Friday, 27 April 2012

Ponteland Observed, part one

On 25 April 2012, Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnston Press plc, which owns 255 newspapers across Britain and Ireland, confirmed that all its titles would be redesigned during 2012 and made to conform to one of five templates developed by Cases i Associats, an international design consultancy. No paper will be unscathed, apparently, as all the company's 'brands' are sent in a 'platform neutral' direction and made fit for the digital age while at the same time contributing towards paying off the company's substantial debts. It's possible  that this might be the moment a subtitle one of its Northumberland mastheads has carried for twenty-six years finally disappears, taking with it a perhaps little-noticed journalistic legacy.

Among Johnston Press's three paid-for weeklies in the county of Northumberland is the Morpeth Herald, established in 1854. On the masthead, in a small roman font beneath the gothic script of Morpeth, can be found the legend 'Incorporating the Ponteland Observer'.

The Ponteland Observer disappeared as a distinct title in January 1986, but had endured many vicissitudes and demonstrated many strengths in its short life of three years and four months. It first appeared in October 1982, and was immediately distinctive among the weekly newspapers of the time. It took the chance that the village of Ponteland and its annexe, the large and prosperous Tyneside commuter suburb of Darras Hall, would be sufficiently interested to support a paid newspaper. Where the other paid weeklies were broadsheet, the Ponteland Observer was a tabloid. This was no Sun nor Daily Mail, but a softly-spoken and refined tabloid, a 'compact' in latterday national parlance. Furthermore, rather than belonging to a newspaper group like almost all the other weekly newspapers in the area at the time, the Observer was independent, owned by Ponteland Observer Ltd, a company belonging to its first editor Michael Sharman. Michael Sharman was at the same time editor of the Hexham Courant, a traditional broadsheet weekly owned then and now by Cumbrian Newspapers, but it was explained in the first number of the Ponteland Observer that Cumbrian Newspapers had no financial interest in it.

Whereas other Northumberland weeklies were still to some extent in the hot metal era, the Ponteland Observer was phototypeset and printed on the modern presses of the Bensham Press, the Reed International subsidiary who then owned the now-defunct Gateshead Post on the south bank of the Tyne. This allowed for a higher clarity of design and manufacture than either the Courant or the Northumberland Gazette - which then had a Ponteland edition consisting of a slip Ponteland-only front page and then pages from its Morpeth and Alnwick editions - then enjoyed.

By the end of December the Observer's format seemed well-established, running to either eight or twelve compact pages. The 24 December 1982 edition, no. 14, led on Labour's parliamentary candidate for the Hexham constituency (in which Ponteland then as now lies), Stephen Byers, warning that the Conservative government's Transport Bill would damage bus services in Ponteland and Darras Hall. Photographs showed a Nativity play at Darras Hall's Runnymede First School, and toddlers meeting Santa Claus at the Ponteland Playgroup Christmas party. In a documentary about the Hexham Courant broadcast in ITV's About Britain series in 1976, Michael Sharman had spoken of his housewife in her remote farm kitchen as the reader for whom he had to aim his 'parish pump' bread-and-butter stories, and it seemed that in Ponteland the same could be said for the suburban mother. More children's parties, as well as some teachers and Rotarians, could be found pictured on pages 2 and 3, with guides and brownies on page 4. Non-seasonal local news was largely confined to the front page and pages 6 and 7, with sport of course on the back page. Advertising came from Hexham, Gosforth and Newcastle as much as it did from Ponteland. Specialised editorial and advertising sections were divided by crisp headings in Souvenir Bold, now apparently an unfashionable font but then assertively contemporary, and complementing the masthead. In the classified advertising section, Michael Sharman was looking for a part-time advertising assistant for the paper. Expansion seemed to be the order of the day.

During 1983 the paper's circulation area expanded to outlying villages whose children attended Ponteland schools, such as Belsay, Stamfordham, and Heddon-on-the-Wall, and also into the City of Newcastle upon Tyne by addressing three communities on the A696 road to Newcastle city centre, the established villages of Woolsington and Kenton Bank Foot (as it was then spelled) and the new suburb of Kingston Park. Community involvement was cemented with an occasional supplement produced by Ponteland High School students, High-Lights. The paper was largely written in a vigorous, straightforward and intelligent house style, with regular columnists on gardening and other subjects emerging, and seemed to have won a place in the Ponteland community. The ratio of copy to advertising defnitely favoured the former. While this was refreshing in the age of the freesheet, with Newcastle Chronicle and Journal's The Advertiser (published by 'Warrington & Co.', an alias paying tribute to Warrington-based publisher and enemy of restrictive trade union practices Eddy Shah) lapping at the Observer's circulation area, it was also a warning sign for the paper's economic future.

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