Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Talking to readers

I pulled up at the security cabin in the DMU carpark this afternoon to be greeted by two men. There was the dreaded sound of air being sucked in through gritted teeth as I explained that no, I didn't think I had a space booked, but I did have a meeting to get to. "Don't know about that, Sir, where are you from?" "The Leicester Mercury." "Right, you've got a new Editor haven't you?" "I am the new Editor." "Right, well when are you going to put something interesting in the paper then?"

We were off to a flying start! To be fair, they were helpful, found me a car park space and then explained that they both had the paper delivered every day - had done for years - but they didn't sound convinced about the content. As I got out of the car, one of them wandered over and asked my a question that I'd already been asked today: 'Have you moved the printing of the Mercury away to Derby? Doesn't that mean that the paper's full of old news?'

Yes and no.

Yes, we have moved the printing, but no it doesn't mean our news will be old. In fact, I believe our news will be more up to date - I'll explain below.

But first, why have we moved the printing? It's obviously about saving costs - running a press is an expensive business and for some time regional newspaper companies have been reducing the number of presses so that the those remaining can be used for more of each day, reducing the amount of time that they stand idle. The presses at the Mercury building have for some time printed other newspapers - including, for example, the Hull Daily Mail, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and the Lincolnshire Echo. The Nottingham Post has not had its own press for at least the last 15 years and has been printed at Derby. All of these newspapers are part of the same group as the Leicester Mercury, Northcliffe Media Group.

Our sister company in Derby has better, faster presses than those at Leicester and, by moving the Nottingham paper to another of the group's presses in Stoke, we were able to save a lot of money by reducing the number of presses from three to two.

It's wasn't a nice decision - more than 60 people lost their jobs - but it was part of cost-cutting programme that the group has gone through to ensure that it has a healthy future and to guarantee that Leicester keeps an independent local newspaper. I mentioned in my earlier post that we have concentrated on making sure that those things that make the Mercury a Leicester newspaper, remain intact and in Leicester. That means that the reporters, the photographers, the feature writers, the sports team, and the editorial management team - including me - all remain in in Leicester. We also design all the main pages and proof read all pages.

Of course, the one thing that closing the Leicester press did affect was our deadlines. The Mercury now starts printing at about 3am - it takes a few hours to complete the run, but it does mean that the paper is on sale much earlier in the day. In some shops, it is available by 7am and you can find it on the counter of all shops by not long after 10am.

So how can I argue that this gives us the opportunity to have fresher rather than older news?

When I arrived at the Mercury in February, the shift patterns in our newsroom went something like this. The pages in the paper were split into two sorts: live pages and what we call overnight pages. As you might expect, live pages were those that were done on the day of publication. The overnight pages were, as the name implies, done the day before and these accounted for the vast majority of pages. In fact, the number of live pages on the first edition of the paper was usually not more than three.

Most of our staff would work a normal 'office hours' day, which meant that pretty much all of the overnight pages had to be complete by about 5 or 6pm. Obviously we could not put all of our pages together at the last minute and the overnight pages were done throughout the day prior to publication - in fact, on the first Monday that I arrived at the Mercury, the first news conference that I attended was at 9.30am and it was to discuss the news for Tuesday's paper. The only stories that the news editor could confidently tell me about must have come from over the weekend - or worse still, Friday - as he had so little time on Monday to prepare them before the 9.30am conference. As the week went by, it was clear that stories would be held out from one day to give the news editor the opportunity to fill early overnight pages the next day.

Even if the newsdesk wanted to get stories into the paper as quickly as possible, there were plenty of things that happened late in the afternoon, and which were not strong enough to go on the three live pages the next morning, which would therefore be held out for another full day..

For example, a reporter in court who filed her story at 5pm on a Monday would not usually expect it to appear in the paper on Tuesday unless it was strong enough to go on pages 1, 2 or 3. It would appear in Wednesday's paper.

In fact, because our deadlines for the first edition live pages were so early the next morning, some of our staff had to come in at 6am to prepare them. Of course, at that time in the morning, most sane people are still fast asleep, or at least only just getting up ... which meant we got very little news as there was nobody to speak to! This meant in reality that even the news for the live pages was usually prepared the night before and very little changed in the morning.

As I have mentioned we worked what were pretty typical hours for an 'evening' paper - starting reasonably early in the morning, but largely leaving by 5 or 6pm.

Now, however, we are moving increasingly to work as a morning paper - that means that we don't start anything like as early, but we work much later in the evening.

So, the court reporter who files her story at 6pm can be far more confident now that it will appear on Tuesday, not Wednesday as happened under the previous system. It has the potential to bring much of our news forwards, often meaning that it will be published a day earlier. This is not an instant change for us - we have not moved immediately to bring our staff in much later (they could file as late as 2am under the new system), but the paper is moving towards later deadlines, giving us the opportunity to get news into the paper more quickly.

Of course, there will always be the exceptions. Big news that breaks in the middle of the night - under the old system it would have got into the paper the next day on the live pages ... now, the paper would be printed and it would be too late. But you'd be surprised how rarely news breaks in the middle of the night, especially between 2am and 7am.

We will see an interesting test of our new systems on Sunday when the count for the Euro elections takes place. We fear that the count for the East Midlands seats - which is taking place in Leicester - may not finish until 2am. If it is that late, we will get it into Monday's paper ... if it's 2.30am we'll probably still just manage it, but if it's any later ...

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