Thursday, 6 May 2021

'Trusted news since 1874' - the new News Post Leader and its ancestors

Local newspapers depend on being able to report on and advertise to distinct communities. They attempt to play a part in defining that community, and their commercial success is bound in with the way they present their area. They usually include a town or county in their title. One oddity in that regard is the News Post Leader, currently published by JPIMedia, which relaunched on Friday 30 April 2021 as a paid-for title after nearly thirty-nine years as a freesheet, and whose coverage area is south-east Northumberland.

The change complements a refreshing of some of JPI's other north-east titles. The Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald have updated their mastheads to make more use of white space, and are using Abril Display in a larger point than before for the front page main story, in part following the example of JPI's principal Northumberland title, the Alnwick-centred Northumberland Gazette. As from 22 April 2021 the Morpeth Herald abandoned the subtitle 'incorporating the Ponteland Observer' and seems now to be concentrating on Morpeth town stories, an understandable strategy in rebuilding the title after the depredations of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ponteland Observer subtitle had been carried for thirty-five years, nearly twelve times longer than the lifespan of the Ponteland Observer as a newspaper.

Most JPI papers carry a variant of the strapline 'Trusted News Since [foundation date]' and the News Post Leader appeals to origins in 1874. The dates advertise deep roots in the communities served, and the relaunched paper is a model community newspaper for straitened times. Leaving aside the eight pages of puzzles which seem ubiquitous nowadays, there are specific business and schools news sections as well as photo pages and an enhanced sports section anchored by a new column from football journalist Jordan Cronin, covering local non-league team Blyth Spartans as well as Newcastle United 'from a Northumberland perspective'. Cronin's style is accessible even for those not particularly engaged by football and has evident applications for the digital wars where JPI, Reach and Newsquest all have offerings in North-East England increasingly focused on the same wider regional market rather than on the coverage areas of their newspapers.

The News Post Leader's front page follows several of its sister titles in going for a large lead picture as a hook, pointing to a story on the inside pages. In this case the headline serves as a greeting to readers from the new-look paper, 'We're Ready, Over to You!' in bold Tablet Gothic, as well as representing BritishVolt's anticipation of the go-ahead from Northumberland County Council for their '£2.6bn gigaplant' making batteries for electric cars. The site pictured is picturesquely bare - an eroding concrete floor framed by encroaching foliage, sky and distant green-tinged hills. Elsewhere the page promotes a competition to win a meal for four at the Commissioners' Quay Inn - whose owners expansion is covered within - the school news section - with children playing pirates on a purpose-built ship play frame - and Jordan Cronin's column. Editor Paul Larkin introduces the new paper on page 13, connecting the arrival of BritishVolt to a new era for the area's economy, and explaining the change from freesheet to paid-for title as a result of 'changing social habits and reader demands' and the opportunity a move to newsstands gives to invest in and improve the title's content.

Paul Larkin says that the News Post Leader has been distributed free 'in recent years', but it seems to have been a freesheet for most of the last four decades. He also mentions that the paper is affectionately known locally as 'the Leader'. This is a clue to the News Post Leader's convoluted origins, to which the 1874 foundation date doesn't do justice. The Leader was a freesheet launched in the late 1970s, which covered south-east Northumberland. The paper's antiquity lies in the first part of its title.

The Blyth Illustrated Weekly News was founded in 1874 by William Alder, a printer and dealer in charts and nautical instruments in Blyth. Early numbers ran to ten pages - two folded sheets and an insert - and were subtitled 'A Family Journal of News, Tales, History, Art, &c.' The interior gave its full title as The Blyth Illustrated Weekly News, with which is incorporated The Blyth Monthly Advertiser - the latter part perhaps an earlier, less frequent enterprise of Alder. From the issue of Saturday 16 May 1874, it seems that most of the content was not local, mixing fiction with tales of ghastly experiences abroad and imperial derring-do, and anecdotes of great figures in art and literature. The placing of the local content suggests that the entire publication was put together by Alder in Blyth, rather than mostly bought in on pre-printed sheets from a London publisher with the local printer adding his own title and local news and advertising on the blank pages. 

The Blyth Illustrated Weekly News was an impressive effort to appeal to a wide readership with a mix of local news and advertising, and serials and clippings from other publications which were presumably bought in from sources elsewhere. At one penny in price, it was probably too expensive a proposition for its proprietor, and with too general and artistic an appeal for advertisers. By January 1875 it had metamorphosed into a four-page newspaper, The Blyth Weekly News and Northumberland Advertiser. The short items of humour, gossip and sensational news around an engraving had been replaced by the conventional front page of advertising, surmounted in this case by the injunction 'The only way to gain business, is publicity; to gain publicity-advertise. (Blackwood.)' William Alder remained the proprietor, but the inner pages were entirely made up of international and national news beginning with a column 'From our London Correspondent', perhaps entirely printed in London. Local news appeared on the back page only. The price remained one penny. 

The revised paper prospered. By 14 May 1881 the entire paper was being printed in Blyth by William Alder, who was advertising enhanced printing facilties in his office in Ridley Street. A 'Lokil letter' was a regular feature in this period, commenting on local affairs in the Pitmatic dialect. Alder died on 10 August 1883, aged fifty-four. The paper included an elegy to his friend by the poet Matthew Tate. William was succeeded by his brother Cuthbert Gibson Alder, who took on William Watts Smith as a partner. Following Alder's retirement in 1889 Smith and Lancelot Watson continued in business as Alder & Co., while a new company, led by Smith as secretary but with a widder shareholding, was formed to own the News.

C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian would later emphasise the moral role of the regional newspaper in its community, and the Blyth Weekly News was viewed as a conduit for good works. A donor, John Thompson of Blyth, bestowed £30 on the directors of the Blyth Weekly News Company in 1889 to spend on the education of twelve boys for two years within Cowpen School Board district. The company passed the responsibility of choosing the Blyth Weekly News scholars on to readers, who could collect coupons between August and Christmas in order to maximise their chances of nominating their preferred children. The scheme continued in 1890, by which time it was opened to girls as well as boys, the places being reduced to six.

Since the 1880s the News had been a affluent-looking eight page paper, but there were challenges to its place in the Blyth newspaper market. The Blyth Examiner and Echo, founded by William Alder's former apprentice John Tweedy in 1888, survived until February 1894, shortly before a move was made on the area by the owners of the Shields Daily Gazette, the Northern Press and Engineering Company. As Alders made and sold nautical instruments, the Gazette's owners made newspaper presses as well as printing newspapers. They launched the Blyth and Wansbeck Telegraph in March, a twice-weekly, four-page paper, which was aggressively promoted as the 'best advertising medium' for Blyth and district. The News could not compete, and its owners went into receivership on 28 August 1894. 

The next day's Shields Daily Gazette announced the purchase of the Blyth Weekly News, which would be amalgamted with the Blyth and Wansbeck Telegraph under the lengthy title of The Blyth Bi-Weekly News and Wansbeck Telegraph, with which is incorporated the Blyth Weekly News. The first issue appeared on Friday 31 August 1894, taking over the Telegraph's publication days of Tuesday and Friday, the News having previously appeared on Saturdays. The merged paper, under Northern Press ownership, had a more professional air. In a time when business relied on daily and weekly newspaper journalism for communications and public relations, there must have been several papers represented in Blyth as well as the News, and one feels for the Blyth journalists whose dinner scheduled for 30 January 1901 was postponed until after Queen Victoria's funeral, as reported in the Blyth News and Wansbeck Telegraph of 25 January 1901.

The Blyth News had become the main title of the paper on 23 January 1900, which allowed two box display advertisements to be sold on the masthead. News began to displace advertisements on the front page during the first decade of the twentieth century, though it was a long time before headlines were placed across columns. The Wansbeck Telegraph subtitle disappeared from 26 February 1920. The most influential change of title came on Thursday 29 October 1925, when the paper appeared with a two level masthead with both elements given equal weight - Blyth News Ashington Post.

This wasn't a merger, but an expansion of the Blyth News's business. At some point thereafter it began to publish in two editions. The front page layout was modernised in the early 1930s, with an emphasis on presenting news stories invitingly, photographs and display advertising. In 1934, following the death of its proprietor, Ronald C. Stevenson, the Northern Press was acquired by a larger group, Westminster Press, whose roots were also in the north-east, having grown from The Northern Echo and a cluster of neighbouring papers acquired by Charles Starmer. From 9 May 1940 the Blyth edition minimised the 'Ashington Post' on its masthead, and the Ashington edition presumably reciprocated, as seen in the graphic to the right from the Blyth News Ashington Post of 1949. In that anniversary article, it's clear that the short name of the paper is established locally as the News Post.

The News Post had competition in Ashington from the early 1930s in the form of the Ashington Advertiser, owned by a local printer much as the original News had been, and indeed as another neighbouring paper the Morpeth Herald remained until 1983. The Advertiser was bought by Northern Press and merged with the News Post from 27 March 1969. For the following five years the Ashington paper was called the Advertiser and Post, the remaining editions remaining the Blyth News. The News Post title was revived in 1974 with geographical labelling in masthead straplines.

Free newspapers were one of the growth areas of the 1970s. Northern Press launched The Leader no later than 1979. Its name was perhaps drawn from company history - the Northern Weekly Leader, founded in 1884 by editor James Annand, brother of the company's managing director Robert Cumming Annand, blazed a trail for north-east Liberalism at the close of the nineteenth century - but the purpose of the Leader, like many other free papers, was to sell advertising at volume and get it into homes which might not otherwise see a local paper. This trend encouraged proprietors to shut down some paid-for weeklies even if they seemed to be performing fairly creditably. 

As reproduced in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, 29 June 1982 
Coal and shipping might have been in decline, but With economic prospects for the north-east unpredictable, and a loss reported for the year of £467,300 for its regional weeklies, Northern Press announced in June 1982 that they would close the News Post and its Blyth office. Its editor, Ronnie Cross, retired aged 63. The closure seemed to ignore the News Post's sales of 20,800 weekly, the highest in the group as a single title, though the combined circulations of titles with close relationships, like the Northumberland Gazette and its Morpeth and Ponteland change page editions (13,134 combined), and the Shields Weekly News and Wallsend News (16,316) and Whitley Bay Guardian (13,735) probably had more of what would later be celebrated as synergy. (The two Newses and the Guardian were merged as the News Guardian in 1985, after a period of integration.) The announcement explained that the Leader would be enhanced with more editorial in compensation for the loss of the News Post.

Somewhere between the announcement of the closure of the News Post and the event itself, the decision was taken to preserve the old paper's name in the expanded Leader. Thus on 4 August 1982 the News Post Leader dropped through letterboxes for the first time, and would remain a free paper for the next thirty-eight years and eight months. Its editorial base was in Whitley Bay for much of its history. Northern Press was sold by Westminster Press in March 1986 to John Barrons and Peter Fowler. In turn, Northern Press was acquired by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers in June 1991, who merged it with their subsidiary Sunderland and Hartlepool Publishing and Printing to create Northeast Press. 

After Northeast Press acquired the Morpeth Herald from the Tweeddale Press Group in 1992, the News Post Leader name was added to the fascia of the Herald's office in Newgate Street, Morpeth, until that office was closed in 2014 by Johnston Press, who had acquired Northeast Press in 1999. The News Post Leader then moved with the Herald to Telford Court on the outskirts of Morpeth, but that office had closed by 2020 as part of the cuts imposed by JPIMedia, who bought the liquidated Johnston Press's assets. The postal address of the News Post Leader is now in Sunderland, but its reporters and principal advertising staff work from mobile phone numbers and e-mail. It remains to be seen whether the JPIMedia localisation policy will restore an office to south-east Northumberland. 

The new News Post Leader's appeal to the arrival of BritishVolt as the renewal of industry and employment in the area echoes the old News Post's projection of communities drawn together by coal and the sea. It is impossible not to wish it and the area well.

Sources for this post include several editions of the Blyth News Ashington Post and its predecessors held on the British Newspaper Archive, reports on the fate of Northern Press and its newspapers in The Journal and the Evening Chronicle, both of Newcastle upon Tyne, also via the British Newspaper Archive, Metal Type's post on the centenary of the Shields Gazette, and Maurice Milne's Newspapers of Northumberland and Durham (Newcastle: Frank Graham, 1969).

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