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’.
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.