Saturday, 30 March 2013

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

Last year, I wrote a couple of posts surveying the metamorphosis of three titles in the first wave of relaunches imposed by Johnston Press across their local newspapers in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. My admiration (albeit biased by local association) for the Northumberland Gazette was shared by decision-makers in the company, as it won the in-house award for the most successful transition to the new compact, templated format. The plan has returned to Northumberland, with both the Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald making the move from broadsheet to redesigned tabloid on 21 March this year.

I first became aware of both Advertiser and Herald in the 1980s, when both were published by the Tweeddale Press and printed by them in Berwick; they used the same typography and shared advertising. Since 1992, they have gone their different ways, the Herald being acquired in that year by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers' Northeast Press division. Though both firms were acquired by Johnston Press in 1999, their titles retained distinct editorial identities.

The Berwick Advertiser (determinedly asserting its identity with the definite article until its last broadsheet issue) and the Morpeth Herald (definite article dropped in the first half of the twentieth century) are both long-established, the Advertiser first appearing in 1808 and the Herald in 1854. Both bade farewell to their broadsheet editions on 14 March with retrospective features. The Advertiser sought the personal angle, with a page of memoir by its former editor Tony Langmack. Rich in the weight of experience, the article was let down only by the absence of sub-editing at crucial points and the sense that it had been compressed from a much longer and more valuable work. If Tony Langmack has a memoir to publish of his sixty-eight (and counting) years in local journalism, I hope we see it. Langmack's reminiscence was followed by three pages of reproductions of old Advertiser pages, including the first front page from 1808, when it was The British Gazette and Berwick Advertiser, the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the fates of Berwick prisoners of war at the end of World War Two, the devastating floods of 1948, the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1956, Berwick Rangers' defeat of Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Cup in 1967, Lord Lambton's resignation in 1972, the end of the old Berwick Borough Council in 1974 and the launch of the larger district authority, and two front-page photographs from the last decade which demonstrate the power of the broadsheet page for photojournalism. Most of the images confirm the personality of the Tweeddale Press of the twentieth century - socially and politically conservative, but proudly localist and where necessary aggressively so.

The Morpeth Herald, rooted in the south-east Northumberland coalfield, had a different outlook to the Advertiser and its retrospective reflects this. Discontinuity is evident in editorial: the Herald has no equivalent to Tony Langmack and its columnist Roger Hawkins and chief reporter Anna Smith rely instead on good relations with the Mackay family, previous owners of the paper, and their collection of back issues and related material dating from 1854 to the sale of the paper in 1983. The decision to lay the supplement out as a special edition of the Herald in its own right leads to the narrative being somewhat fragmented, but the efforts of the Mackays to build up the paper are well-illustrated with extracts from old papers and photographs of once-mighty presses in action. The expansion of the Herald to cover most of east Northumberland is addressed, as is the establishment of a core readership in the colliery villages to the south and east of Morpeth as far south as Dinnington and Forest Hall. Roger Hawkins remarks that this coverage area is unknown to family historians, with births, marriages and deaths from Blyth Valley and North Tyneside an unappreciated resource. (There is, alas, no mention of the growing number of Heralds at the online British Newspaper Archive.)

The Herald's circulation shrank as the smaller collieries closed and the villages themselves either died or were absorbed into Newcastle. The independent Herald was unable to adapt; the paper the Mackays closed in 1983 before selling the title to the Tweeddale Press Group was, it's observed, much the same as it had been seventy years before. The reorientation of the Herald under the Tweeddale Press to serve the post-1974 local authority of Castle Morpeth, helped by the merger with the Ponteland Observer ('a small independent absorbed in stages between 1984 and 1986') is touched upon.

The tone of both supplements, unsurprisingly, is to present the paper as essential to the enduring well-being of the area it serves: 'Our heritage captured in print', proclaims the second page of the Herald history. There's a stronger note of continuity in the Herald's coverage of its own relaunch than in the Advertiser's. The Herald's relaunch is presented as evolution rather than revolution, indeed as a return to first principles as the paper's original size in 1854 was closer to modern tabloid size than the broadsheet the Herald is leaving behind. The Advertiser doesn't mention the Richardson family who founded the paper, though Tony Langmack does pay tribute to their descendants the Smails, who sold the Tweeddale Press to Johnston Press in 1999. The Mackays figure prominently in the Herald, while the Advertiser is presented as a team effort with the paper itself and its role in local people's lives enjoying a long history. Though both supplements have advertising alongside them, it's the Advertiser which exploits this, solicitors Tait Farrier Graham asking 'Your local newspaper is shrinking! Isn't it time your legal bills did?'

The end of the broadsheet format was prominent on both papers' front pages, but didn't dominate. The top half of the last Berwick Advertiser led on the news that Berwick Visual Arts were finally to reopen the Gymnasium Gallery on the Town Wall by the Barracks, a deal having been reached with landlords English Heritage; while local schoolchildren dressed as Wally from Where's Wally? for World Book Day provided the lead picture. The Herald was more varied, with pictures of women's suffragist re-enactors commemorating the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, and the unveiling of a bust of Lord Collingwood, above the arrest of five men for conspiracy to rob and, as the main story, surely a quintessentially local headline, 'It's bedlam at the bus station'.

More on the new compacts themselves in part two.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Not forgotten

I'm still here, but very busy, hence the failure for more than one post to appear this year. There is a television review in draft, but it needs editing and the adding of references and I've been both too tired and very conscious of other commitments. Envisage me sitting in libraries, making notes on business meetings two centuries ago and accounts of income and expenditure, and measuring the pages of books.

Hopefully I will make time to finish that post in the next few weeks. In the meantime, do consider buying Doctor Who - The Aztecs: Special Edition on DVD, for which I contributed the production subtitles.