Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Why did Derby become the editor factory?

Top row: Current newspaper editors - Booth, Bowyer, Clifford, O'Neill and Sassi
Bottom row: Former newspaper editors Irwin, Perch, Hall, Cook and Lowe

What was it about the Derby Telegraph newsroom from 1991 to 1996 that was so special?  Five of today’s regional daily editors, one daily MD and a publisher all cut their teeth in that set up. The latest to take a step up is Kevin Booth, who has just been appointed editor of the Leicester Mercury. Congratulations to him. The others are Jeremy Clifford, editor of The Yorkshire Post and YEP; Mike Sassi, Nottingham Post; Richard Bowyer, The Sentinel in Stoke and Simon O’Neill, Oxford Mail. Steve Hall, formerly editor of the Express & Echo in Exeter and the Derby Telegraph, is now MD at Derby and Simon Irwin, formerly editorial director at the Kent Messenger Group, is publisher at Archant's Kent titles. Then there is Keith Perch, deputy at that time, who went on to edit three of Northcliffe's daily titles (South Wales, Derby and Leicester) and was MD of Northcliffe digital. The late Mel Cook was also in the team … and he became editor of the Scunthorpe Telegraph and was editor of the Nottingham Post when he was cruelly taken by cancer last year. That’s without mentioning the main man, Mike Lowe, who was editor in those halcyon days. He went on to edit the Bristol Evening Post and is now editor of Archant's Cotswold Life.
Can any other newsroom claim to have spawned so many editors? I doubt it. So what was the secret of this medium-size 90s' provincial newsroom that made it the editor factory for the regional Press?
Well, it was a very different time. Editorial was the most important department. Circulations were strong, revenues good and digital was only just becoming an issue. Newsrooms weren’t run by committee and didn't suffer interference from other departments. In Northcliffe in particular, the editor was king. And in Mike Lowe, the Telegraph had a strong king. Simon O’Neill, assistant editor at the time, says: "Derby was definitely not a democracy. Mike ruled and that was that. Strangely though, we all had latitude to do pretty much as we wanted, in terms of expressing ourselves.
"Standards were high, to the point of being brutal and with so many talented people around the place, everybody was hell bent on not being the one who let the side down. We tended to drive ourselves and each other forward each day.”

Mike Lowe himself can't put a finger on why Derby nurtured so many execs. He says: "I don't know why that relatively brief period should have turned out so many editors. We were very lucky in recruiting good people and we tried to create a newsroom environment in which they could thrive. It was quite traditional and hierarchal, which some people wouldn't have liked, but we turned out excellent newspapers and, importantly, we had a lot of fun doing it. We also had the backing of good MDs in Steve Anderson-Dixon and Tim Kitchen (both of whom were from a commercial background, rather than financial).”
I remember the Derby team from those days. It was very macho - not a woman in sight - hard-drinking, hard-working and highly competitive. 
The Telegraph sent a football team on tour and I remember them playing The Northern Echo side ... and, boy, were they brutal. They were the only team our side ever refused to drink with afterwards.  So maybe that was it. Mike Lowe (a lifelong Manchester United fan) ran his newsroom like a football team - talented individuals in the right places with clear goals and strong leadership. They had a bunch of hardmen in the middle who were prepared to have a go. They also had self-belief and a real fear of failure. It wouldn’t work these days, of course. Would it?

The Derby team circa 1992. Back Row: Clive Fidler (former ad manager at Derby) Kevin Booth (editor at Leicester Mercury, formerly at the Burton Mail, Yorkshire Evening Press and Peterborough Telegraph), Jeremy Clifford (editor at Yorkshire Post, formerly at Sheffield Star and Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph) Keith Perch (formerly editor of the Leicester Mercury, Derby Telegraph and South Wales Echo), Lewis Panther (ex-News of the World), Mike Lowe (editor of Cotswold Life, formery editor at Bristol and Derby), Mike Sassi (editor at the Nottingham Post, formerly at The Sentinel, Stoke, and at Lincoln), Unknown, Simon O'Neill (editor at the Oxford Mail, previously at Swindon). Front: Dave Welford (Derbyshire Times), Richard Bowyer (editor at The Sentinel, Stoke), Ruddy Brooks (sport), Phil Cattermole (ringer), Mel Cook (former editor at Nottingham Post, previously editor at the Scunthorpe Telegraph and deputy at Hull Daily Mail), Neil Manship (BBC).


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