Saturday, 12 May 2012

Ponteland Observed, part five

This series of posts have largely been written from a point of view which my teenage self in the mid-1980s would have recognised, looking at newspapers as art or craft rather than as business. They have, however, emphasised the importance of the presentation of the local newspaper and the thought that goes into establishing its character. Neglecting the coherence of the content undermines a paper's relationship with its readers.

The business context for the launch of the Ponteland Observer was challenging. The early 1980s were not a good period for paid-for weekly newspapers in north-east England. Titles owned by Westminster Press were among the worst affected. In Northumberland, the long-established News and Post covering Blyth and Ashington reversed into the freesheet Leader to become the News Post Leader, whose editorial content was much lower than the old papers. A similar fate affected the Shields Weekly News and the Whitley Bay Guardian, which merged to become the News Guardian with a mix of free and paid distribution. Worse happened in County Durham, where in 1986 all Westminster Press’s paid titles except the Darlington and Stockton Times disappeared, with the Durham Advertiser (having already abandoned its Durham Chronicle variants, a legacy of a much earlier merger, in 1984) reversing into the Shopper series of free titles, bequeathing them the Advertiser name, and the Stanley News and Consett Guardian closing. As part of the same process the Darlington evening paper the Evening Dispatch closed. The remaining Tyneside and Northumberland titles, under the company name Northern Press, being the Northumberland Gazette (including the Morpeth Gazette and the Ponteland edition), the News Post Leader, the News Guardian, the daily evening Shields Gazette and a further free weekly in Berwick, the Berwick Leader, were sold to an out-of-area investor. The remaining Westminster Press company, North of England Newspapers, concentrated on developing The Northern Echo, its Darlington-based daily circulating from Tyneside to York.

The growth area in north-east weeklies in the 1980s was the freesheet. The existence of an audience to be advertised to was a certainty; who that audience was, beyond generalisations about income and spending, was less certain with the shrinking of traditional industries and community leisure activities. The four main newspaper groups in the north-east - Westminster Press (as North of England Newspapers), Thomson Regional Newspapers (surreptitiously, on Tyneside at least, as ‘Warrington & Co.’), Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers and Northern Counties Newspapers (later Reed Northern Newspapers) - competed fiercely in this market, with several mergers and exchanges of titles over the period in question.

Against this background the woes of the Ponteland Observer might appear a sideshow to the main commercial arena, but the existence of the paper did reflect an awareness that there was a growing prosperous rural-suburban area in Newcastle which was potentially not being served by the existing media. Ponteland had rejected incorporation in Newcastle in the early 1970s but was visibly growing and had an identity distinct from the declining industrial centres of south-east Northumberland. If a new paid-for title with more cachet and a stronger editorial focus than the freesheets was to be launched anywhere in the north-east in 1982, Ponteland was a tempting location.

The Ponteland Observer faced substantial obstacles. Newcastle’s morning and evening papers were both strong, the Evening Chronicle in particular enjoying substantial sales. Both the Chronicle and its stablemate The Journal would pick up major Ponteland stories and carry advertising for Newcastle . Many of Ponteland and Darras Hall’s executive homeowners commuted to Newcastle and their concerns were shared with the wider city region. At the same time, the Ponteland Observer’s inevitable emphasis on Ponteland’s economic development contrasted with Ponteland’s self-image as a rural village to which the large upmarket housing estate of Darras Hall happened to be attached.

The Tweeddale Press Group’s interest in acquiring the title following Michael Sharman’s death was presumably a natural development of their ongoing expansion into Northumberland from their border roots. Jim Smail had opened The Alnwick Advertiser in 1979, directly competing with the Northumberland Gazette on its home ground. Acquiring the Morpeth Herald in 1983 advanced further into the territory of a weakened outpost of a major group. The Ponteland Observer was a additional push, directly challenging all three editions of the Gazette with distinct titles. While The Alnwick Advertiser showed in its name that it was spun off from the Tweeddale Press’s first newspaper, The Berwick Advertiser, the Morpeth Herald was home-grown with a long tradition of independence in the face of competition from the Gazette and News Post. While the Ponteland Observer was founded by an editor with long experience on the Hexham Courant and on the Tyneside dailies rather than someone already involved in Ponteland life, its office was in the heart of the village and it had been assiduous about establishing links with local businesses and societies.

The merger of the Morpeth Herald and the Ponteland Observer helped the reorientation of the Morpeth Herald from being a Morpeth town paper to being a paper for Castle Morpeth borough, including a swathe of territory previously not in the paper’s coverage area. This took some years to be apparent, but within a few years of the merger a Ponteland photographer was on an exclusive retainer with the Herald, with the intention of limiting the Gazette’s Ponteland coverage. The editorial development of the Herald, once the Observer had been absorbed, saw a greater emphasis on page layout and indeed greater internal sectionalisation, developing an opinion and letters page and a features section which brought its appearance at the end of the decade closer to that of the Ponteland Observer before the Tweeddale Press acquired it. The replacement of the Tweeddale Press’s presses, too, helped modernise the look of the papers simply by making them several centimetres narrower, as well as allowing sharper definition and spot colour.

The acquisition of Northern Press by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers at the turn of the 1990s brought improved production standards, a new company name in Northeast Press, and a relaunch to the Northumberland Gazette series, which could now be printed in colour in Sunderland. The Ponteland edition became, on its masthead at least, a fully-formed Ponteland Gazette, but it was still only a variant front page for the Morpeth Gazette. In 1992 Northeast Press then pushed into Tweeddale Press territory, acquiring and relaunching the Selkirk Weekend Advertiser in The Southern Reporter’s heartland. The response of the Tweeddale Press was to withdraw from south Northumberland. The Alnwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald were sold to Northeast Press, who now adopted the Tweeddale Press’s one newspaper per district council pattern. An editorial thanked the Tweeddale Press Group for having nurtured the Herald so that it and not the Morpeth Gazette survived the merger process. The Ponteland Gazette disappeared, it and the Morpeth Gazette joining The Alnwick Advertiser in being formally incorporated into the Northumberland Gazette at Alnwick. The Morpeth Herald, still incorporating the Ponteland Observer, continued as a distinct title sharing advertising and occasional supplements with the Northumberland Gazette but maintaining its own editorial and visual identity. During 1999 both Northeast Press’s parent company Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers and the Tweeddale Press Group were bought by Johnston Press, and the Northeast Press and Tweeddale Press titles were then rearranged into geographically coherent units for management purposes.

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