Friday, 4 May 2012

Ponteland Observed, part three

The first broadsheet edition of the Ponteland Observer appeared as promised on Thursday 5 July 1984. The crowded front page featured a prominent publisher's statement by Jim Smail, justifying the decision to make the Observer a broadsheet in similar terms to the editorial the previous week in the last tabloid edition. Classified advertising was to be shared with the Morpeth Herald and other sister papers in the Tweeddale Press Group; the development of the paper before it was acquired was praised, the tragic circumstances of the purchase alluded to, and the 'growth of the paper in its own right' established as an aim. Below the fold a list of contents directed readers to where they could find Ponteland Observer contents within the paper.

This was a necessary point, because the relaunched title was a hybrid of copy generated in the Observer office in Ponteland, advertising gathered by various Tweeddale Press offices in the Borders and Northumberland, and news pages from the Morpeth Herald. Where the Observer pages sought to retain the design and editorial principles established while the paper was independent, with the Cooper Black Condensed versions of the page headings surviving on the Women and Leisure pages, together with the Comment box on the opinion and profile page, they were intermingled with pages from a newspaper with a very different personality, which didn't classify its contents in the same way. There was seemingly little care taken as to which pages from the Herald were included in the Observer. For example, while the Observer letters page was absent in this issue, page 2, sourced from the Herald, contained 'Letters to the Editor' which were exclusively Morpeth-based. An advertisement for a Morpeth restaurant on the same page extended 'congratulations and best wishes to the Morpeth Herald on its merger with the Ponteland Observer'. This seemed to contradict the proprietorial statement that the titles would remain distinct while sharing common news of Castle Morpeth district. Matters did not improve over the succeeding weeks. While Morpeth-based news was to be expected in the new format, Herald-specific features such as the letters page or columns such as Roland Bibby's 'By Font and Wansbeck' frequently crept into the Observer's pages. That summer, the Observer's support for Ponteland's campaign in Britain in Bloom would be compromised by advertisers and Herald stories on surrounding pages supporting Morpeth's attempts. Worse still, it was sometimes noticeable that the Herald bundled in press releases with no evident contextualisation - a story about telephone number changes in parts of Newcastle appeared at the foot of one Herald page without it being explained to whom the story related.

Jim Smail had apologised to those readers of the Ponteland Observer who objected to the broadsheet format. He didn't acknowledge how unusually broad the paper was, at 920mm when opened out, a good 170mm wider than the average. This archaic paper size was complemented by the new masthead's combination of conservative subheadings 'Incorporated with the Morpeth Herald' and 'Established 1982', in the Tweeddale Press's house style, and an informal title font with a simplified drawing of Ponteland church, bridge and Diamond Inn, replacing the more detailed drawing by Ponteland student Nicola French, and perhaps drawn by someone less familiar with the location. The appearance of a 'picture page' of photographs was well-intentioned but drew attention to the diminished print resolution and the lack of editorial to support them. The dual personality - only integrated on the entirely merged sport pages - undermined the Observer as a proposition for established readers; if weekly local newspapers are a lifestyle choice, it was unclear which lifestyle was being bought.

While the Tweeddale Press Group pursued the line that the new arrangement allowed Ponteland readers to read more news of their local area, the association of Ponteland with Morpeth in Castle Morpeth borough was only ten years old in 1984. While the Ponteland Observer was itself a new paper for a growing commuter settlement, the Morpeth Herald had first appeared in 1854 and catered to an established market town which acted as a gateway between rural mid-Northumberland and the more industrialised areas of Ashington and Blyth in the south-east of the county. Until February 1983 it had been published by several generations of the Mackay family, who held out on vintage equipment - some dating to the early nineteenth century - against competition from newspapers published by larger groups with more resources. After two months the Tweeddale Press - whose own Alnwick Advertiser, retitled for a while as the Alnwick and Morpeth Advertiser, had been competing with the Herald - relaunched the Morpeth Herald within their own series. Reorientation away from the Herald's traditional hinterland began immediately - the subtitle 'Ashington, Blyth & Bedlington Reporter' was dropped, and there was even a police report from Darras Hall tucked away on the front page, perhaps (and only perhaps) a clue that the Tweeddale Press were looking to prosperous Ponteland even then.

The Observer's newsgathering was impressive, and notes on a new car and a feature on a play at Wallington Hall in the first issue showed that it still had the affluent leisured reader in mind. However, the Tweeddale Press's group features on farming and on (for example) care homes were more generally focused. The feeling in Ponteland seemed to be that the new Observer had 'gone county' and that despite the presence of a Ponteland office and the large number of stories editor Susan Calvert and new reporter Catherine Siddall generated, it was insufficiently distinct from the Ponteland edition of the Alnwick-based Northumberland Gazette, then owned by Northern Press and against which the Tweeddale Press's Alnwick Advertiser was positioned as an upstart competitor.

The end of August saw a rethinking of the Tweeddale Press Group's titles which included a decision to share less editorial and advertising between titles and pursue the development of each individual newspaper's business. Jim Smail took the opportunity to review the progress of the Ponteland Observer on its front page, but appealed to Ponteland residents to recognise what a good business proposition the Observer was, tied into an advertising market reaching from south Northumberland to the Firth of Forth. A minor relaunch followed, with the 'Incorporated with the Morpeth Herald' subtitle disappearing and Nicola French's artwork returning to the masthead. However, a proportion of editorial from the Morpeth Herald continued to appear, sometimes including material critical of wealthy Pontelanders whose demands unfairly sapped resources from Morpeth and the poorer mining or agricultural villages surrounding it. There was a tension between editorial strategies and economic necessities which was proving difficult to bridge.

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