Friday, May 15, 2009

A matter of trust

I visited Leicester College yesterday - 26,000 students, mostly from Leicester - to get an update from Maggie Galliers, the Principal. It has been a good week for the College with Princess Anne opening its new Abbey Park campus.

Ms Galliers mentioned a mutual acquaintance which reminded me of one of the cornerstones of the Leicester Mercury's success.

The person concerned is Mark Haysom, who recently resigned from his position as chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council following a debacle over funding which has left many colleges throughout Britain teetering on the brink of disaster after Government cash for building projects dried up after they had been started.

According to The Times newspaper, Mr Haysom received a payoff of 'more than £100,000, equal to six months salary.' That means he was paid more than £200,000 a year. Nice work if you can get it! He resigned because there had been failures in the way his organisation had managed its work, prompting one commenter to say he had received a 'payment for failure.'

Anyway, I digress. I knew Mr Haysom in a former life - he was managing director of the company in Cardiff which ran the South Wales Echo, the paper of which I was Editor in the mid-1990s. As managing director, he appointed me to my post and held the right to sack me as well - the Editor reported to the managing director. This can be a fairly uncomfortable postion to find yourself in as it then effectively gives the MD the final say on what the paper covers - should we run that expose of the local company that spends £10,000 a year advertising with us?

To be fair to Mr Haysom, although we met every week to discuss what I was doing and where I was taking the paper, he never once 'told' me to do anything. Nevertheless, the ultimate sanction remained with him. The South Wales Echo was owned by Trinity Mirror.

The Leicester Mercury, on the other hand, is part of Northcliffe Media Group and there is a fundamental difference in the way it runs its papers - the Editors are appointed by the group's managing director, Michael Pelosi. Mr Pelosi is one step removed from the day to day running of the paper.

This means that the local managing director, Steve Hollingsworth, the man with direct responsibility for the commercial success of the Mercury, does not get a direct say in the editorial policies and does not have the power to say: 'You can't run that article.'

As it happens, Steve and I go back a long way. We have worked together in other parts of the Northcliffe business over many years and we get along well personally as well as professionally. Steve knows that I value his input into what I'm doing editorially and we often discuss the direction in which I'm taking the paper and the changes I am making, but we both know where the line is drawn. I think this separation of church and state is one of the fundamental reasons for the Mercury's success - readers know they can trust the editorial to be honest and independent.

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