A post-Christmas trip to the north-east coincided with Whitby Town v Blyth Spartans on Sunday 28 December, and with the visitors due to meet Birmingham City in the FA Cup I couldn’t resist being the 584th spectator.
It was bitterly cold, and the clash was one of few Northern Premier League games not to be frozen off that weekend, but that didn’t stop both sides playing competitive, attacking football, Whitby snatching a 1-0 victory with an 89th minute goal.
Now I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy reading about the game I’ve just watched, and so I looked forward to finding at least a summary in one of the next day’s regional dailies.
I was therefore disappointed to not even find the result in the Teesside Gazette, my old paper: this able title knows it main audience and is rightly obsessed with Middlesbrough FC, but given it circulates in Whitby I thought a snippet might have been fitting for local readers.
And boy, was it worth waiting for: freelance sports reporter Andrew Snaith giving the fixture the full works with a 31-paragraph dispatch, allowing me – and, more importantly, fervent Whitby fans – to relive every substantial shot, header and save.
‘Last-gasp Pell sinks Spartans’ was the back page lead headline, with ‘We earned the right to win’ above the full report, statistics and action pictures filling nearly all of page 54.
No other media covered this game in such depth, naming every home player, recreating the buzz surrounding the Spartan’s forthcoming FA Cup tie, and even including a paragraph on the main local sponsors who’d pledged to pay Whitby £5 for every fan over 300.
This level of itemised sport is what local weeklies should be about, especially when their teams are not big enough to be covered at all by national media, and only in passing if they’re lucky by bigger regional dailies.
The Whitby Gazette should therefore be congratulated on its sports focus: with what appear to be only three full-time reporting staff in the town, it’s still worthwhile to invest in expert coverage of The Seasiders, albeit via a freelance reporter.
Despite sparse staffing, the Gazette’s news coverage in this festive edition began decently enough, with ‘Help me find my missing husband’ the front page splash on 2 January, marking the first anniversary of a local man’s disappearance.
The front page design was clean and provided space for an end-leg to project a free wall planner, news nib, sports review and calendar, and fresh fish discount – although the ‘Happy New Year’ message might have been more colourful.
Inside the paper, there were a few reporting question marks, the most notable being the page 16 lead headlined ‘Jeanette’s thrilled to meet TV star Andre’.
If you look carefully at this story, you’ll see a ‘By Slimming World’ byline, and while this particular report is harmless enough you can imagine how user-generated content (UGC) from organisations could be misused in what are supposed to be balanced news sections.
Elsewhere in the paper, at least a couple of page leads seemed to come from a reporter at the Scarborough News, the Gazette’s sister paper, for example: ‘Borough council says tax freeze likely’ on page three; and ‘Council windfall to deal with pot holes’ on page 11.
There’s nothing wrong with using relevant regional news stories, as long as you look into and add the necessary facts for local editions – but neither of the above reports contained any meaningful Whitby detail.
In the wake of various staff cuts, it’s unsurprising that shared stories, near-inapt UGC and any other copy available is allowed by Johnston Press’s regional editor Ed Asquith; he’s responsible for the Scarborough News, Malton and Pickering Mercury, Filey Mercury, Bridlington Free Press, Driffield Times & Post, and Beverley Guardian as well as the Whitby Gazette.
But I don’t think any of those titles’ readers will be hoodwinked for long if these short-cuts on news become too frequent.
Nevertheless, the Gazette’s own staff contributed some reliable local reports on various planning and parking rows, business successes and charity tributes, and there was a colourful picture spread on locals’ festive but chilly sea dips.
Other UGC contributions felt more appropriate in features, including a recipe by the chef from Whitby’s famous Magpie Cafe, a new campaign explained by the RNLI, and an ‘Exhibit of the week’ described by Sutcliffe, the renowned local photo gallery.
And I was impressed with the detailed contacts for no fewer than 12 ‘Your correspondents’ on the Gazette’s ‘Down you way’ community pages, another section where UGC has always worked well.
Overall, the Gazette was a good enough read for £1 – with around 235 stories on 56 pages – but it could be improved by the same full commitment to detailed and independent news content that the paper rightly devotes to Whitby Town FC reports.
As for sales figures, none have been released since 2012 when the Gazette enjoyed a +2.1pc rise to 9,540 copies a week; paradoxically, the then editor Jon Stokoe was made redundant the day after these were published.