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Dyson at Large: My nine regional heroes of 2015


That was a call that once reverberated around many a live evening newsroom coming up to deadline as pages were re-drawn, pictures were placed and the latest news was squeezed into the city final.

The immediate response was a ‘runner’ speeding across the floor, picking up page plans from the subs or image ‘floppies’ from the picture desk, then delivering them to the ‘stone’ where the final adjustments were physically stuck together ready for the press.

In between these spurts of energy, the runner sat next to the editorial assistant, often overseen by the newsroom secretary, all busily liaising with the editor’s and other department heads’ secretaries to keep the tedious but crucial administration going that would otherwise have spiralled out of control and clogged up newspaper operations.

These tasks included:

  • answering the non-stop ringing newsroom phones (these were pre-email days);
  • sorting, opening and handing out the mountainous first and then the second posts with that day’s press releases;
  • trying and failing to clear the avalanche of faxes constantly churning into the room;
  • stock-checking and replacing messy printer toners, reporters’ notebooks and pens;
  • processing expenses and sorting out petty cash;
  • pinning up the latest ‘Memo from the editor’; and
  • typing up rotas and responding to the bellows from grumpy news editors, chief subs and deputies.

The invention of desktop publishing in the 1980s and its roll-out by the 1990s did away with the need for the ‘runner’, and the internet and email revolution that followed eventually killed off many other administrative roles as faxes and hard-copy memos, rotas and press releases disappeared.

But for many newsrooms up and down the UK, one indispensable role survived: the editorial assistant, somehow even today kept in cost-cutting budgets as editors argue that their mini-empires would fall apart without them.

All the above came to mind when I read how Lin Widdecombe was celebrating 40 years as an editorial assistant at the Torquay Herald Express, where she began in 1975.

And for Lin read and remember your own favourite editorial assistants from years gone by – mine was Helena at the Birmingham Mail – and give all the remaining ones a nod as they collectively start my listicle of nine regional heroes of 2015.

Girls, ladies and lads: local newspapers would be in even more chaos without you.

At number eight on my descending list is Ted Ingram, who has died aged 95, once officially recognised as the ‘world’s oldest paper boy’ by the Guinness Book of World Records after delivering the Dorset Echo for 70 years. RIP Ted.

The Northants Herald & Post makes number seven, a newspaper once predicted to last less than six weeks that this year celebrated its 40th birthday – and long may it survive under new owners Trinity Mirror.

HoldtheFrontPage also celebrates digital journalism, and so at number six comes David Prior, the former Liverpool Daily Post and PA journalist behind the award-winning hyperlocal news website Altrincham Today.

David’s site is one of hundreds like it, of course, but the difference is how he’s also now set up Hyperlocal Today, a new mobile-first platform which he’s licensing to other journalists who want to launch their own hyperlocal publishing business.

All power to the web, but coming in ahead of David as local hero at number five is Martin Tideswell, editor of the Stoke Sentinel, for the way he and his colleagues have struck up a great partnership to have the paper’s brand running on bus routes across Staffordshire.

Most publishers are spending little money or attention on marketing the papers that are still bringing in 80pc of revenues, so let’s hope a few editors try to emulate this Stoke example of wrapping their titles around local buses.

Good local newspapers run great campaigns and campaigning human interest stories, and so coming in as local hero numbers four and three are two that especially caught my attention in 2015.

First, a First World War memorial that had been left neglected for almost 50 years but has now been resurrected thanks to a campaign by the Manchester Evening News, largely run by reporter Neal Keeling, who described its success as the “best story” of his career.

And then a story by the Lancashire Evening Post about 90-year-old reader Harry Butterworth, who was having to make a daily 60-mile round trip to visit his wife Dorothy in a nursing home.

Well done to LEP reporter Catherine Musgrove who interviewed Harry and arranged a video of his arduous journey – which included two bus rides and a half-mile walk – which soon persuaded Lancashire County Council to move Dorothy to a home closer to where he lives.

Number two on my local hero list is Paul Durrant, a former assistant editor of the Eastern Daily Press and an NCTJ journalism trainer who has helped to launch the careers of hundreds of young reporters.

Paul, who has terminal cancer of the oesophagus, didn’t let his illness stop him from writing a column for HoldtheFrontPage in September on the importance of training, in which he said: “My message to up-and-coming young journos is to never forget what you’re really there for, no matter what the platform.

“You’re there to challenge, to champion, to campaign for your patch, to probe, to ask the awkward questions and put authority on the spot. Bloody noses? Bring it on.”

He’s touched so many people that the NCTJ was this year moved to launch the annual Paul Durrant Award, going to a newly-qualified journalist working on a newspaper in the East of England for their performance in senior exams for trainees.

Charlotte Austen-Hardy, senior reporter at the Chelmsford Weekly News, was the inaugural winner, and although Paul’s illness prevented him from attending the awards ceremony I bet he enjoyed reading her remarks: “I hope to do him proud and continue to uphold the values and standards our NQJ training teaches us and which Mr Durrant holds so dear.”

Now for this year’s Dyson at Large ‘Local hero of 2015’: virtual drum roll, please … and then join me in applauding David Higgerson, the digital publishing director for Trinity Mirror’s regional titles.

David Higgerson, picture by Steve Dyson

David himself might be surprised at this, as although I consider him a friend we don’t always see eye-to-eye on the exact digital direction of regional journalism.

But for me he’s this year’s number one in recognition of his ballsy blog, his willingness to question traditional complacency and his relentless coaching of regional journalists in the very latest web tactics, preparing them for a future that no-one really knows.

Whether you agree with everything David says or not, I’ll stand up and say this for him: if there really is a profitable pot of gold for regional and local newspapers at the end of the slippery internet rainbow, he’ll be one of the first to find it.

Finally, thanks to all HoldtheFrontPage readers for putting up with me in 2015 – and let me wish you all a very happy and successful New Year.

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  • January 1, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    I have a dream. An editor at a local office (this a dream after all) says to a reporter “Forget re-writing all these e mails and filling shapes. Go to Newsville and talk to some human beings and get some real stories”
    Ah well, it was good while it lasted.

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