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Dyson at Large: Overall quality despite weak splash

The Journal, in Newcastle, is a fine daily paper with a strong history, but its front page was diluted on Wednesday 11 March 2015.

It wasn’t all bad: the sports boost across the top worked, and the ‘Cheltenham free bet worth £5’ was well-worded and designed with some punch.

But the splash headline – surely critical for page one – was dull and almost repetitious: ‘Sweeping change to county’s planning rules take a big step’.

The Journal page one

And the introduction was just as hackneyed: ‘Controversial proposals to revamp Northumberland’s struggling planning service have moved a major step closer despite a hail of criticism.’

The story – which in the second par explained itself better – was really only worthy of an inside page lead, as it lacked any compelling human interest element.

A much stronger potential was the picture story about a local school becoming the region’s first to take children from birth (in child care) through to university, although ‘From the cradle to the rave’ struggled in the headline (why ‘rave’?).

The Journal aims to serve a largely ABC1 audience across the wide north-east region, and there was plenty of decent news content on inside pages for the paper’s ‘serious’ readers, including:

  • ‘Fans object to land sale proposals’ leading page two, reporting the latest twists to the tale about a £47m development next to St James’ Park;
  • ‘Pioneering DNA study offers hope to millions of patients’ leading page five, highlighting how two local families had benefited from new research;
  • ‘Minister admits unlevel playing field on funding’ leading page seven, showing how a visiting politician was grilled on regional investment by local councillors;
  • ‘We will be building too many homes – councillor’ leading page 15, revealing a local politician’s counterintuitive views on a major future issue; and
  • ‘Inspectors’ praise for women’s prison’ leading page 18.

Moving on from news, there were various other well-structured sections in The Journal with good content, including:

  •  a ‘J2’ section from page 19 to 24, with an in-depth read on historical political posters and a nicely laid-out op-ed spread;
  • a detailed and newsy 20-page ‘Business’ pull-out, itself splashing on scores of jobs at risk as a local marine firm went into administration;
  • a ‘J3’ section on nostalgia, culture, food and drink and other lifestyle subjects, with a great read about a local arts director’s campaign on ‘creative ageing’ – probably just right for a big chunk of Journal readers; and
  • a healthy selection of sports pages, with the above-mentioned £5 free bet in a 12-page Cheltenham section called ‘The Punter’, and nine other pages of reports and analysis.

The story count was around 250 (many of them in-depth reads) on 74 pages in an 80-page book on 11 March, not bad value for a 70p cover price, and the most recent print sales figure was 16,165, an 11pc annual decline.

The Journal, by the way, has been without an editor since Brian Aitkin’s departure in November, with Newcastle Chronicle editor Darren Thwaites in ultimate control as editor-in-chief of Trinity Mirror North East.

Now Darren is a good operator, playing a cohesive role in what’s been a fast-changing period for senior management in Newcastle, as well as pioneering many worthwhile online initiatives across the region.

But his first and foremost role is as editor of the Newcastle Chronicle, which means he can’t easily be editor of The Journal as well.

As anyone who’s ever worked in a multi-title centre knows, the traditional ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ are very different beasts, needing a certain number of title-specific staff to make them stand out, including a senior editor who owns, breathes and lives each brand.

The current status quo appears to have hit staff morale, according to a note I’ve received from an inside source at the paper, who wrote: “We haven’t hired an editor since Brian Aitken was made redundant and we have no indication as to when (or if) someone will be appointed.

“The Journal has an entirely different relationship with readers [and] links with the business and political communities that the Chron, essentially a city paper, doesn’t… Readers ask me questions about The Journal’s direction and I don’t know what to tell them.”

I asked Trinity Mirror if and when it was going to recruit a replacement for Brian Aitken and, if not, to confirm who was the ‘editor’.

Trinity Mirror spokesman Harry Carter replied: “Under the Newsroom 3.1 structure Darren Thwaites carries overall publishing responsibility for The Journal as editor-in-chief for the region. Richard Kirkman makes day-to-day decisions on content placement as Print Publishing Editor.”

But with the best will in the world, someone who ‘makes day-to-day decisions on content placement’ for The Journal but who otherwise answers to the Chronicle editor is only really a ‘duty’ or ‘day’ editor operationally, and is not the public face of the paper.

The editor is king,  as they say – but I believe that whoever that is should be properly crowned, giving The Journal an independent, senior editor in name and role to proudly lead the title in a competitive print and digital marketplace.

22 comments

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  • March 25, 2015 at 7:44 am
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    So the Chief Sub is the Editor of TheJournal print edition.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 8:16 am
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    Steve, you know how Trinity Mirror operates, right?

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  • March 25, 2015 at 8:43 am
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    Oh dear! Apart from anything else, that splash headline verb should be singular, not plural. Or maybe making the subject plural ( ‘changes … take’) would have read better.
    And presumably you will spot the typo on the first mention of Brian Aitken’s name.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 8:58 am
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    I was always taught that words like “the” and “a” should not appear in headings. And they should have a verb in them wherever possible to make them active (this page scores well on that front). Is that not so any more, now that 22 year olds write their own headings.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 9:25 am
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    Steve – you do realise the Journal only sells 16,000 copies a day. Do you really think it can afford a highly (some may say over) paid dedicated Editor?

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  • March 25, 2015 at 12:44 pm
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    To have such a basic grammar error on the front page heading shows how well edited most papers are nowadays. There would have been rapped knuckles a few years back. Now it is chuckles. Still, as long as it fits!
    Check.check.check.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 12:47 pm
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    Confirms my worst fears about people like group editors. Do they edit? What do they do?

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  • March 25, 2015 at 1:22 pm
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    If you think The Journal print errors are bad, take a look at The Middlesbrough Gazette online.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 1:32 pm
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    Argh! Good spot ‘old grammarian’, and I’ll leave my literal glaringly wrong as a standing reminder on why we need subs, proofreaders (and editors).

    Talking of which, ‘Realistic’, of course The Journal should have an editor. Not to have someone who oversees, driving excellence with their omnipresence, results in howlers and ‘good enough’ sentiments.

    And that only adds to a paper’s decline – in quality and in external marketing. An editor in the real role of ‘editor’ not only oversees the operation but is also out there in the marketplace driving sales, reputation and – often – commercial partnerships.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 2:43 pm
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    A formerly fine paper, rapidly going down the pan having more than halved its readership in less than ten years. The twenty-page Business pull-out was the weekly Wednesday supplement, not a daily section which used to be excellent until a couple of years ago when T-M decided that the Business editorial team would go, to be replaced by reporters who were more at home doing celeb stories on the Sunday Sun, and had no contacts in the business community. As a result more and more readers are turning to Bdaily online, where they can read the same churned press releases for nothing.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 4:51 pm
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    The reporter that “Tog” (funny how these trolls always hide behind pseudonyms) rather slyly refers to actually has excellent contacts in the North East business community, built up over the last two years since she moved to the business desk. I’d happily take her and the rest of the dedicated business team formed last year over embittered ex-hacks.

    Graeme Whitfield
    Business editor
    The Journal

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  • March 25, 2015 at 5:01 pm
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    The Journal was a “fine” paper probably 40 to 50 years ago when it knew its readership. It lost its way a long time ago. The Northern Echo was always the superior north east newspaper.

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  • March 25, 2015 at 6:32 pm
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    The navel gazing by journalists is excruciating. How about we stop obsessing over newspapers and talk about what readers are actually reading?
    Apps, the websites, the social media platforms, e-mail newsletters – there’s plenty of other platforms, run by regional newsrooms, to critique (good and bad). Purely reviewing the print platform is boring and myopic. If you can’t wean yourself off it completely, at least look at what titles are doing digitally as well.

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  • March 26, 2015 at 6:39 am
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    Why has the word ‘kids’ replaced the word ”children’?

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  • March 26, 2015 at 9:37 am
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    I think Graeme Whitfield would make an excellent editor of The Journal on many levels, not least that he has a progressive track record of a foot in both (digital and print) camps. Please note there is no hidden signal or motive in this message – just an honest observation from the outside looking in.

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  • March 26, 2015 at 10:41 am
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    The Journal is still a fairly decent read despite it not being the same animal it was. The decline in sales is scary and I don’t like the way the first news section stories on the website are linked from the Chronicle’s because most of them don’t relate to the Journal’s much wider distribution area. Business holds its own as Graeme says, and the Culture section has to be a winner.

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  • March 26, 2015 at 10:53 am
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    You can’t beat HTFP comment sections for ageism. Every time there is a mistake it’s always “twenty-something” or “wet behind the ears this”. Trust me, I worked under some crap middle aged subs and news editors back in a time when newsrooms had numbers. Age is but a number – experience doesn’t guarantee quality.

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  • March 26, 2015 at 11:34 am
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    Some of these comments are incredibly negative. It feels like a lot of people who post are only satisfied when the industry struggles.

    Steve had a lot of positive things to say about The Journal, why not focus a bit more on that?

    I also think ‘Head in hands’ makes an important point. It would have been interesting to hear more about the title’s digital offer in the review.

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  • March 26, 2015 at 9:37 pm
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    I read this article several times and can only conclude that Steve proves that the longer you’re out of the newsroom, the more out of touch you become. Despite the patronising description of Darren as a ‘decent operator’ it’s obvious to anyone who actually thinks about it (rather than aiming for 500 words of bloggage and then stopping) that you can set the direction, tone and approach for several newspapers (brands if you want to consider their future in a digital world) especially if you have someone looking after things on a day to day basis.

    I’ve never heard the phrase ‘the editor is king.’ It’s not been the case for many years – it’s the managing director who has been king for a number of years.

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  • March 30, 2015 at 12:59 pm
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    Bloody Nora has a point. Some old lags were a liability I agree. But the loss of so many older experienced good hacks has exposed the inexperience of even the most talented young people. And some young people are being promoted to junior management too early.

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