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National newsman’s memories of ex-regional daily

A renowned national newspaper journalist recalled his time on a regional daily in the 1970s as he opened a new university newsroom that bears his name.

Northampton University’s Journalism school recently opened the Matthew Engel Newsroom in honour of the former Guardian writer who began his career in the town.

Matthew himself performed the opening ceremony before treating the current students to a speech in which he reminisced about his days at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo as a trainee reporter on £14 a week.

Among other things, he recalled the “long, thin, dingy” newsroom where everyone smoked, the day he received an “enormous bollocking” from the Northants cricket captain, and an offer of free cinema tickets in exchange for keeping a court case out of the paper.

Wrote Matthew:  “I have regrets about my time in Northampton…Regret no 1 is that I failed to appreciate what fun it all was and that I would never ever have quite so much enjoyment from journalism again.

“What I learned above all else was that local journalism mattered.  You had the power to help people.  And mostly young reporters were treated as friends.”

In his piece, Matthew also attempts to analyse why the now-weekly paper’s circulation plummeted from 48,000 to below 20,000 at a time when the town and its population was rapidly expanding.

Here is his piece in full.

Northampton, 1972. The year I walked into the offices of The Chronicle and Echo.

The Market Square resounded to the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Ladies in crinolines walked the streets daintily lifting their skirts to prevent the mud ruining their petticoats. Press gangs roamed the streets after dark looking for likely young men to be bludgeoned into joining the navy. Cutpurses hid in the shadows of the unlit back streets. The stagecoach to London took two days.

Inside the news room we lowly clerks, in our wigs and breeches, sat writing in high stools by flickering candlelight scratching out our reports with quill pens, and at the end of the week were paid a princely sum not unadjacent to 14 quid.

I’m a journalist. I may exaggerate a bit. But I think the 14 quid a week was true.

Our newsroom was a long thin dingy room with most of the reporters sat on either side of a central table, with the chief reporter – effectively the news editor – at the top. We used a rum collection of ancient typewriters with little sheets of copy paper and a piece of carbon, known as a black. We wrote a single paragraph per sheet  in case the subs needed to whisk it away fast. There were three graffiti-covered phone boxes against one wall, which we used to do our interviewing.

Next door was a similar-sized room but much better-lit, which housed the subs and the sports desk. They sent the copy away to be hot-metal typeset upstairs by a series of pneumatic tubes. And downstairs were the presses. When the first-edition run started just after lunch, the whole building shook.

Many years later I was in San Francisco when there was a major earthquake, and it was exactly the same sensation.

The newsroom was smoky, because we nearly all smoked. And it was dark because the window side of the room was partitioned-off into five little offices. The tiniest was used by the leader-writer who came in mornings only. It was said that he would take that morning’s Daily Mail, cut out the leader column, remove anything that smacked of opinion and rewrite the rest into the voice of the Chronicle and Echo. No one knew if this was really true because no one ever read it.

The other four offices housed the hierarchy. The editor was Mr Freeman, a kindly, elderly – well, probably the age I am now so not elderly at all – man. The assistant editor, the No. 3, was always Derrick. And the features editor, Ian.

It was understood that we youngsters mistered Mr Freeman as we did Mr Rogers, the burly, bluff, bullying managing director. And we Derricked and Ianed Ian. But none of us youngsters seemed to know what we were meant to call the deputy editor, Michael Field. Was he Michael or Mr Field?

However, we didn’t have to speak to him often because we didn’t know what he did, which is often the fate of deputy editors. He appeared just to sit there reading page proofs. So we covered our embarrassment by hardly speaking to him at all.

The Chronicle and Echo was a rather old-fashioned paper, even for 1972. Other local evening papers had moved to fancy new web-offset printing, whatever that was. They were also more professionally edited. I was a bit jealous of this, and thought I wanted to work for a proper paper. I had no idea how lucky we were. And how lucky I was.

I happened to arrive, mad keen on cricket, just at the moment the longstanding cricket correspondent had decided – I’m still baffled why – to give up journalism and become a schoolteacher. In the meantime, he certainly didn’t want to do Sunday matches. So within a month of joining, I was covering Northamptonshire’s one-day games. I started to put jokes in the copy.

Almost any other paper would have just cut them out and told me to do it properly.  The worst that happened to my copy was that the dear old deputy sports editor would punctuate the jokes with exclamation marks. When I asked him not to do that, he said “I’m so sorry, old boy. I just wanted to show you how funny they were.”

I learned slowly how little I knew about sportsmen and what you could and could not fairly say about them. I got the most enormous bollocking from the captain of Northamptonshire, after I had talked about a player dropping a “dolly in the slips”.

In forceful terms, Jim Watts, an experienced professional, explained to me, whose experience of cricket had peaked at village matches, that there was never, ever such a thing as an easy slip catch. And to this day, when I occasionally still write about cricket, I never criticise anyone for dropping a catch unless I am confident I would have caught it myself. Which means almost never.

I have written somewhere that no one knows anything about journalism until you have travelled on the team bus with the hairy-arsed left-back you slagged off in the previous week’s Green ‘Un. These days the Saturday sports editions, the Green, Pink, Buff and Blue ‘Uns, have all gone. Left-backs probably now wax their arses for all I know. And I don’t suppose local newspapermen travel on team buses. Or travel anywhere much.

But what I learned above all else was that local journalism mattered. You had the power to help people. And mostly young reporters were treated as friends. Some of the older people went back before 1931, when the Tory Chronicle and the Liberal Echo merged. And the way they referred to the paper was the clue to their politics. And they would usually call you M’duck. You also had the power to hurt them. Small-time, as in unfairly criticising a sportsman. Big-time, by blighting someone’s life by reporting their court case.

If you nicked something from a shop in Northampton in the 1970s there were two punishments. One was the trivial fine imposed by the magistrates. The other was the public disgrace of having your name in the paper. Because everyone read the Chron. Every day.

Long before my time, every court case would have been reported. Later, hardly anything short of a murder got a mention. My era was in the middle. We couldn’t do them all: there would be two or more courts going on at once, so the job was to nip about and find good stories.

The one rule was that if someone asked us to leave their case out, we had to put it in. Especially if there was a bribe attached. I was offered 50p once, and  another time free admission to the ABC cinema. The only person ever known to have listened to sob stories was the editor, who had made the rule. He was a softie. But one case still prays on my mind: a man whose sexual needs were unusual but harmless, and whose shame I could have mitigated. The fair way, actually, is to list every single case.

I have regrets about my time to Northampton. That court case is the second biggest. Regret no. 4 is that I should have dealt more cleverly and less angrily with the rather officious chap who became chief reporter a few months after I arrived. No. 3 is that I wish I’d plucked up the courage to ask the lovely Caroline Martin for a date.

Regret no. 1 is that I failed to appreciate what fun it all was and that I would never ever have quite so much enjoyment from journalism again. To have a job that allowed me, at 21, 22, 23, to be at the very heart of a community, to gain an understanding of it I could get in no other way and to write with a surprising amount of freedom about it.

But oh no. We would drink – rather a lot – in Shipmans, a real boozers’ bar down an alley off the Market Square. And we’d sit having toasted tea cakes in the coffee shop in Adnitt’s, which became Debenhams, and we’d moan about the paper, and actually wish it was less eccentric.

We would talk about Ian, the features editor, who produced arts pages of extraordinary erudition, mainly for his own enjoyment, actually. And we would say: “Ian Mayes is wasted. He really ought to be arts editor of The Guardian.” And one of the most satisfying moments, when I was already on The Guardian, was when Ian arrived and became… arts editor. He later became the pioneering readers’ editor.

In fact a high percentage of us in that era have made “successful” careers, in newspapers, magazines, books, TV, PR.

I left in a hurry because I was a young man in a hurry, though I had to go down a few cul-de-sacs before I went anywhere. And I have since been very lucky in my career. I’ve covered everything from sport to war. I’ve had by-lines from seven continents, hitting No. 7 when the FT sent me to the South Pole last year.

I also did a bit of reporting from Northern Ireland, at the fag-end of the troubles. One of the regular flashpoints took place in the town of Portadown: the annual Protestant march to Drumcree Church, which traditionally went through Catholic areas as a deliberate provocation. It’s still a flashpoint: the Ulster troubles aren’t over; they’re in remission.

The first time I went I interviewed the editor of the Portadown Times, David Armstrong. Anyway, I wrote a shitty piece in the Guardian saying what a dump Portadown was. And he wrote a very nasty letter.

A few years later I went back to write about Portadown in supposed peacetime. I knew Armstrong had retired, so I risked going back in to the Times office to see his successor. When who should walk in to the reception but David Armstrong. He recognised me at once. It was a difficult moment. Anyway, we agreed to have a coffee. And we chatted, and we made peace, and became friendly.

What struck me was what happened on the walk between the office and the cafe. He exchanged nods and good mornings with, I estimate, every second person. Most of the others must have been outsiders. He knew everyone – Protestant, Catholic, whatever. This was a place where local journalism really mattered, on a million small stories, and some that had global resonance.

And they trusted him. This was a road I didn’t take. But there is a large part of me that wishes I could have spent my life as Davey Armstrong. Maybe not in Portadown. I’d have preferred Northampton, but you get the point, I hope.

That was never going to be possible. Northampton was changing. And so was local journalism. The town was expanding fast. It was ceasing to be a place where a local reporter could know, if not everyone, then certainly everyone who mattered.

The papers had big plans too: it was being kicked out of our lovable slum which was to become the Grosvenor Centre, and moving to its current office on the Mounts. Modern printing, everything. With the increasing population it was reckoning, so the chief sub told me, on selling 80,000 a day instead of 48,000.

Soon after I left, and nice Mr Freeman was pushed into retirement to be replaced by some corporate whizzkid who was described to me by one of those left behind as “a dynamic prat”.

In the early 1970s, you may be aware, trade unions were more powerful than they are now. The print unions really were all-powerful, though their jobs were already largely unnecessary. They could and did stop newspapers appearing on the slightest pretext. That didn’t end until Rupert Murdoch – his greatest achievement –  faced them down ten years later.

The National Union of Journalists liked to think it was powerful. And the Chronicle and Echo chapel one day voted to protest against the pitiful rate for car mileage by banning the use of our private cars on reporting jobs. We would go by bus. The Father of the Chapel, the head of our local union, went in to see burly, bluff Mr Rogers and explained our strategy.

“And so?” said Mr Rogers.

“So you’ll miss stories,” came the devastating reply.

And so?”

And so we put our brilliant plan into effect. We endured the buses for about two days then crept back into our little Minis and Morris Minors.

This was just the beginning of the change that would engulf the industry. The turning point came when the NUJ went on a national strike against local papers in 1978. The dynamic prat and a handful of senior executives brought out the Chronicle & Echo. The pattern was repeated across the country. Sales figures were not even dented.

The newspapers had an effective monopoly of the three main areas of classified advertising: cars, houses and jobs. The conclusion management drew was that editorial was largely irrelevant.

In the short-term, that had some truth. Because newspaper-buying is a habit. In the long term, however, readers noticed that the paper had gone from being slightly crap to completely crap. And they broke the habit.

And the years went by. The paper was sold on twice, until it ended in the hands of Johnston Press, who took the editorial-doesn’t-matter philosophy to the nth degree. But even before the internet, as the paper got worse and so did journalists’ salaries, circulation kept falling by a steady 3-4pc a year.

The Chronicle and Echo circulation never did reach 80,000. I think it fell below 20,000 before it ceased to be a daily last year, making Northampton and Milton Keynes the largest places in Britain – perhaps the largest in the Western world – without daily newspapers of their own.

Part of this was due to social change. The internet we know. But it was the very expansion of Northampton that was part of the problem. All those faraway places with strange-sounding names like Lumbertubs and Bellinge that were fields when I was growing up.

They were full of people who never read the Chron. They supported proper football teams, not the Cobblers. They didn’t know anyone who was in the paper. They didn’t know their neighbours.

And you will find that the towns where local newspaper circulations have declined most slowly are those that have stable population and a genuine sense of community. Not just Portadown, which has two communities, one often intent on killing the other. But middle-sized towns across England, especially those a long way from London.

If I had spent my life as a journalist in Northampton I would have been…. completely impoverished, actually. If I’d married Caroline Martin, she’d have left me, I’m sure.

But I still believe passionately in the importance of real local journalism. It is an absolute bulwark of democracy, and it is utterly failing to fulfil that role. At its best, it strengthens communities. And it can be the most enormous fun. I have a plan, and it may or may not ever happen, to make a little local journalistic mischief in my old age where I live in Herefordshire.

It won’t involve some scuzzy media conglomerate and it won’t involve print. It will involve what for me is the real joy of journalism: dealing with people.

I’m sure you’re all here, dreaming of the bright lights. And jetting across the world. And blowing politics sky-high with your exclusives. Practising your name; as I did: ‘Matthew Engel, News at Ten, Hollywood’. And inventing the next Twitter and Facebook, whatever they are.  Good luck with all of that.

But hear this. An old army hand taught me the expression “Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.” There isn’t anything more worthwhile in this business then getting out there and learning what makes people tick. And working for whatever medium they will read, see or hear. Don’t be in too much of a rush to specialise. Don’t be in too much of a rush to move on.  Grasp the opportunity if it comes. And enjoy it.