There was never a dull moment when I was working at Caters News Agency in Birmingham in the early 1990s.
Because if we green-behind-the-ears reporters ever hinted it was “a quiet news day” then our Liverpool-based boss, the late Roger Blyth, would growl: “Well get down to inquests or magistrates and find something.”
Those courts, Roger insisted, were overflowing with life, and we should never emerge without a human interest story that could be told and sold.
His guidance came to mind when I picked up the Derbyshire Times on Thursday 21 May: ‘DAD KILLED MONTHS BEFORE HIS WEDDING’ screamed page one, with ‘Fiancée’s tribute after biker’s death crash’ as the overline.
The fatal crash happened a week earlier, but victim Neil Farrer’s personal details and a summary of how he died were confirmed by a Chesterfield coroner’s court hearing.
The form of quotes from Neil’s fiancée made it obvious that she’d been spoken to in person, either outside the court or via a death-knock.
The fifth and sixth paragraphs read: ‘He was due to marry his fiancée, Denise Lewis, on a dream Christmas Eve ceremony this year. Tearful Ms Lewis said: “I could fill your paper with words on how wonderful Neil was,”’ and she then filled another seven paragraphs with her grief.
What I valued about this 22-paragraph story was that it hadn’t been lazily gleaned from the internet alone, as can be too often the case in some newspapers in 2015.
Nearly half of reporter Michael Broomhead’s report was that direct interview with Ms Lewis, plus he’d recorded the inquest opener and collected messages left with flowers at the scene of the accident; only then had he inserted extra Facebook comments.
It was refreshing to see more evidence of old-style newsgathering from courts and council throughout the Times’ inside pages.
There were, for example, five page leads from Chesterfield magistrates’ court by reporter Jon Cooper: ‘Badger killer is spared jail’, page seven; ‘Prison threat to serial thief’, page 10; ‘Dog flea horror pair hit with lifetime ban’, page 14; ‘Teen attacked pal after booze row’, page 18; and ‘Woman wrecks mum’s house’, page 28.
Note I’ve only included page leads in the above list: there were at least another 25 court reports on other pages.
Indeed, despite much criticism about content cut-backs by Times’ publisher Johnston Press, it still seems keen on courts coverage, with a ‘Court reporter’ job in Preston currently advertised on this site.
Another six leads came from council coverage: ‘Home shut after care fears’, page three; ‘Safety fear at notorious roundabout site’, page four (both Derbyshire County Council); ‘Driver loses job after benefit con’, page eight; ‘Record 31 years for councillor’, page 20 (both Chesterfield Borough Council); ‘Controversial plan moves a step closer’, page 15 (Bolsover District Council); and ‘Fears that new Aldi store could jeopardise 500 jobs’, page 23 (Peak District National Park Authority).
Other pages that caught my attention included a picture spread from a day that Bear Grylls had spent with local Scouts (he’s Chief Scout of The Scout Association), and a three-page ‘Obituaries’ section that contained write-ups on 29 recent local deaths.
It was only last month that the Times’ editor Graeme Huston was seconded to Northern Ireland by Johnston to oversee the roll-out of the group’s ‘newsroom of the future’ project.
But from what I could see, acting editor Nancy Fielder is maintaining high standards in a 128-page paper that contained more than 320 stories on around 90 editorial pages.
My main criticism of the Times was the lack of people pictures: at least eight of the main images on editorial pages were of buildings, with the same picture of the outside of Chesterfield magistrates’ courts used twice on pages 10 and 28.
And a minor snag was not cross-referring the page 16 editorial leader to the Aldi-row planning story it was commenting about on page 23, nor vice versa.
The weekly Times’ sales are no longer audited by ABC, but they were recorded as selling 24,959 as recently as 2013, then priced at 95p a copy (now £1.05, or 80p for subscribers).
Postscript: on a really ‘quiet’ day at Caters, with fellow reporters dispatched to magistrates and inquests, I was sent to industrial tribunals on the off-chance that a sacked bus driver’s case “might be juicy”.
Roger’s instinct about courts was again proved correct: the driver been dismissed for singing “You’ve got a lovely pair of coconuts” to well-endowed female passengers, and the coverage made page leads in three national tabloids.