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Dyson at Large – The silence of the lambs

The rural focus of The Berwickshire News and East Lothian Herald reminds us all how crucial a notice board a newspaper can be in the remote countryside.

‘Bitter blow for farmers as weather kills lambs’ was the page one headline on the paper earlier last month, as more snow and strong winds blew final wintery blasts across the Scottish Borders region.

The stalwart weekly broadsheet is so huge I could find no scanner to create a decent image of the front, so I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with this photograph.

The paper reported “horror stories of lambs dying in driving snow and gales, heavy rain causing lambing sheds to flood and power cuts stopping farmers from heating newborns’ sheds”.

In a splash that easily contained more than 1,350 words, the News of April 8 gave intrinsic detail on how hundreds of lambs died in the storms, hitting the livelihoods of many of its readers.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all bad news, with ‘Lamb cam technology a great success’ on page 16 telling how new CCTVs were helping farmers keep a watchful eye during the lambing season.

The animal focus didn’t end there, with an eye-catching ‘Injured buzzard on road to recovery’ headline on page 10 updating readers on the progress of a recently rescued wild bird.

This pastoral theme could be found throughout the paper, advice such as ‘Planning is vital for potato growers prior to planting’ getting nine pars across three columns on page 16.

But while I could accept this as necessary information to farming readers, I felt the success of local lasses in a range of beauty competitions too often beat what I would term hard news for space.

Hence ‘Paxton pin-up aiming to be Holiday Honey’ was the picture lead on page three, a detailed, 25-par essay on a near-raunchy competition for lads-mag FHM, displaying this interestingly buxom snap of babe hopeful Georgia Graham.

Meanwhile, the much more newsworthy ‘Fiona is Labour’s new candidate’ only made six pars on the same page, despite the “bitter selection row of intimidation and persecution” described.

‘Kirsten is officially selected as the 50th Greenlaw Maid’ made the page five picture lead, this time the entrants wearing full length dresses and sashes, which struck me as far more in keeping with the weekly newspaper’s respectability.

But the far better story headlined ‘NHS Borders red carded over hospital food standards’ only made a column on the same page.

This told how the NHS Borders region only received a 50% rate for “meeting the nutritional needs of its patients”, against a national average of 87%.

The quick read had me verbally asking “just what are they feeding the sick in Scotland?”, but there was no such detail in the report, and no linked comparison of life expectancies north and south of the border.

In fact, despite the useful reportage for farming communities, country dwellers and local businesses, there was very little news of a challenging nature.

There was some fun, though, the page seven lead on recent flotsam and jetsam found creating my favourite headline in the whole paper: ‘False teeth and TV amongst items picked up on Linkim Shore’.

And perhaps this mixture of useful information and community pleasure is what the readers want, with a mere sprinkling of anything too controversial down the end legs.

The story count was just 192 on 16 broadsheet news pages, with another 30 on three sports pages but, as hinted above, remember that many stories were a huge read, a good thousand words per page lead.

Could the News with a cover price of 65p have increased the story count with short stories? Maybe, but if your readers expect every cough and spit on the major announcements of the week then I see nothing wrong in letting them have it.

Published by Tweeddale Press Group, which in turn in owned by Johnston Press, The Berwickshire News and East Lothian Herald’s sales declined by 4.7pc in the last ABCs, leaving 5,462 precious readers to cater for.

Although it covers a Scottish Borders region, it is published from an English base in Berwick, and editor Stuart Laundy also runs that town’s Berwick Advertiser, a slightly larger weekly with 7,000-plus sales.

Just how revolutionary he should be in a rural niche with generations of tradition is perhaps an interesting challenge for HoldtheFrontPage readers to ponder.


davy gravy (12/05/2010 14:45:41)
I must say the mix of old school farming news and “high street honeys” is a bit bizarre – but there is no question for very local papers, the higher story county, the better. Village news is probably the best read page in papers such as this.

Onlooker (12/05/2010 16:27:46)
This paper has had the lowest sales decline of any covered by Steve in this column. Must be doing something right.

ajinexile (13/05/2010 13:51:18)
Twenty five pars for Georgia? Her cup(size) runneth over, methinks.

Fence hopper (13/05/2010 15:01:03)
The paper’s got its knockers etc, etc.