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Dyson at Large: Murder grips Midlands daily newsroom

It was a chilling murder of a teenage schoolgirl, an intriguing forensic breakthrough two decades later, and a conviction just before Christmas.

Now the Nottingham Evening Post had a one-to-one chat with a mourning uncle who realised he’d once met his niece’s killer.

All the makings of an exclusive splash, and tempting to hold onto until everyone returned to work and school this week for maximum impact.

Not so according to the Evening Post news desk on Christmas-to-New Year week duty, as this follow-up exclusive made page one on Thursday 31 December 2009.

Absolutely the right decision. The most important readers of regional daily newspapers are those who buy six days a week, including holiday periods.

They are the solid foundation of newspaper sales revenue, and it’s crucial that weekend or festive news teams do not disappoint them with “this will do for Saturday” content.

The Colette Aram story re-surfaced from the 1980s after DNA evidence eventually identified murderer Paul Hutchinson. The initial climax of his 21 December conviction, followed by backgrounders, might have meant reserving the bonus splash that emerged when an archive picture was recognised by a member of the victim’s family.

But it was heartening to see the Evening Post use it quickly, continuing its detailed coverage of the biggest Nottingham news story of 2009.

The murdered girl’s uncle, Roy Greensmith, now aged 80, had been Lord Mayor of Nottingham three times, meeting tens of thousands of people during his terms of office. So it was only when reading the Evening Post’s backgrounder that he realised one of the archive pictures used was him smiling with the murderer at a charity event 15 years after the crime.

A gentle but concise interview with Evening Post reporter Michael Greenwell followed, providing captivating copy to fill pages one and five.

The news disciplines for this Christmas period should not have been surprising, given that the newspaper is guided by stalwart editor Malcolm Pheby.

Pheby’s past speaks for itself: deputy editor of the Leicester Mercury; editor, East Anglian Daily Times; editor, Evening Star; assistant editor, Daily Express; managing director of Lincolnshire Echo Group Newspapers and then the Nottingham Post Group; now regional editorial director of Northcliffe Midlands as well as editing the Evening Post since 2006.

Experienced hands are needed in big cities, steadying newsrooms through inevitable sales declines caused by economic decline, consequent cutbacks and print resources constantly balanced with hungry digital needs.

A population of some 660,000 in the Nottingham urban area means there’s a free morning Metro, and the city also hosts the BBC’s East Midlands headquarters with strong local radio and TV news operations.

This competition, on top of the dire economy and internet incursions, provide the context for the Evening Post’s sales which fell 13.6pc year-on-year to 47,958 in the first half of 2009.

At the same time, the title’s change to morning publication was heralded earlier last year, along with sister Northcliffe papers the Leicester Mercury and Derby Telegraph, as a result of printing press closures. This move was confirmed by the busy newsagent I spoke to in his shop next to the Duke of Cambridge pub, Woodborough Road, Mapperley: “Yes, sir, just one edition now, available from the morning.”

Whatever sense such changes make, Pheby and colleagues continue to fight the tide with other tricks of the trade. On top of good, hard news, the Evening Post’s cover price of 35p is one of the lowest I’m aware of for a paper this size.

Times have certainly changed since Evening Post founder Thomas Forman first published a four-page broadsheet costing just ½d on 1 May 1878. But with 135 news stories, features, letters, puzzles and sports reports, plus TV listings, on 27 editorial pages in a 40-page festive-sized book, the paper was still worth far, far more than its cover price.

Other highlights…

  • Newsy shop window, with four stories, three boosts and a mini-index – despite two adverts on page 1

  • Upper and lower headlines, much friendlier on a local family tabloid than CAPS headlines for every story

  • Decent early book story-counts, averaging 6½ tales a page, despite regular spreads

  • Centre spread TV listings – easy to pull out for traditional readers relying on them

  • A healthy Family Announcements spread and another 5+ pages of Classified, including a Motors spread

  • A right-hand puzzles page before the fold, with a tempting £100 prize Sudoku

    A few points to improve…

  • Too many early book spreads. They work well for items like News Year Honours, but standard page 6-7 spreads on the Headway charity two days running slowed the pace on December 31 and January 1.

  • Okay, it was Christmas, but sport felt too tight, just six pages and a total story count of 17 on 31 December, little better on 30 December or 1 January.

  • Is the award-winning website, with 72 dedicated community micro-sites, simply too good and draining too many print readers? Why spend more than £100 in cover price per year when the internet provides MORE content for free?

  • Better use of the page 1, right-hand ear piece next to the masthead needed to project higher impact boosts

  • 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 now available via an RSS feed. Click here to subscribe.


    Melissa (06/01/2010 10:02:03)
    Should be a contender for this years’ Midlands Media Awards!

    Andy Skinner (06/01/2010 10:09:39)
    Nottingham Post newsroom and in particular the business desk are always a pleasure to work with – even the scary Mr Tresidder, only joking Richard!

    Sack the Panda (06/01/2010 10:53:21)
    Anybody know what happened to Allistair Harris? He was a cracking reporter on the Evening Post a few years ago and has now disappeared!

    Mr_Osato (06/01/2010 11:00:28)
    It’s a cracking tale, but am I the only one who thinks the header is a bit clumsy? ‘I met killer of my own niece’ is a bit of an awakward construction ‘my own’ in particular. Still, paper looks to be a good read, as is this blog. In the spirit of the ‘help me investigate’ campaign, perhaps in future Mr Dyson could give us some idea of how much space/prominence the papers he’s reviewing devotes to coverage of local government and public affairs – somthing local newspapers pat themselves on the back for but seem to be doing far less now.

    Steve Dyson (06/01/2010 11:33:33)
    Good idea Mr_Osato. Will include that going forward.

    Darren (06/01/2010 12:13:32)
    “Is the award-winning website, with 72 dedicated community micro-sites, simply too good and draining too many print readers? Why spend more than £100 in cover price pe
    r year when the internet provides MORE content for free?”
    I would be interested to see the evidence that if you don’t provide content on a website then people will then go out and buy a paper instead.
    Would they do this, or would they just turn to another website for their information? Maybe the BBC, a hyperlocal website or another newspapers site.
    Maybe the Johnston press trial will tell us this.
    I think Newspapers that turn their back on websites (and the evidence is that some are starting to do this) are a bit like ostriches hiding their heads in the sand and they’ll be a bit foolish when it comes full circle again and their web products are underdeveloped.

    Steve Dyson (06/01/2010 12:31:42)
    I hear you, Darren, and thanks for taking the time to comment. Please do understand the comment as it was meant, though. “Is it too good?” is the question, not “should we turn our backs on it”. The reality is that newsrooms are struggling in all sorts of ways in the current climate, and I’m not sure an award-winning website with everything and more on it instantly for FREE is the way to go when 90%+ of revenues remain in the print products (products the industry as a whole has made a habit of sidelining). Just an opinion.

    Darren (06/01/2010 13:42:06)
    Thanks for replying Steve. would you be in favour of internet paywalls then? If so would this not succeed unless the whole industry introduced them ?
    Perhaps thats a blog for another day!

    Sub Yor Own Werk (06/01/2010 13:56:15)
    Agree with that Sack the Panda, Alistair was a top journo – fond memories of my time as a workie, he was a great help and a nice lad to boot.

    Steve Dyson (06/01/2010 14:38:51)
    Hi again Darren: pay-walls are being experimented with, so let’s see what happens there. My thought (and it was only a par in 50 pars!) was to challenge newsrooms that provide every cough and spit and more, instantly, on their branded websites. I believe that to do so damages print sales. And without print sales, where are we as an industry? Instead, we should actively think of how to ration… not turn our backs on, but tease, file prelim stories, fuller uploads of great content AFTER print sales, etc. Any number of such experiments. (When on the B’ham Mail, we had great fun delaying the online posting of a letter from Gareth Barry to Villa fans on his departure… the exclusive story helped that day’s sales, noticeably – 4,000+ – and ALSO lifted web traffic when we posted it LATER). Anything, to be honest, that moves newsrooms AWAY from falling into the ‘website first for everything’ mode, and tries to concentrate more of the balance of resource remaining to print quality. Definitely NOT turning backs on online, just redressing the balance towards what still brings in the pennies… newspaper sales.

    Kiss of death (06/01/2010 16:24:33)
    Did you do any assessment of the damage holding back the Gareth Barry letter did to your website Steve? Didn’t one of your rivals beat you to the full letter online?

    Steve Dyson (06/01/2010 16:30:16)
    On the contrary, the saga gave unbuyable media for the brand… the resulting story and the way we held it back for the web bizarrely made the news itself, Five Live, Sky and all the usual regional media outlets, bloggers, etc, discussing the experiment. But we digress… The small point I was trying to make re. the Nottingham Evening Post’s website has been made and now discussed, which was the point. Thank you. A wider point not yet picked up is how the splash on Dec 31 would probably not have happened if it wasn’t for old-fashioned hackery, archive pics, backgrounders and the good old telephone follow up!

    localhack (07/01/2010 09:21:25)
    This must be the most ingratiating and grovelling column to appear on HTFP since its early days of buttering up the regional press hierarchy. I hope Mr Dyson is similarly eloquent when dishing out the brickbats.

    JulieCurry (07/01/2010 09:54:13)
    With reference to websites, there’s no doubt that if Sainsbury’s gave away beans from Monday to Thursday, no-one would buy them on Friday.
    Surely the best way forward for on-line content is the Tindle model, which uses PageSuite. Readers see the paper as if they had bought a hard copy and ‘turn’ pages electronically.
    Tindle charges full price for the whole edition and has been surprised by the take-up across 40 titles offered.
    The benefits to Tindle are obvious: lower production costs and no distribution for a full-price product. It has also been surprised by the number of local readers, traditionally hard-copy buyers, who are taking up the new format.
    Using this model it appears that everyone is a winner – even the environment. So why can’t the big players see it?

    Steve Dyson (07/01/2010 11:18:31)
    I can assure you that critiques will be forthright when warranted, ‘localhack’. Plus this comment board is open to anyone else’s take on the paper’s reviewed.

    Steve Dyson (07/01/2010 11:57:33)
    … papers reviewed! This comment facility shows how crucial good sub-editing can be…

    Robert Hardie (07/01/2010 17:49:14)
    Really enjoyed Steve’s critique and ever-admiring of Malcolm and his team, but I also struggle with the premise that having a good (or very good) website stops readers buying copies. From Northcliffe’s experience as well a everyone else’s, it’s crystal clear that having a brilliant website or a poor one makes absolutely no difference to print sales. All you need to do is compare the ABC performance of papers that are excellent on the web with ones that are poor on the web and you will see that there’s no correlation to be made. The Gareth Barry example is a good one – what difference did it and others like it make long term? Papers that are good papers and well sold will sell better than good papers that are porly sold, and definitely better than poor papers that are poorly sold. The quality of the paper’s website is immaterial, other than to how much traffic it itself gets. Readers make their own decisions about whether the internet is or isn’t the place they want to get their information based on a mass of socio-economic factors, and a single website would never be the tipping point – we as publishers would love them to be as brand-loyal as we are, but the truth is that they’re not and if they decide the interet is for them it won’t be just because we did a great job with a website or not. For me, it’s like cinemas: through the 1970s and 1980s audiences were declining and videos were getting the blame as Odeon after Gaumont was turned into a bingo hall – today more people than ever go to the cinema not because cinemas thought they could uninvent videos (or even stop them getting better, as has been proved with DVD and now blu-ray) but because they knew they had to reinvent themselves and make themselves more attractive to people.

    Steve Dyson (08/01/2010 09:46:23)
    I love the cinema comparison! You’re right about many things, and the internet is certainly only ONE aspect of influences affecting newspapers. But I feel it still needs careful consideration. I’d be really interested if there was any actual research on the quality of sites/performance of sales. Any academics know?

    Alan in Belfast (08/01/2010 11:35:51)
    Good to see you still writing.
    Get them to provide an RSS feed for the blog … or you’ll loose a lot of readers.

    Steve Dyson (14/01/2010 10:57:07)
    Good idea, Alan in Belfast. Now done.