Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Three Johnston relaunches, part two

The first part can be found here

Presenting Harrogate

There are recognisable local news priorities given good coverage across all three papers. The Harrogate Advertiser integrates stories about the Olympics well, including a routine story of police transfers from North Yorkshire to London for the games. Its Diamond Jubilee coverage, too, blends together experienced presentation of reports from village correspondents, listings and short features on particular events and local history features drawing on the photographic archive to leave this reader assured that the Harrogate Advertiser knew how to synthesise a common sense of what the Jubilee meant to its coverage area from disparate events and agendas, essential for a publication such as this where its personality needs to appeal to as much of the area as possible. There is solid crime and court reporting too, with a lead court story about a child rapist on page 7 and a double-spread of mid- and minor-ranking reports on pages 22 and 23. There is a 'School of the Month' with photographs of several classes and teachers from Brackenfield School (but where precisely is it?), prominently labelled with reference numbers; one hopes photographic sales have done good business. The byline for the school's headteacher, who wrote the piece, is almost misleadingly small, and I couldn't find any mention of it being an independent school. There was no advert or contact details so it wasn't blatantly advertorial.

The editorial-advertising balance is good and juxtaposition of advertisers and stories appropriate without being obvious. An antique jeweller props up the main nostalgia story, page 5. On the three court news pages bed retailer Dreams dominate, as if to reassure readers that they will not be murdered in their sleep. Dreams have also taken two business pages - 56 and 57 - but editorial does its best to show this is not a commentary on North Yorkshire's economy. On page 6 a story under the 'Bizarre' tagline (which I regret - far better for the presentation to be matter-of-fact) concerning the forthcoming sale of a vampire-slaying kit at Tennants Auctioneers in Harrogate is diagonally alongside an advert for the Royal Bank of Scotland, while it appears that though Harrogate Phoenix Players can take you to the United States in song and dance, editorial suggests the most exotic place Leeds-Bradford Airport can send passengers is Glasgow. Were I the proprietor of the Monkey Bike Company of Harrogate, who have taken 80% of the left-hand side of page 54, I'd want urgent discussions with the paper as the resolution of the ad is very low and the e-mail and web addresses illegibly pixellated. The more obviously barely digested press releases are towards the centre of the paper, with a story apparently about the restoration of Allerton Castle, near Knaresborough, really emphasising that it's available to hire through events specialists Dine. The Johnston Press Jubilee supplement encountered in The Bucks Herald here appears in pull-out form wrapped around the central property section. Further back, entertainment section Weekend appeas a little lost and teething troubles are evident on pages 127 and 128 where listings appear in the wrong font. The Food and Drink double page manages some intrigue among the copy drawing attention to initiatives by local businesses, with the paper reporting it's been unable to identify the Harrogate restaurant for sale at the price of £1.25million - though locals might know better.

The sport pages manage very well in the new format - the template alows for several photographs of cricketers in action to be placed prominently alongside reports of matches, and team pictures of swimmers, rugby players and taekwondo students. The template allows for little advertising on the sport pages, with the Harrogate Advertiser sport section backed by a page mixing of entertainment, holiday and sport ads and a bar on the back page of dating, safetywear and windows, and the Northumberland Gazette attracting motoring display ads instead. The Bucks Herald goes for smaller car ads than the Gazette, with a solicitor advertising their conveyancing services too.

For Alnwick and the County - and Jessie J

The Northumberland Gazette is the northernmost of the three titles and the one with which I am most familiar. Its crowded broadsheet pages have given way to an elegant application of the Cases i Associats template, though this could do with more polishing. Sadly, the strong lead story about continuing delays in replacing Duchess High School in Alnwick with a new building appears in two different versions, with the front page version ending mid-sentence and a trailing caption 'For more see page 4', but the new story with which the reader is faced on page 4 doesn't pick up on the sentence about sport provision on the possible 'all ages learnng campus'. Likewise a story in the right-hand column about an Alnwick pensioner's flight to hospital in Newcastle is left unfinished. The last incarnation of the Gazette's Gothic masthead has been left behind with the broadsheet and a smart new serif logo adorns the new paper. Its effect is unfortunately compromised by a cut-out of Jessie J, with whom the Gazette and its stablemate the Morpeth Herald have shown some editorial preoccupation over the last few weeks since it was announced she would be performing at Alnwick Castle on 21 July. The Gazette are admittedly running a competition to win four tickets, and both this prize and the stay at Linden Hall (designed by my old acquaintance Sir Charles Monck, which adds to the approbation) are superior to The Bucks Herald's bacon butty or the Harrogate Advertiser's free sausages, which makes one wonder how prizes were sourced and where the budget was allocated.

The Gazette is strong on human interest. The threatened closure of Horsdonside sheltered housing scheme at Wooler is told through 86-year-old Sybil Straughan, and the story tells something of her marriage and children and lost world of Northumberland small railways and how she brings this lived experience to sustaining community life at Horsdonside. A pity, then, that a vital informational point, the name of the housing association who operate Horsdonside, is not mentioned. Almost the other end of the age scale is a picture of Alnwick's finalist at Miss Northumberland, Stephanie Grieve. It's a good third page let down by a question a sub-editor should have asked; and a story about lack of money for housing maintenance shares a page with an advert for Kitson Windows mocking unlikely offers. Another subbing error emerges on page 16, where a story headed 'Staying one step ahead of terrorism' would make more sense without the double dividing line above it which divides it from the report on RAF Boulmer's role in preventing terrorism above.

The Northumberland Gazette follows a different approach on page 2 to the other papers, going for the heading 'Happy Weekend' and mixing information with photographs. I'd have wanted to put Holy Island crossing times, something that visitors to the area are likely to buy a paper for, in a more prominent font. There are two photographs, of small boys at Alnmouth beach and of a cross in a mysterious location, by Gazette photographer Jane Coltman; the latter is the first of a series of 'Where is This...?' pictures where the answer is promised next week. Editor Paul Larkin introduces the new paper on the same page and urges readers to give their feedback 'through whichever channel you prefer - email, letter or telephone, through an online survey on our website, by popping into our Alnwick office or via social media like Twitter and Facebook'. As mentioned in the first part of this review, invitations to scan QR codes are plentiful in the Gazette, though not on a story on page 4 headed 'Revision - there's an app for that' about Northumberland schools' tie-up with course material provider GCSEPod.

The Gazette's unusual angle on the Olympics is the prospect of the Olympic Torch arriving in Alnwick on the 101st anniversary of the maiden voyage of the RMS Olympic, sister to the Titanic. The Olympic's lounge and other fittings were installed in the White Swan, Alnwick, following the break-up of the Olympic on Tyneside in 1935. Where the previous week's retrospective remembered a time when Gazette headlines concerned coal mining, tourism is prominent in the modern Gazette, with a caravan park and a spa on its site both winning awards for staff to display on page 14. There is no property pull-out in the Gazette, and so the centre pages given over to local jubilee listings and a summary of major events with an endorsement of communities' plans by MP Sir Alan Beith.

Where in the Harrogate Advertiser the leisure section was dominated by visiting performers, its equivalent section in the Northumberland Gazette has prominent stories about local artists Francesca Simpson, painter, tying in to Alnmouth Art Festival, and fabric-sculptor and painter Helen Cowans. With Simpson being pictured by the sea, another story noting an award given to a long-serving RNLI man from Craster, and the main story on the sport page being about a golf club and another concerning a charity run in Druridge Bay, there's a definite sense of the Northumberland Gazette's patch as a coastal community. Editor Paul Larkin even chooses to revive the restaurant review column with a review of The Joiner's Arms at Newton-by-the-Sea. Higher ground is represented by a story about dog agility champion Megan Young, who broke her arm while winning third place in a competition (though it's not clear from the text which one). There are livestock market listings, though, but no survey of the farming scene as appeared in Northumberland papers of thirty years ago; instead, emphasising the role of the paper as a leisure accessory, there is a column by a local vet about watching out for pancreatitis in dogs.

And the winner is..?

The Northumberland Gazette is probably my favourite of the three. Although I know its area better, that's not the only reason I find it brings its readership into focus most sharply of my sample. There are no pointless head-and-shoulders vox pops like the Harrogate Advertiser's one on the United Kingdom's continued participation in the Eurovision Song Contest here. It does seem to have fewer inappropriately-sized photographs (the bane of The Bucks Herald in particular) than the others, but is let down by errors in subbing. Nevertheless, it's friendlier than The Bucks Herald, whose business columnist urges Vale of Aylesbury businesses to engage with the battle for global supremacy rather than hide away like hobbits in Tolkien's Shire. In emphasising local creative talent over visiting performers in their events page the Gazette acknowledges that the visitors are probably in need of less publicity than locals and that it's the local events rather than the national and regional tours which need the local weekly press more, though they would not turn down their advertising.

These three examples of relaunched Johnston Press papers leave me with mixed impressions of the future of the local weekly press. The Bucks Herald seems most impatient to shepherd its readers online, though as yet the group's websites are still disappointing and there is an emphasis on the latest fashionable interfaces which doesn't leave one confident that the group has a clear internet strategy. Of the three titles, the Northumberland Gazette presently has 2781 Facebook likes and 1186 Twitter followers; the Harrogate Advertiser 81 Facebook likes and 3221 Twitter followers (being fronted online by a dog, Harrogate Hound, evidently has some benefits) and The Bucks Herald 447 Facebook likes and 2967 Twitter followers, though whether anyone can gather anything useful from these statistics is questionable. Urging readers to go online to access extra illustrations and longer reports is acceptable but if taken to extremes can leave one to feel shortchanged if the online edition isn't yet taking fullest advantage of the format, which is difficult when a company has as much debt as Johnston Press has. The internet might be the future but print is by no means dead. The newspapers need to be solid and distinctive products which serve their niche within the collective audience of what I gather we must now call the 'news brand'. The reader of the Northumberland Gazette who said on Facebook that there was no need to turn the paper into The Times might have a point if the new designs are widely felt to be more remote. In this age of communication, though, it is welcome that the relaunched papers all emphasise bylines and give portraits (in the case of the Gazette) and individual contact details across platforms for their staff; though given pressures on their time in these understaffed days this might be tempting fate.

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