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Dyson at Large: Why local weekly’s pornography splash made me cringe

It was a tweet from John Harris, a reporter at The Guardian, that first drew my attention to a local paper’s splash that frankly made me cringe.

“I live in a county whose council is close to financial meltdown,” said John, who was named UK political commentator of the year at this year’s Society of Editors’ Press Awards.

And yet, he added: “The big story in our increasingly inexplicable local paper this week is… some guy who found a load of porn mags.”

Surely not, I thought, and immediately requested my undercover agent who lives nearby to investigate the alleged edition of the Frome Standard on Thursday 4 October.

Frome p3

He sent me a copy (thanks, Charlie) and, as you can see, Harris’ incredulity was based on fact: the Standard had devoted its front page to the discovery of a huge pile of pornographic magazines.

‘Top-shelf treasure trove!’ screamed the headline, with the sub-heading ‘Decades of adult magazines discovered stashed in bed drawer during house clearance’ and the full story with close-up titillating pictures on – you guessed it – page three.

Can anyone out there imagine the response of their local editor if they’d tried to report this story back in the 1980s, 1990s or even the early 2000s? Arses would have been metaphorically kicked.

And yet in the Reach-owned newsroom, probably because the story pulled in the traffic online, the decision was not only made to use the sordid tale in print but to splash on it.

Without wanting to sound too old-fashioned, this is just not what local journalism in what’s supposed to be a family newspaper was ever meant to be about.

Okay, perhaps the porno stash find might have made a funny brief, but it was never a page lead, let alone a splash.

Harris, however, wasn’t quite right with his inference that the Standard was uninterested in politics, as turning inside there was:

  • a new Parliamentary candidate profiled on page six;
  • a page full of letters debating Brexit on page 10; and
  • the results of a council battle to introduce litter fines leading page 12.

But the porno splash was a stark example of how a focus on what attracts online clicks doesn’t always make news-priority sense in print.

The remaining audience for local newspapers is largely elderly, often in a family setting and interested enough to spend money on reading about local public affairs.

The last thing they want is a pointless story about piles of sleazy mags found in dusty drawers.

Fortunately, my faith in regional newspapers was restored by the amount of hard news, politics and decent light relief that the Belfast Telegraph is regularly cramming onto its front pages.

Here’s page one of the paper on the same day as the Standard’s porno splash:

Belfast 2

And there was a similarly high story count in the Independent News & Media-owned paper the day after:

Belfast 1

“They seem to enjoy squeezing as much into the template each day as possible,” reported Alan, my Belfast-based spy, although he added: “Way too busy – gives me a headache trying to figure out where to start reading.”

Yes, there are multiple entry points, but based on the above examples I’d prefer to be paying £1 a day for the newsy Belfast Telegraph than the same price each week for what was a grubby Frome Standard.

14 comments

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  • October 24, 2018 at 9:27 am
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    Another example of how poor local papers have become if this is front page news,it just about sums up the depths the bigger groups are having to plumb,leaving the smaller hyper local publishers to provide the real news from their communities the public want to read.

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  • October 24, 2018 at 10:48 am
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    Reach – every day reaching for the bottom of the barrel.

    I’m not at all surprised they ran this online – clickbait is king when your main business activity is an online advertising platform dotted with what often passes for news these days to attract clicks – but in print, and a splash?

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  • October 24, 2018 at 11:56 am
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    Yes – an inside page short story but not the splash.

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  • October 24, 2018 at 12:26 pm
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    Bit tough comparing the sleepy Frome paper with one in busy Belfast isn’t it?
    But I agree the Frome splash is pathetic. Picture caption at best, but news judgement in all local papers is so skewed nowadays that anything goes. No wonder sales are tumbling. Poor editorial judgement in this case I am afraid. How experienced is the editor, I wonder.

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  • October 24, 2018 at 1:37 pm
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    Sorry, am I reading the above comments right? Is it really even a ‘picture caption at best’ or an ‘inside page short story’ – ‘man finds jazz mags’??! ‘Man finds porn dvds’ or ‘Man finds loads of porn websites on the internet’ etc etc?

    Even in quieter areas, there’s still plenty of good stories to be found about the impact of national government decisions or crime etc. This ‘porn mags under the bed’ may be the easiest story to write or cut-and-paste from the paper’s clickbait website, but people really have no right to complain if they think this still makes even a downpager story in the paper – they’re just aiding and abetting Reach’s crass direction.

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  • October 24, 2018 at 1:50 pm
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    This is just unbelievably awful, and it says more about the current state of local journalism than it does the demise of regional newspapers.

    Anyone who thought this was a good idea needs a high five – in the face with a P45!

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  • October 24, 2018 at 3:55 pm
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    It’s a story for The Sun or The Star not a local paper. Absolutely bizarre and Dyson should know better than to refer to it as a ‘porno splash’ to compound the issue!

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  • October 25, 2018 at 9:26 am
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    Some of the comments on here sum up why the regional newspaper industry is in a shocking state.
    Newspaper groups ignored what their readers want for years and now we can actually use data to monitor what appeals to readers people are decrying Reach for using it??
    The arrogance is breathtaking. That old ‘gut instinct’ of knowing what people want… Look where it has left us.
    The porn mag story is worthy of a splash. It’s just been packaged and presented poorly whereas the Telegraph front pages are killing that newspaper’s chances of grabbing casual sales. All that capitalisation is such a turn off!

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  • October 25, 2018 at 1:39 pm
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    @Casper – the mind boggles doesn’t it? You know, the first thing that comes to my mind when I forget where I’ve parked my car is to ring a journalist. Perhaps when I’ve forgotten to lift the lid on the loo I’ll also ring my local intrepid reporter to investigate my ‘crime’. Wait a minute, there aren’t any left!

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  • October 26, 2018 at 9:29 am
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    Mark Flanagan. On what news basis is the porn story worth a splash? Has research revealed that people want more stories that have no bearing on their lives whatsoever? Like this one.

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  • October 26, 2018 at 9:44 am
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    Most local newsrooms are staffed by children with too little life experience to exercise sound news judgement. Back in the day, there would have been plenty of older and wiser colleagues to offer guidance and correction but now it’s a free-for-all run by those who are willing and able to work for the lowest salaries. How else to explain the “epic quest” to find a lost parked car? Or the new kebab shop in [town x] that will “literally blow your mind”? Or the news stories that “gave us all the feels”?

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  • October 29, 2018 at 1:40 pm
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    Mark Flanagan – I hope your comments are tongue in cheek.

    The day ‘man finds porn magazines in house clearance’ is a splash is a terrible day indeed. There’s no better way to package it because it is not a story.

    It has no impact on readers’ lives whatsoever. Other than perhaps giving parents an entirely cringe-worthy conversation with a young child who spots that inappropriate front page of a NEWSpaper and questions it.

    And ‘Treasure Trove’? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure; in this instance it might tell you a lot more about the man…

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