Amid all the misery of double-digit declines, you only have to delve a little deeper into the ABC regional sales reports to spot some fascinating figures.
For me, the stand-out fact was The Gazette, Teesside, once a relative minnow in the newspaper industry, selling a daily average of 22,513 between January and June this year, for the first time ‘overtaking’ the one-time giant Birmingham Mail’s sale of 21,086.
My interest in the comparative circulations of these two Trinity Mirror titles stems from my own career, which was largely at the Mail (whose deep decline this blog discussed last year) but also included a three-year stint at The Gazette in Middlebrough, from 2002 to 2005.
The Gazette was selling 58,545 in mid-2005, at that stage still some distance from the 91,906 sold by the Mail, so what’s behind the disproportionately shallower fall of the Teesside title, now also selling more than city ‘evenings’ in Bristol, Derby, Edinburgh, Leeds and Portsmouth?
For a start, Teesside is a traditionally working class area with a largely indigenous population, where a circulation director once referred fondly to streets where ‘every other house’ bought the paper.
The down-to-earth grittiness of the area’s main towns of Middlesbrough, Stockton and Redcar has always made it one of the UK’s newsiest areas, where the question at morning conference was never “where’s the splash?” but was often “what shall we splash on today?”.
And while the urban conurbation numbers some 345,000 people, many readers still feel they’re local, and therefore have a stronger-than-usual interest in seeing their own names and those of their neighbours in print, which The Gazette continuously provides.
On Wednesday September 7, for example, the splash was ‘768 drivers caught speeding’, an issue that’s as captivating for local readers as bin collections and perverts hanging around schools.
But if needed, there were plenty of other straight-talking options to choose from, including ‘Rugby player jailed for punching man’ on page four and ‘Audi driver failed breath test but keeps his licence’ on page 13.
Do you see what I mean about grittiness? No-one on Teesside’s too bothered about celebrity antics and click-bait style stories, but they love a good, old-fashioned tale about speeding, punching or drink-driving.
They like real-life emotion too, as in the page three lead ‘If it wasn’t for Lorraine, then I wouldn’t be here’, telling how a woman’s best friend spotted her early symptoms of cancer, and the page nine lead ‘Darren was so well-loved’, paying tribute to a car-crash victim.
Other good, candid stories included a school put into special measures leading page three, a man arrested over a 170mph YouTube video on page five, the slow stroke recovery of an ex-Boro player on page six, and a suspicious death inquest on page ten.
As for multiple names and pictures of local people in the paper, just look at the huge blurbs that fill the top half of page one: ‘Twelve pages of your cute kids’, and ‘Tees Pride 10K runners and times’, the latter pointing to eight pages jam-packed with runners’ personal results.
And it’s not just beauty contests and charity runs: The Gazette also still has its daily ‘Scales of Justice’ column of magistrates’ convictions, the page four list including the names, ages, addresses, misdemeanours and sentences of 15 local scallywags.
In the main 60-page paper, there were more than 150 stories on 46 editorial pages, as well as numerous listings, results and race cards in small-point, and then the two above-mentioned pullouts.
This paper has always had good content available for a news-hungry audience, but to make all this work it also has another crucial ingredient: the right type of staff.
When I joined back in 2002, the news editor was a no-nonsense young lad called Chris Styles, who was thrilled at having such a great news patch that served loyal readers.
After a long stint as deputy on the Newcastle Chronicle, Chris returned as the unassuming but effective editor at The Gazette in 2011, leading a team whose names I still recognise nearly a dozen years after leaving.
Sarah Dale and Gareth Lightfoot both joined as young, enthusiastic reporters when I was editor, and both are still there now as experienced hands.
Slightly longer-in-the-tooth back in 2005 were Mike Blackburn and Dave Robson, and so it’s a joy to see both quality hacks still playing The Gazette’s ‘man in town’ roles in the districts of Stockton and Redcar.
And in the back pages – just as crucial to football-mad Gazette readers – two cracking sports writers from my time called Anthony Vickers and Philip Tallentire are still the paper’s main Boro players.
Vickers is the fans’ man, a deeply-involved supporter who lives out the team’s dreams and nightmares for the paper as if he’s shouting from the terraces; Tallentire is the straight guy, with traditional skills and balance.
Even The Gazette’s commercial management feels right: the local boss is Teessider Bob Cuffe, the advertising director in my time, but one who was always welcomed by staff on the editorial floor for his genuine interest in, knowledge and chats about the day’s headlines.
He’s also someone who I know current staff were pleased to see bounce back to lead the Teesside business after a previous Trinity Mirror hierarchy wrongly got rid of him from another senior North East role.
We all know it’s a tough time for newspapers, but it’s heartening to see that The Gazette, Teesside is still buzzing with stories that a steady audience want to read, delivered by a tough, thorough and caring staff who know what to provide.
Sadly, even this fine paper’s sales have tumbled, but I predict they’ll continue to fall less heavily than in Birmingham and most other places in the UK.