The most popular debate on HoldtheFrontPage last week was whether the Oldham Evening Chronicle should have run a live splash on the Grenfell Tower fire disaster.
The paper, one of the last in Britain that still prints on the day it’s sold, was pilloried by some for giving its readers the very latest breaking news on what was surely a national story.
“To jump aboard a national tragedy such as this with no real local angle is, to my way of thinking, pointless,” said ‘Jazzie’.
‘Employee X’ added: “The world’s moved on from news being first in a newspaper, so the race to be first is somewhat irrelevant.”
Biting sarcasm was the approach of ‘Oliver’: “First to print, amazing! Imagine if there was a medium which allowed me to see these images, plus video and much more about this fire throughout the early hours when it was actually happening.”
He later added: “By mid-morning, it might as well have been last week’s news and, as a result, I suspect fewer copies were casually picked up as the day progressed.”
Not everyone agreed, including ‘Citizen’ who said: “The job of any daily paper [is] to show it still has news values and the passion for live coverage which override local relevance.”
Kevin Duffy summed up several commenters’ views when he said: “As with countless other towns and cities, Oldham has a number of tower blocks and residents of these will be paying close attention to the story.”
And ‘Ho Hum’ remarked: “What’s sad, industry-wise, is none of the others [regional dailies] now has … live news: they all offer, at best, news from the previous evening, in [an] age when people want the latest info., not what happened yesterday.”
For me, the most important comment was in the story itself, from Chronicle editor Dave Whaley: “Whilst we lead on local issues most of the time… we felt justified that this was the story everyone was going to be talking about.
“We pride ourselves on being able to deliver on overnight stories and evening meetings etc in real time.”
Two quick declarations of interest: first, in the late 1990s Dave and I worked together on the old Birmingham Evening Mail’s news desk, in the days when live news ruled.
Second, eight years ago as editor I fought and lost an impossible battle to stop the Mail becoming an overnight newspaper in the face of commercial reality.
All that history and old arguments aside, I believe that Dave was so, so right in this case, and would have lambasted him if he hadn’t splashed on Grenfell.
Yes, local dailies have always concentrated on local news, and that should be the case on 99 out of 100 days.
But they have also regularly splashed on huge, far-reaching national and international stories that break just before deadline, with the Concorde Paris crash, Diana’s death and 9/11 twin towers attack being the biggest examples that spring to mind.
Why? Because the very latest, big news was known to boost sales.
Today, with almost all deadlines and printing happening overnight, it has to be something really big to ‘stop the presses’ for a special edition, but it still happens.
The Manchester Evening News did it on 23 May following the MEN Arena bombing, which was more than justified given its local nature.
But the Wolverhampton Express & Star printed a special live edition that day too, based entirely on the breaking news basis of this massive tragedy.
So why do papers very occasionally still do it? Yep, you guessed it, because the very latest, big news still sells papers, as well as reinforcing digital efforts.
Yet in the case of the Chronicle’s Grenfell fire disaster splash, there was no need to stop the presses, reschedule van runs or delay the paper’s sale to the public.
Because the Oldham paper’s deadline is not until 9am anyway, which is why its editor talks of his constant pride at being able to deliver on overnight stories and evening meetings “in real time”.
Whether it’s the Chronicle’s steadfast ‘live paper’ policy or an accident of commercially available print slots, the truth is that the paper remains an on-day publication.
That means it can still report last night’s news, up to and including anything big that happens before 9am, a facility usually reserved for local news.
However, it would have been lazy to the point of journalistic incompetence not to have splashed on the awful Grenfell Tower story last Wednesday morning.
Follow-ups online, local angles on Oldham tower blocks and interviews with Greater Manchester fire chiefs would, of course, have come next, both online and in the following days’ papers.
But if you’ve still got the live print deadline, why on earth would you have ignored one of the biggest stories of the year on the very day it happened?
The Chronicle did what it was designed to do, and perhaps those ridiculing it are just the tiniest bit jealous of its ability to have that live element every day.