It’s the elephant in the room for many hard-pressed regional daily editors: when and where to slash worthless features.
With tighter pagination and fewer reporters, it’s surely the only way to increase the quantity and quality of local news, which everyone knows is what readers want more than anything else.
I don’t mean ‘kill all features’, of course – there are sometimes good, in-depth interviews on local issues that fully deserve 800 words and three well-composed pictures.
But just consider the amount of space that dailies waste on feature items that have little or no local content, and that are merely weaker versions of arts, lifestyle or soft consumer stories that have often appeared elsewhere.
This all came to mind when I spent 45p on Northcliffe’s Bristol Evening Post on Thursday 16 February.
I want to tread carefully here: I’ve met BEP editor Mike Norton, respect him and think his paper’s news and sports content is pretty strong. More of that later.
But the BEP’s features pages on that Thursday were a good example of the waste that can be seen in most regional dailies.
In the eB (entertain/Bristol) pull-out on 16 February, page one was a magazine style cover with a singer’s picture filling a third of the page, and no stories other than four picture write-offs.
Pages two and three contained three film reviews of the latest box office hits – with no details of where and when they can be seen in Bristol. Who turns to their local paper to find out about films that have been previewed everywhere else in print, online and on air?
The end double-column leg on page three was filled with computer games reviews; hands up who reads these in their local daily? Along with CD and book reviews, the majority in local papers are only read by those who write them.
Page five was mainly filled with a 29-par interview with a minor comic; in fairness, he was local, but how many readers are riveted by a Q and A with a fringe stand up?
Pages six and seven contained a 39-par interview with an Australian actor; the play he’s in was about to open in Bristol, but 1,000+ words on an Ozzie thespian was a yawn.
So it continued throughout the 16-page eB: long interviews with actors, singers and chefs, and two-thirds of a page reviewing an art exhibition.
There were ten more features pages outside of eB – with a 44-par review of a two-day trip to London another prime example of wasted space.
All of it – or certainly most of it – could well have warranted tight page leads, succinct end columns or crunched kickers, perhaps together with local listings crammed into a high value ten-page feature section.
But 26 pages of stretched, mainly PR copy, much with only tenuous links to Bristol, meant a story count of 60+ in features, with just 67 stories on 24 news pages. That balance didn’t feel right.
Just think of what could have been done with 16 extra full pages on news and sport – and with reporters previously concentrating on their cinema/theatre/gig/recipe/travel hobbies instead reassigned to deliver real local stories.
The features debate aside, the BEP’s front page splashed on a very readable ‘Menace on our roads’ exclusive, a shocking tale of a driver finally jailed after flouting a driving ban 21 times.
The picture was also good, capturing the moment a detective told the world of the chilling Thornbury vicar murder – jogging the memories and interest of readers who’d seen the image on TV news from the night before.
My only page one criticism was the X-Factor star dominating the masthead. Yes, she’s pretty, but Rebecca Ferguson is from Liverpool and didn’t deserve the near two pages of space she received here and in eB just because she’s appearing in Bristol in March.
Inside, the local news agenda was strong: a road rage head-butting on page five; sickness bugs closing hospital wards on page seven; a row over new bendy buses on page eight; a builder fined for anti-gay abuse on page 13; and a dreadful baby battering case on page 16.
Other positive highlights included ‘On the beat’, a well-written bobby’s column on page 10, and ‘The birth of’ and ‘The Life of’ above ‘Family Announcements’ on page 36, the first carrying a new-born’s mini-biog, the second a thoughtful local obituary.
And in a compact ten-page sports section, three pages were devoted to valuable lists of hundreds of local football fixtures and 98 league tables all the way down to under-9s.
A couple of irritations: too many page leads were used across spreads in news, resulting in six awkwardly split pictures; sport looked better with no leads spread, and therefore no pictures split.
And ’24 hours’ was emblazoned on 2cm page top straps across all news pages, changing to ‘Focus’ and then ‘Highlights’ on the ten features pages outside of eB, making no sense to me; in sport, they used ‘Sport’, which worked.
These small negatives could easily and quickly be improved in a paper that still felt it had some good content and direction for the 38,344 people who buy it every day.
The real challenge – like for many regional dailies – would be to sacrifice some overblown features that few want for more detailed local news that can’t be found anywhere else.