Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Johnston Press relaunches: the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald, part two

Critics of the decision by Johnston Press to impose a limited set of templates upon their series of weekly newspapers could claim some justification from the early stages of the roll-out. Some readers complained that their paper had adopted an inappropriate design. From the limited sample I took last year, the temptation to litter pages with faddish QR codes was very noticeable.

One year on, the evidence of the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald is that while there are still pitfalls presented by the new templates, different titles are now able to implement them with more flexibility. In the late 1980s both were designed by the Tweeddale Press staff in Berwick, with Times New Roman predominating for body text and occasional use of Univers, with a variety of headline fonts, often sans serif, giving way as the decade progressed to a more systematic use of Times New Roman bold. Both only gave up Times New Roman in recent years, the Herald switching to Nimrod or something close to it, while the Berwick Advertiser adopted a text design reminiscent of its Johnston sister The Scotsman. The Berwick Advertiser's Bodoniesque headlines in particular seemed suited to the paper's role in a small town which remains a retail, business and cultural centre for a substantial catchment area in England and Scotland, while the Morpeth Herald was folksier and more intimate.

With this in mind, it's not surprising that the Berwick Advertiser's redesign seemed the bolder of the two. It shares the same template as The Bucks Herald in Aylesbury and the Northumberland Gazette in Alnwick, complete with grey bar in the masthead for date and price and weblinks and a Bodoni-like headline face which resembles, but is not the same as, that previously used in Berwick. Editor Phil Johnson had a major news story with which to splash and chose to show how the compact format can maximise the use of a striking image, the stranded cargo ship the MV Danio which ran aground on the Farne Islands. All the items on the front page demanded the reader turn to a later page to read the full stories, in the case of the picture story pages 8 and 9 for a fuller report from Ian Smith, though the asides on Farne rangers and memories of Grace Darling deserved more tailored treatment than a News in Brief heading. Paper stock aside, only the page-wide advertisement at the foot of the page for Yummleys bistro and coffee shop in Eyemouth prevents the 'Tiser looking more news magazine than newspaper. Features familiar from other Johnston papers such as the index, contacts, weather and Photo of the week on page 2 are present.

There are some errors which are presumably production teething ones: some house ads refer to the paper as The Berwickshire News, its sister also edited by Phil Johnson from 90 Marygate in Berwick which went tabloid on the same day, and it's The Berwickshire's e-mail address to which readers are invited to write on the letters spread. The decision to have the running header read 'Berwick Advertiser and Berwickshire News' is probably one of practicality, given that many pages in the broadsheet carried this anyway reflecting the amount of shared content. Despite the very good to reasonable reproduction of colour pictures, black and white images tend towards the murky, such as the picture of the visit of the Berwick Young Farmers to the old Tweeddale Press Group printworks in June 1985, printed on page 45. This forms part of the 'Meet the Team' supplement; the update on plans for paper and profiles of the staff are welcome even if the copy:advertising ratio in the supplement makes it reminiscent of a freesheet.

News layout seems to prioritise human interest and 'good news' on the right of a spread with downbeat stories, where they exist on the left. This page four sees an account of retail woes as the Berwick branch of jeweller H. Samuel closes, and another of the rusting state of the electricity and water control cabinet at Spittal splash park. Opposite is the tale of a nine-year-old at Berwick Middle School who can recite Pi to 130 places. Court stories and council business tend to be dealt with as Nes in Brief. One-month old Lily Rose Mavin, delivered by her mother Yvonne of Tweedmouth, is an appealing hook for a serious story, the third baby in four months from the Berwick area born in an ambulance because since Berwick Maternity Unit's closure it's been difficult for expectant mothers to reach any of the alternatives. The campaign for the reopening of the unit is one seemingly covered closely by the paper, but campaigners "have done all they can for now" as they await a decision from the new clinical commissioning group. Another story appropriate for the relaunch featured on the front page is covered in full on page 6, telling of artist and printer Jonathan Lloyd's use of a nineteenth-century Improved Albion Press to print two-colour posters defending Wooler Middle School against closure.

Both the Berwick Advertiser and The Berwickshire News have simplified their titles. The 'Tiser's badge is redrawn with tints of colour, retaining the 'Established 1808' motto and a bear by a tree (until the first decade of this century there were two bears, facing in different directions) between the two words of the title, now without a definite article for the first time. The subtitle carried since 1957 (though did it appear in the years 1983-84, when the paper was published as The Berwickshire and Berwick Advertiser, I wonder?) 'Incorporating the Berwick Journal and Northumberland News, published 1855-1957' is dropped. Likewise The Berwickshire News seems to have lost and East Lothian Herald from its full title, though this was I think not an absorbed title but a pitch for a circulation area stretching up to the Forth (indeed, in an earlier form the title read and East Lothian Advertiser). Its subtitle from the 1957 consolidation, 'Incorporating the Berwickshire Advertiser, published 1885-1957' has also been lost. The Berwickshire has long since lost its Dunbar office, and its Duns and Coldstream ones too for that matter. The supplement has profiles of the communities on which the papers concentrate: Berwick, Coldstream, Duns and Chirnside, Eyemouth, Seahouses and Belford and Wooler.

In the first of my series of posts on the Ponteland Observer last year, I anticipated that the redesigned Morpeth Herald, when it came, would drop the words 'Incorporating the Ponteland Observer' from its masthead. I am happy to say that I was wrong. In contrast with its Tweeddale Press siblings, Northeast Press have chosen to retain a great deal of the look of the broadsheet Herald in the compact title. Changes to the typefaces are minimal, with the nearest matches having been found within the new package. There is subtly increased use of colour in the subheadings. Remarkably, Births, Marriages and Deaths remain on page two, where in other Johnston titles which I've seen they have been moved well inside the paper. The masthead retains the recent blacked-in version of the Gothic heading which the paper has used, with occasional additions and amputations, since former owners J. and J.S. Mackay installed their rotary press in 1907. Facebook and Twitter links are proclaimed prominently, perhaps a clue that the paper guesses it has an older, less tech-savvy readership than Johnston Press's senior management might hope for.

The Herald has statistics on its side: it's one of the minority of newspapers in the UK to be building its circulation. The subtle alterations made to its layout and typography to accommodate its new size are calculated not to alienate a loyal and growing readership. Where Phil Johnson at the 'Tiser went for a large picture story, the front page of the Herald is led by a text-only story, but also an environmental one: the battle to prevent a windfarm being built at Fenrother a few miles north-west of Morpeth. A smiling nine-year-old brandishing her letter from the Queen is a suitably forward-looking but traditional image for the first front page of a new era.

The Herald is a smaller paper than the 'Tiser, with 52 pages in its book to the 'Tiser's 96. Motor and property advertising is harder to come by in Morpeth, with the two dailies of Newcastle (both owned by Trinity Mirror) so close. With the Northumberland Gazette, the Herald makes up for this with occasional specialist advertising supplements, but display advertising in the paper appears healthy. Its page 3 leads on overwhelming support for a local campaign against the gridlock-inducing traffic lights introduced to Morpeth last year, with a flock of activists and petition signatories pictured on Morpeth's Bridge Street. Retail worries also lead page five, with a campaign for a reduction in business rates on Newgate Street. Other local campaigns covered are those for the maintenance of a bus service from coastal villages to Morpeth and for funds to keep Longhorsley Village Playgroup in operation. The Herald seems to cover more local businesses than the 'Tiser, though the latter has more stories about facilities for tourists and a dedicated farming section with contributions from local agricultural firms. There is good and frequent use of pictures of participants in World Book Day and Comic Relief, mainly in schools and shops.

There's a domestic scale to the Herald which makes some of it look superficially like something a community group has put together on DTP, but it's all highly professional and resisting overdesign. The comment and letters section segues gently into the leisure pages, put together by senior reporter Andrew Coulson; there is no barrier of adverts and headings to isolate the section as in some other titles. Stories of ongoing interest include the centenary of the death of Emily Davison, followed in more detail in the preceding and subsequent editions. The centre pages see another history supplement as a pullout, leading into an introduction to the advertising team; its only problem is that it possibly diminishes chief reporter Anna Smith's two page special feature on the regeneration of the Stobhill area of Morpeth. Relations with clubs and societies throughout the circulation area seem well-maintained, though one suspects resources are not available to help the hard-worked dedicated reporting staff of two (the remainder, including the editor and deputy editor, being shared with the Northumberland Gazette) more proactive in soliciting content from the full catchment area.

Colour registration can be patchy in the Herald, but the 21 March issue was reasonably good and avoided some of the washed out or misaligned images in some other recent editions I've seen. A slightly heavier paper stock might flatter the colour inks better, perhaps, and the Berwick Advertiser seems marginally better in both regards. Neither title is printed in-house by Johnston Press; since the closure of their Sunderland printworks late last year the Berwick Advertiser has been printed under contract by Newsquest, presumably in Glasgow, and the Morpeth Herald by Trinity Mirror in Newcastle. Both were restrained with the QR codes and the Herald avoided the trendy web-pointing but uncommunicative graphics bars many of the other Johnston titles have embraced.

Promotions for the relaunches were stronger than some of last year's sausage rolls and pub meals. Both the 'Tiser and the Herald offered a competition with DFDS Seaways to win a break or mini-cruise to Amsterdam as well as another to win a Mini, while the 'Tiser offered a chance to win a meal for four at the Lindisfarne Inn at Beal. The Morpeth Herald countered with a voucher for a cookie from the Morpeth branch of Subway.

Reviewing single issues of newspapers as individual works of craft is a dangerous exercise, risking undervaluing commercial realities and that a newspaper is a continuum of news provision, even more so in the digital age now that websites sit alongside print. Both relaunch issues were put together well, though the Herald felt closer to its readers and better-provided with copy. Its letters pages seemed also the more thriving of the two. Approval here for the Herald's daring to be different within the confines of the Cases i Associats templates, but the Advertiser knows how to present news dramatically and made very good use of the more polished if slightly impersonal stylesheet. The Herald (perhaps through familiarity and remote and long-past personal connection, as well as my regard for tradition) just has the edge as the most impressive of the two, but it is a close-run thing.

An afterword, revisiting the papers two weeks on.

The Berwick Advertiser can be found online at, and the Morpeth Herald at . On Twitter they are @BAdvertiser and @Morpeth_Herald, and both the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald are extending their Facebook presences.


  1. It was interesting to read your take Matthew.

    1. Many thanks, Kirsty, for this and all your work keeping journalism alive in Berwick.