It’s been a difficult time for editors at what was Local World in the past few weeks, with some ruthless restructuring by new owner Trinity Mirror.
Those leaving the business to ‘seek opportunities elsewhere’ or ‘for personal reasons’ have so far included: Paul Brackley of the Cambridge News, Kevin Booth of the Leicester Mercury, Dave Atkin of the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Neil White of the Derby Telegraph, Lynne Fernquest of the Bath Chronicle and Rob Stokes of the Western Daily Press.
This is the sort of thing that happens, of course, whenever a large company takes over a competitor: the new owner understandably seeks immediate conformity from senior management of the absorbed party, and acts quickly to exit anyone who’s not 100pc up for it.
Trinity Mirror’s executives even created their own informal saying for this in the early 2000s, and while I can’t fully spell it out here, the acronym was FIFO.
On a personal note, I know how the above ‘are you in or out?’ process works: in 2009 the company decided to make serious savings at its Birmingham division, after years of cuts, and I no longer wanted a part of it. Cue redundancy, and a form of coded words that told the world why I was off.
And so I’ve felt for each of the ex-Local World editors who’ve left in recent weeks, while at the same time knowing that the departures were, probably, at least partly their own doing, and that some might have been able to stay if they’d enthusiastically played ball.
But I was particularly saddened to read the news that Trinity Mirror was cutting three out of five staff, including the editor, on the Dudley-based Black Country Bugle, and moving production 30-odd miles away to Tamworth.
Why? Because I remember the day well back in 2013 when what was then the new Local World was casting around for a new editor for the Bugle.
One of its executives called me as part of their search for an experienced hand to carefully refine operations at the niche product, (not to ask me to edit, by the way, but to get me to open my contacts book for people that might fit the bill).
They found what they were after: John Butterworth, a cracking editor, one of the Midlands’ most experienced journalists, and a gentleman to boot, and they tempted him out of semi-retirement to run this little jewel of a ‘nostalgia news’ paper.
And the thing about John is that I knew, personally, just how much he was enjoying himself, and how proud he was of the way staff on the Bugle responded to his call to lift themselves and their output.
It was pleasurable to see, I commented, how content had been “maintained in quality, with modern developments only adding to the title’s continuing appeal”.
The Bugle, you see, has great reader loyalty, finds some amazing little stories and creates a brilliant read for its largely Black Country audience every week.
John himself was the biggest champion for this, as can be seen in this hand-written letter on Bugle-headed notepaper that oozed with his enthusiasm only last year:
“Hi Steve, You very kindly did a great review of The Bugle in my early days as editor last January. I thought you might be interested to see this week’s paper which I think is our best yet. All the best, John Butterworth, Bugle editor’
And it was a great read. But I tell you – and I’m a regular reader – it’s no pushover of a job.
While there are many memories which some might consider ‘UGC’ and publish immediately, there’s so often the need to examine readers’ content properly, making it read better, teasing out the best angles and asking for more and better pictures.
Yes, I suppose it’s more of a curator’s job than traditional news journalism, but it calls for curators with a real handle for words and story-telling, and for planning the structure of an excellent weekly read.
It was done well by an enthusiastic team of five, and I fear the quality could plummet in the hands of just two.
When news of John’s departure first broke, HoldtheFrontPage headlined this: ‘Black Country Bugle editor to go in Trinity Mirror cuts’.
At the time, I wasn’t certain of any detail of personal intentions, but I strongly suspected John would be against the proposed 60pc cut in resources, and I felt it a crying shame that it had come to this for such a well-respected editor.
Now, of course, the detail of that story has changed, and ‘At-risk editor set to fight plans to close weekly’s office’ is now the headline.
John can’t say too much, of course, but he bravely gave HoldtheFrontPage a snippet of what was going on with his carefully worded quote:
“I am in consultation discussing alternative ideas to the company plan for the sake of the Bugle and its staff.”
Exactly what this means is not known: it’s probably internal negotiation to change Trinity Mirror’s plans; or a long-shot is that there may even be a potential buyer on the sidelines who can keep the Bugle in the Black Country.
That’s just speculation, and we’ll have to await developments for the full story, but what John’s comments portray is an editor who doesn’t want to and – more importantly – doesn’t have to play the usual ‘silent’ game.
John’s had his career, he’s got his pension and he was back in the game mainly for the sheer pleasure of it, and so he isn’t the kind of editor nor is he at the stage of life where he has to depart quickly, quietly and with minimum fuss.
My very best and sincerest good wishes therefore go to John and his team as the Bugle’s fate is haggled over. You all did a great job of refining the Bugle, and I hope that Trinity Mirror listens to all positive options with a very open mind.