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Dyson at Large: No detail spared in 'gutsy' weekly

‘Butcher knifed to death’ (splash headline); ‘Market mourns Mister Reliable’ (sub-heading). Who could resist buying and reading that?

From the moment I spotted the Islington Gazette, I was excited by its direct, punchy, grisly stories and headlines.

Page one on 14 January was a truly ‘penny dreadful’-style piece of news, a schizophrenic fishmonger battering a Holloway butcher with a dumbbell before slitting his throat after suffering paranoid delusions.

And it all took place between two Afghan asylum-seekers who worked in the busy Nag’s Head Market in Seven Sisters Road.

You can imagine the shock of local bargain-hunters with their tartan-patterned shopping baskets at the time it happened, the popular butcher who only the week before prepared their pork chops was now pushing up the daisies.

The curtain-twitchers in this north London suburb then got the chance to read the dramatic court coverage from the Gazette, with no detail spared (“…the knife slicing through one of his carotid arteries”).

Inside there were more sensational gems:

  • ‘Mechanic fined for drunken rampage’ on page five, another court story after havoc at the Walkabout in Upper Street, Islington;

  • ‘Woman cat burglar is spared jail sentence’ on page seven, telling the amazing tale of Sandy Rung-Ruangsap, who specialised in gaining access to flats in Holloway to feed her drug habit, with her 18th appearance in court (“staggering”, said the judge); and

  • ‘Primary school worker charged with guns plot’ on page eight, which told how a teaching assistant in local classrooms had been charged with plotting to own and sell guns.

    I liked the cut of editor Tony Allcock’s jib at this paper, and can easily imagine him snapping: ‘Get out and find me a tale they’ll be telling in the pub this weekend, and if you can’t find one, go and sit in Blackfriars Crown Court until one drops in your lap.’

    Experience counts, of course, and you won’t be surprised to know that Allcock has now been at the title for 43 – yes 43 – years, an incredible 34 of them as editor.

    Just to check it wasn’t a one-week special, by the way, I grabbed an online peek at last week’s Gazette content as well (21 January) and was delighted to see ‘Church service hammer terror': “A bare-chested intruder sparked pandemonium at a church service on Sunday after allegedly threatening the congregation with a hammer.”

    This was a wonderful news story that would have been the talk of the town.

    My favourite content from the 14 January edition was waiting to be discovered in the ‘What’s Your Problem?’ section on page 20.

    The lead issue was headlined ‘Has his wife got wind of office affair?’, and was a lurid call for help by a woman who described her 58-year-old married boyfriend as “the most energetic sexual partner I’ve ever had,” but assured readers “I am 29 and can deal with his demands!”

    A fascinating read, as was the ‘Is girlfriend a lesbian?’ problem from a chap who didn’t like the way his lover “holds hands and giggles” with her flatmate.

    The best was the ‘She doesn’t think she’s sexy!’ issue from a man looking at how to persuade his girlfriend – “my mates refer to her as ‘Blubber and Squeak'” – not to wear an “Arsenal top with her droopy bra that looked as if her breasts were round her waist.”

    All this was taken in her stride by Agony Aunt Barbara Jacobs:

  • Office affair? “You need to find someone without ties.”

  • Lesbian suspicion? “Women are very touchy-feely, so grow up.”

  • ‘Blubber and Squeak?’ “Don’t push her, allow her, slowly, to understand that she is a sexy woman.”

    I thought I was in an episode of EastEnders! This is the stuff that surely sells newspapers?

    Well, it used to, and as recently as 2006 Archant London was celebrating its Islington Gazette as the best performing paid-for London weekly, losing only 0.3pc of sale in ABC figures that year.

    But newspaper wars have hit them hard in London since then, with free daily papers and a free weekly Islington rag forcing the Gazette to give 5,000 more of its own titles away back in 2008.

    Presumably, the fact the Gazette is stapled is a fall-out of this war.

    The recession and inevitable cost-cutting led to four trainee reporters’ positions disappearing from the series the Gazette belongs in June last year, a drain of story-getters that is bound to affect quantity and therefore readers’ value for money.

    This all helped lead to a horrible 29.8pc decline in the first six-months of 2009, the paper’s sales figures down to 6,797 according to the ABCs.

    You can only hope that Archant keeps its nerve during this tough period and is not tempted to put the squeeze on any more quality.

    More trainees and more news pages are badly needed for the rough but solid custody of editor Allcock.

    The regional newspaper industry needs hard news champions like him to insist on gutsy local stories that will help small titles to survive and then prosper when the economy recovers.

    Other points to highlight:

  • The paper launched in 1856 in an office above a pie-shop in Islington High Street, the first edition just four pages and costing a halfpenny

  • A cover price of 50p bought a 56-page paper on 14 January 2010

  • 16-pages of these formed a property section, with 25 of the remaining 40 pages containing editorial

  • Just four of these pages were sport, largely Arsenal reports with a page dedicated to the likes of Kentish Town, Islington Admirals, etc. 17 sports stories in all

  • Only 13 were pure new pages, with a total story count of just 38

  • On 14 January, the news tales were: crime/court, 14; council, five (two challenging the powers-that-be for readers); transport, three; community, 13; education, two; celebrity, one (Coldplay star talks at Islington cinema)

  • A newsy ‘Agenda’ diary on page two added ten more informative shorts

  • There were ten letters in ‘Viewpoints’ on page 14, along with another eight opinions in a page eight vox-pop.

  • Given the shortage of news, why use eight pages on features and listings? Cutting the travel, fashion, Readers Club and films down to full column drops would have created four more news pages.

  • 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.


    Onlooker (27/01/2010 09:35:57)
    I’m enjoying Steve Dyson’s in-depth analyses of different newspapers. He’s spot on with his comments. And Trinity Mirror let him go ? Utter madness.

    Bystander (27/01/2010 09:46:16)
    Dear Lord…

    Mr_Osato (27/01/2010 10:17:54)
    Great front page, but the plug for the property section looks like a subhead for the splash, unless it’s reproduced poorly. Still, shows what you can do with a newsy patch like Norf Laaaandan. The problem page strikes me as the kind of thing most regional newspaper lack the guts to do. More likely to buy in a bland version, with no suggestion of local interest, from an agency

    Exasperated (27/01/2010 10:38:54)
    If Steve Dyson has such a clear vision of which stories sell newspapers, why was he unable to display that insight at the Birmingham Mail?

    Mr O (27/01/2010 10:42:43)
    Always makes me laugh when you get “experts” re-arranging the deckchairs on the titanic and making the same mistakes – time after time – by wasting their time forensically analysing papers when the only analysis needed is to look at the bottom line.
    Circulation – 6,797. Cover price 50p. Ad revenue haemorrhaging. That’s all you need to know. It’s not an economic proposition.
    When will editorial people get it into their heads that the model for regional newspapers is a busted flush – it has a far too high cost base ie staff and production (print) and not big enough revenue streams.
    It was good while it lasted, but it’s time to move on.

    Mr_Osato (27/01/2010 11:11:45)
    Mr O (imitation/flattey. Nice) Can you explain why ALL local newspaper groups continue to be profitable, most of them recording profits of 10p in the pound or more, at the lowest point in the deepest and longest recession in living memory? Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good myth/excuse for cutbacks

    Steve Dyson (27/01/2010 11:34:58)
    Thanks to all for the comments/feedback. One I’d like to discuss is Mr O’s (the imitator!). You’re right to highlight the circulation decline, but you don’t seem interested in the reasons (plural). London flooded with free dailies; a free weekly rag launching in Islington; possibly (does anyone know?) a free council rag as well; plus the recession, cutbacks, consequent value-for-money falls and, yes, the internet. Yet despite this the paper is STILL a good read, and STILL containing news not found anywhere else (show me a local free blogger who files from court). The purpose of highlighting the above is to drive home what we’ve got, what thousands upon thousands of people are paying £26 cash for each every year and what in an amongst the whirlwind of online progress we simply HAVE to work had on retaining. or else they’ll be no content left for anyone to use online!

    Jon Slattery (27/01/2010 12:10:57)
    Dear Steve,
    Enjoyed your post on the Islington Gazette.
    I live in Islington and was wondering what with all the murder, mayhem, drunken rampagers and hammer attacks in the borough, as reported by the Gazette, if I would be safer moving to Brum…or even Derby?
    PS. There’s another weekly in Islington..The Tribune.
    Hope they both prosper.

    Paul Linford (27/01/2010 12:13:24)
    We’d be happy to have you here in Derby Jon ;-). House prices are a bit cheaper than Islington too….

    Sion Simon MP, Minister for Creative Industries (27/01/2010 14:14:08)
    Having followed Steve here from the Birmingham Mail (a succesful local paper which makes a lot of money), i’m really enjoying this column. I’m a huge advocate of hyperlocal bloggers and of taking ‘citizen journalism’ seriously, but that doesn’t mean that local newspapers are dead. They’re not.
    I think Steve’s column is a great read, done with verve and chutzpah. For me – an outsider except as consumer – it brings to life an under-pressure sector which deserves to walk a bit taller, with a little more swagger than it does.

    Bluestringer (27/01/2010 14:36:36)
    It’s a bit obsessive, isn’t it, grabbing local newspapers from across the country and analysing every spit and cough, counting every story on every page and then writing it all down.
    Also perhaps a bit weird.
    I think Steve’s got too much time on his hands and needs to get out more and enjoy himself – get a hobby, play a bit of golf, that sort of stuff.

    Steve Dyson (27/01/2010 15:10:02)
    Bluestringer may well be right…! That said, having a (paid) excuse to have a pint of real ale and a pie in distant pubs every week, reading a different newspaper for half an hour each time and knocking out a few notes as I tuck into a ruby at the local curry house…? Yeah, I think I’ll stay with it for now… B-)

    fudgy (27/01/2010 15:22:09)
    Great stories but the presentation sucks. But then again most regionals look like they’re stuck in the seventies.

    Steve Dyson (27/01/2010 15:26:14)
    Content is king in my book, Fudgy

    fudgy (27/01/2010 16:04:01)
    Content is indeed king but it’s no excuse for a badly designed product.
    If a car had a great engine and interior but looked awful on the outside would you buy it?

    fullstory (27/01/2010 16:30:30)
    Shame you picked that particular edition.
    The full picture is this.
    Gazette reporters do work hard but on that week, one reporter was off and only two were working.
    Three of the stories you picked out were agency court copy, the reporters did not attend court and one was reported in the Islington Tribune the week before.
    That week’s edition was stuffed with agency stories. You would have done better to pick another week where a better sample of the reporters’ own work could have been seen.
    Nobody wants to see a world where newspapers rely on agency copy and following their rivals.
    Is this really the “gutsy” reporting you so commend?

    Mr O (27/01/2010 16:49:43)
    I’m not denying for one second it’s not a good read. It is.
    But my point is all of this analysis is just irrelevant when you don’t have a business model to sustain it.
    You said it – £26. A YEAR.PER READER. With ad revenues going nowhere except online, against the millions shelled out for staff, print and distribution costs.
    It doesn’t take a genius to work out this is unsustainable.
    You know as well as I do Steve that your old pay masters at Trinity realised this years ago and have been desperately trying to get shot of the Birmingham business for years. And no-one with any sense will take it off their hands.
    I think you’re kidding yourself if you think newspapers like the Islington Gazette is still going to be around in say five years time. Cos it won’t be. Like the rest of the regional media, they’ll either disappear or be online only.
    Just look across the pond. It’s happening NOW to every regional newspaper in America. Read what the analysts have to say. The writing’s on the wall Steve.
    Time to do something else. It’s time to give up.

    Steve Dyson (27/01/2010 16:49:51)
    Thanks for info, Fullstory. It certainly was ‘gutsy’ though, as agency supplied or not it’s the choice of story that was impressive. I’d like to think that last week’s cracker of ‘A BARE-CHESTED intruder sparked pandemonium at a church service on Sunday after allegedly threatening the congregation with a hammer’ was a staffer though, as it reads off-diary. And what a problems page!!

    Steve Dyson (27/01/2010 17:02:13)
    Thanks for the input, Mr O, but I don’t agree with your pessimism. For a start, the £26 x 6797 is more than £175,000 revenue alone. Then the adverts come on top. I cannot be sure, of course, but the following is MY guess at the ad revenue on January 14… 40+ display ads, MINIMUM £20k revenue; 6-pages of busy classified, MINIMUM £10k (and I’m being VERY conservative with both counts). £30k x 50 = £1.5m, plus the sales revenue = £1.675m. Yes, there’s costs to come out, but £1.675 revenue as a MINIMUM is a pretty good figure to start with. Times are tough, and the industry HAS to expand online, trialling all sorts of twirly bits. But it should NOT give up on the products that are still bringing in millions of pounds a year despite a recession. That’s my opinio, anyway.

    Colin Peel (27/01/2010 17:29:16)
    Isn’t the point of the blog to say ‘look see here are some real, positive examples of good local journalism’? And ‘Despite all the gloom, this is a sample of what thousands of people are peroducing every day’? On that basis, I think the blog is great and just the sort of journalism that HTFP should be producing. I’ll be watching again next week!

    Chaka Khan (28/01/2010 11:45:52)
    Hang on. Steve gets PAID for this?

    Old Father Dime (29/01/2010 09:48:24)
    So if content is king and it’s not about design, why did the backside fall out of the Birmingham Mail after a dismal redesign engineered by, erm, Steve Dyson?

    realist (29/01/2010 11:23:22)
    Would you do it for love?
    Of course he gets paid!
    Check the Northcliffe
    annual accounts for details!

    Richard Jones (29/01/2010 14:44:15)
    “That said, having a (paid) excuse to have a pint of real ale and a pie in distant pubs every week, reading a different newspaper for half an hour each time and knocking out a few notes as I tuck into a ruby at the local curry house…? Yeah, I think I’ll stay with it for now… B-)”
    Sorry Steve but this makes you sound like a bragging moron. Shame because you are a quality reporter/analyst/editor. Why feel the need to smack a low blow when there are so many journalists out of work (not me, I must add – this is not a bitter response)?

    hacker (29/01/2010 18:52:06)
    Another good column Steve. As an ex-hack I appreciate this forensic look at the local press, which you don’t find elsewhere (why?). Your analysis of the crime stories reminds me of one press trip years ago where a fellow hack said his editor refused to put crime stories on the front page because he considered crime stories to be “old hat.” Priceless.

    davy gravy (02/02/2010 17:49:55)
    Steve asks “who could resist” buying the mix of shocking and serious crime stories he highlights. Presumably quite a few people, bearing in mind the sales performance.
    Of course, there are any number of reasons why newspapers are struggling, and they do have a responsibility to report crime, but the Gazette seems to have made the mistake of losing context. Islington is a part of London that has rapidly gentrified – horrible word I know but it has changed a lot in the past few years. Locals now, I suspect, are as likely to want to know about good restaurants, or what’s on at the theatre, as about who got murdered in horrible circumstances.
    Promoting the fear of crime (which you could argue that overly dramatic coverage of crime can do) doesn’t work in London papers – Londoners know there is a lot of crime about, but they also know it is generally dropping, and that your chances of being a victim of violent crime are pretty low.
    Local papers which don’t refelect that are in danger of losing credibility – and sales.

    Old regional press hand (02/02/2010 17:57:28)
    Fair point davy but have newspapers which have eschewed crime coverage and attempted to promote a ‘good news’ agenda fared any better saleswise? Plenty have tried – I once worked on a paper where court cases were banned from the front page – but there is no evidence that it did them much good in the longer-run.