Thursday, 10 May 2012

Ponteland Observed, part four

The Ponteland Observer continued throughout 1985, maintaining what it could of its original character when spliced into the Tweeddale Press Group’s East Northumberland and eastern Borders format. From looking at one of the issues I have, there seems at one point to have been an attempt to have a women’s page shared with some of the sister titles, with the Observer-style page heading replaced by a generic one and Ponteland-specific features on one side of the page only. Ponteland High School’s High-Lights supplement continued, remaining tabloid by being printed at right angles to the rest of the paper. Some variety emerged on the sport page, with definite attempts to have Ponteland lead stories amidst the copy shared with other Tweeddale Press papers.

There were several changes for the worse. The personality profiles faded away, as did the leader column, contributing to the sense of remoteness from Ponteland the advertising from places as distant as Dunbar could create. Where the old Observer had been able to break up the text on its small pages with plenty of images at a higher than usual resolution for 1980s newspapers (though occasionaly needing work on contrast) the broadsheet paper, produced on a letterpress machine with photopolymer plates, tended to have only one or two photographs on a news page and often concentrated its photographic content on ‘picture pages’, reminiscent either of newspapers in the early days of photographic reproduction or of the glossy regional business magazines. 

A full picture of the Ponteland Observer’s circulation is difficult to come by. An unaudited figure given early in 1984, under Ponteland Observer Ltd’s ownership, was 2000; a media reference book for the start of 1986 gave an audited figure of 1200. Both figures were substantially lower than the rest of the Tweeddale Press Group titles or neighbouring weekly papers. A glance through the Observer suggests that firms and individuals from the Observer’s circulation area weren’t advertising with the Tweeddale Press Group to the level that must have been hoped for.
The end came with the issue of 9 January 1986. Next to a very detailed report (let down somewhat by a tautologous headline) on the united opposition to Barratt’s plan to build on 475 acres of land west of Darras Hall, and a picture from the New Year wheelbarrow race in Ponteland, came a statement from the board of the Tweeddale Press Group. Unlike previous messages, this was not formed as a personal statement from Jim Smail, although he was quoted as chairman. It explained that the favourable circumstances which had allowed the company to continue to publish the Ponteland Observer ‘for longer than its trading deserved’ had passed, and so as from the issue of 16 January the Ponteland Observer would be incorporated in the Morpeth Herald and the Observer office at The Smithy Side, Bell Villas, would close. 

This was the last word; there was no goodbye from the Observer team itself, but the Ponteland telephone number had disappeared from most lists of group contacts on the classified pages. The contents suggested that the Ponteland office was already winding down, with some Morpeth stories intermingled with Ponteland area ones on page 3. The Observer circulation area news included a planning appeal rejection in Heddon, plans approved for the expansion of takeaway food facilities at a Ponteland solarium, and New Year Honours for residents including athlete Steve Cram, then resident in Dinnington. The leisure page at least went out asserting something of its old personality, with a profile of young Ponteland woman Sarah Pain who was planning to visit Tasmania and the Antarctic during 1986, Bobby Thompson’s gardening column, and some pictures of activities by Ponteland Village Children’s Association; it also included a cinema preview, however, referring to a screening at the Coliseum in Morpeth. Ponteland didn’t feature on the sport page at all, and much of the remaining copy, perhaps reflecting the time of year, was shared with the group, including a feature on RAF Boulmer and the farming page, which concentrated on changes in the coming year for Scottish farmers.

As with the first broadsheet Ponteland Observer, the Morpeth Herald letters column appeared on the shared page 2, still looking very out of place in what was supposedly a Ponteland paper. This time the Observer letters column itself appeared on page 6, leading with a letter headed ‘Housewife’s plea for supermarket’. Anne Morgan explained her support for the arrival of a Presto supermarket, which had met some local resistance, outlining (in her view) the inadequacies of the C0-op and William Low branches and the independent supermarket Waudby’s, and the lure of Presto at Kingston Park. If the Ponteland housewife with a family was a key part of Michael Sharman’s intended readership for the paper, it was appropriate that a representative of that group was given prominence at the Ponteland Observer’s end.

 The next week the Morpeth Herald appeared with its masthead redesigned to include the prominent subtitle incorporating the Ponteland Observer, Est. 1982 in the centre. Cooper Black Condensed was banished in favour of a wide Roman typeface more complementary to the Herald's Gothic. Attachment to incorporations and foundation dates was part of the Tweeddale Press Group’s house style. Their flagship title in Selkirk, The Southern Reporter, cited under its main title at this time I think the names of four newspapers it had absorbed earlier in its history, complete with their years of establishment. This appealed to those of us with a sense of tradition, as well as upheld The Southern’s commercially valuable claim to represent several communities in the shires of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles; though some might find such headings ‘cannibalistic’, as A.J.P. Taylor once said (unfairly) of the New Statesman when it went under the title The New Statesman and Nation incorporating The Athenaeum: The Weekend Review.

This first amalgamated paper included a few Ponteland stories, and (ironically given the tendency of Morpeth Herald letters to turn up in the Ponteland Observer) its Letters to the Editor were all from Ponteland correspondents responding to the final Observer letters page. After all its troubles the Ponteland Observer had evidently maintained its usefulness as a sounding board for the aggrieved. However, the Herald’s core readership was in the north of Castle Morpeth borough and over the succeeding months and years its content remained focused on Morpeth and surrounding villages such as Pegswood, Mitford and the coastal area to the north-east including Lynemouth and Newbiggin. Ponteland was represented by occasional picture stories and sport coverage. High-Lights continued until summer 1988, at first thanks to the support of Adrian Hogg, the Herald’s editor until the end of 1987 and a Ponteland resident, but also reflecting a Tweeddale Press Group interest in building links with schools across their coverage area. The most enduring Observer feature was Bobby Thompson’s gardening column, which continued in the Morpeth Herald almost until its author’s death. Over the next few years first the Est. 1982 was dropped from the Herald masthead, and then incorporating the Ponteland Observer was moved to the left of the masthead with Ponteland Observer progressively reduced in size, though it has not yet disappeared.

The next and final post in this series will look at the wider context in which the Ponteland Observer operated, look at its legacy in local news coverage in Ponteland, and examine whether anything can be learned from its story which can be applied to the current debate on localism and hyperlocalism in British news media.

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