For most people and businesses in the UK, 2020 was a year like no other, and those involved in local and regional journalism were no exception.
The coronavirus pandemic and successive resulting lockdowns laid waste to advertising revenues across the industry and led to radically different ways of working – yet at the same time it underlined more than ever the need for trusted, factual journalism.
Our experience at HTFP – with a sharp fall in job adverts allied to record demand for information about how local and regional titles were covering the pandemic – was mirrored across much of the industry, with publishers regularly reporting record audience figures alongside much-reduced revenues.
Here in the first of a series of pieces to mark the end of a tumultuous year, we take a look back at our own 20 most-viewed stories and how, taken together, they help tell the story of the past 12 months.
Some of the journalists who made headlines on HTFP during 2020 – from left: Amy Fenton, Noel Doran, Patricia Devlin and Karl Holbrook.
Some dominant themes emerge. The responses of the biggest three regional publishers – Reach plc, Newsquest and JPIMedia – in restructuring their newsrooms to meet both the financial and editorial challenges posed by the pandemic inevitably feature highly in our list.
Over the space of three days in July, we carried a series of pieces about a Reach shake-up which saw four daily editors leave their roles and an entirely new regional structure created. One of the departing editors, Ali Machray of the Liverpool Echo, later became the first regional editor in a number of years to receive an MBE for services to local journalism.
Online abuse of journalists was also a big issue with Amy Fenton, then of Cumbria daily The Mail, and Patricia Devlin, then on Sunday Life, among those subjected to vile threats being aimed at them through their computer screens.
For Amy, the year was to take an even more troubling turn after she admitted being in possession of cocaine and driving whilst unfit through drugs. She was latter banned from driving for 12 months and left her role as the Mail’s chief reporter.
Our most-viewed story of the year – then Bolton News editor Karl Holbrook’s reponse to conspiracy theories questioning why the newspaper hadn’t published the name of the defendant in a local murder case (clue: there were legal reasons) perhaps underlined most strongly of all the continuing need for trusted local journalism in an era in which fake news and social media disinformation threaten to hold sway.
Here are our top 20 most-viewed stories in chronological order of publication, showing how the year 2020 unfolded.
Our poll to mark our 20th anniversary of publication proved wildly popular with readers, with Noel Doran of the Irish News emerging as a deserving winner.
Leroy McCarthy, who was previously convicted of threatening to blow up a hospital, was jailed for 20 weeks after posting online that Amy Fenton, then chief reporter at Cumbria daily The Mail “needs raping.”
As the first coronavirus lockdown sends revenues plummeting across the industry, Newsquest becomes the first publisher to respond to the changed environment by announcing it is placing a “significant number” of employees on furlough and cutting pay by 15pc for most staff.
Originally published as part of a round-up of Covid-19 related news, this headline continued to garner page views as people Googled whether you can catch the virus from newsprint.
JPIMedia announces it is placing around 60 journalists and 350 staff in total on paid leave with those remaining in work also taking temporary pay cuts.
The publishing group announces it is putting a fifth of its workforce on paid leave and reducing the pay of all staff by a minimum 10pc as the coronavirus crisis continues to impact on the industry.
The then Bolton News editor Karl Holbrook hit out after conspiracy theorists attacked the newspaper’s coverage of the death of seven-year-old Emily Jones. A woman has since been convicted of her manslaughter.
Amy Fenton is once again a victim of online abuse and is forced to flee her home on police advice after receiving a death threat.
Award-winning Sunday World journalist Patricia Devlin files an official complaint to police after receiving a threat of rape against her newborn son.
Amy Fenton is back in the news again – this time for the wrong reasons as she is charged with possession of cocaine and driving whilst unfit through drugs. She was latter banned from driving for 12 months after admitting the charge.
Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure-Walker announces the company is preparing to make redundancies saying it is “unable to support” the staffing levels it had pre-lockdown.
Hull Live digital editor Jenna Thompson reveals more than 1,500 readers have been banned from the website’s Facebook page over “hateful and outright racist” comments.
The regional publisher announces a restructure which will see around 12pc of its workforce, including around 325 working in editorial and circulation, leave the business in order to deliver £35m worth of cost savings.
As the details of the restructure become clearer, Reach confirms that two of the longest-serving editors in the UK, Mike Norton, of the Bristol Post, and Alastair Machray, of the Liverpool Echo, are to leave the company.
Following on from the announcement of 550 job losses, Reach creates four new ‘marketplace publisher’ and eight ‘audience and content director’ roles to oversee its regional operation.
Investment firm RCapital partners takes a majority stake in Archant in a move which the Norwich-based publisher says will give it a “bright future”.
Following her conviction for drug driving, Amy Fenton confirms she has left her role as chief reporter of South Cumbria daily The Mail and moved to be closer to her family.
Aaron Michael Jack, boss of the so-called ‘North East News Agency,’ is fined after publishing articles copied from The Northern Echo and passing them off as his own work.
And here’s the list again, this time in order of page views: