic and remote from their readership.

    Reynard (20/01/2010 10:56:47)
    Re MEN and Trinity, spys tell me the deal is done at between 40 and 24 million ! Lets see if the quality of content is maintained.

    Donald (20/01/2010 11:38:21)
    I think it’s a refreshing change to see some
    one cut through the management nonsense and focus on the paper. The MEN is still a strong paper, despite the best attempts of Mark Dodson to ruin it. The MEN must be the only paper in the country where it’s been nigh on impossible to buy or find a copy on three nights of the week in the city centre. Add in the fact that Channel M has been burning up to £10million a year and you can see why MEN staff feel so badly betrayed, and the staff of the weeklies for that matter. Well done Steve

    mr gate (20/01/2010 12:26:29)
    Bang on Steve -just give Maria the job now.

    Mr_Osato (20/01/2010 14:08:08)
    Technical point – the last time I saw an MEN (late last year – the first time I’d seen it in ages) there seemed to be a cut-out picture as the main image on virtually every pages – I counted seven or eight towards the front of the book. I know it can be a usefulo trick – generally used to try to lift a dull image – but it went beyond cliche. Did you notice any such quirks in the edition you saw? Also one constant criticism of the MEN is that it is the house paper of the Cheshire set – plenty of Altrinbcham, Sale etc stories but not much meat for the centre of town. Any thoughts?

    Steve Dyson (20/01/2010 14:43:18)
    Blimey, Mr_Osato, make me work for me supper why don’t you?! Just joking. Good questions. On 14 January, there were minimal cut-outs in an 80pp book. Those there were included a small image on the page 1 boost (cut-outs normal here); a small image of a couple on p7 news; secondary image on showbiz p10; main image of Ronaldo, p4 of Biz section feature on man Utd; small image p10 of Biz section; 2x part cut-outs of protruding hand or foot of main images in sports pages; and two or three column headers. Re. Altrincham/Cheshire stories flooding the paper, I struggled to spot any. There were several Greater Manchester entries (Rochdale, Oldham, etc) but plenty of suburbs and city-wide stories.

    Old regional press hand (20/01/2010 15:39:00)
    Of all the changes to the MEN over the past year or so, the one which I felt was the most telling was its decision early last year to dispense with a Westminster-based political editor. Ten years ago, the idea that the evening newspaper of a city the size of Manchester would not have its own dedicated staffer in the lobby would have been utterly preposterous. Among papers that still have one are the Liverpool Echo, Eastern Daily Press, Newcastle Journal, Express and Star, Yorkshire Post and Western Morning News – yet not the MEN, once regarded as the premier regional title in the UK. For me, this is evidence of its very much reduced status in the industry.

    Brummie (22/01/2010 14:41:15)
    After what this man did to the Birmingham EVENING Mail, I wouldn’t give tuppence for his views on a bus ticket. His glass house must be peppered with broken glass.