The week started with a forthright demand from a group of Northern regional papers: “Deliver what you promised.”
The six Reach papers who banded together – the Manchester Evening News, Huddersfield Examiner, Hull Daily Mail, Teesside Gazette, The Chronicle and The Journal – mimicked the iconic poster for the film Trainspotting to call on ministers to “finally keep your rail promises”.
Other publishers were just as clear in their demands and the Northern Echo, although owned by Newsquest, used the same headline: “Deliver what you promised.” The Yorkshire Post also splashed on the story, with the headline: “Levelling up agenda is in doubt.”
Just two days later, it was confirmed that the Government had scrapped the eastern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail line to Leeds and scaled back the Northern Powerhouse Rail project, meaning no new line between Manchester and Leeds and Bradford missing out. It plans instead to upgrade existing rail lines.
This time, a series of furious rail-based puns were used to represent the anger of the region.
They included: “You’ve fluffed your lines” (The Journal), “The great train station robbery” (Bradford Telegraph & Argus) and “Second class ticket” (Manchester Evening News). The Sheffield Telegraph mocked up a train departures board with the words: “Cancelled… This is due to lies on the line.”
The nationals also got involved with: “HS2-faced” (Daily Mirror), “Mind the gap” (The Independent), “Bozo the train robber” (Daily Star) and “Train wreck” (the i). The Express was more supportive of Boris Johnson on its front page, while the issue was not mentioned by the Times, Telegraph or Daily Mail.
Sheffield Telegraph editor Ellen Beardmore told Press Gazette there had been an “incredible reaction” to her paper’s front page both locally and nationally “with many people saying it succinctly sums up the betrayal people feel over HS2”.
Front page ‘still has power’
She noted that despite being a weekly paper for Sheffield the front page had been mentioned on Radio 4 and reached 75,000 people through Twitter alone.
“Our readers have told us they want better transport connections to the rest of the north, and they weren’t surprised that the eastern leg had been cancelled,” she said.
“As a long-suffering public transport user, who commuted across Yorkshire and Derbyshire for six years before getting a reporter job in Sheffield, I have seen a lot of ‘cancelled’ updates on departure boards.
“I was thinking about that, and how our readers would have experienced the same situation, when it came to me to make our front page in a departure board style for a bigger impact.”
Beardmore praised the “very strong” Reach Trainspotting front pages and said this, plus the reaction to her own paper’s effort, made it “clear that the traditional front page still has power in the digital age – even more so”.
Rob Parsons, the former Yorkshire Post political editor who joined as editor of its politics and public affairs digital brand The Northern Agenda in July, helped to co-ordinate Reach’s Trainspotting front pages. He runs a daily email newsletter and a weekly podcast.
‘A unified message’
Parsons agreed with Beardmore: “I think it’s undeniably true that a printed newspaper front page has the ability to capture people’s attention more effectively than most other forms of media. Part of that is because newspapers still play a strong part in dictating the news agenda due to the prominence of newspaper reviews and #tomorrowspapertoday etc.
“But I think what made our front pages particularly strong is that they brought together a unified message from titles across the North, who rarely come together in this way and have their own distinct approaches and values.
“I think if we’d all done different front page designs it wouldn’t have got the attention it did from the national media and put the issue front and centre of the news agenda in the way it did.”
Parsons said senior journalists from our titles across the North have got together each week since the Northern Agenda began to discuss the big issues in their patches and whether there is any potential for stories and coverage that could work across the whole region.
They knew the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands was coming up and heard “a lot of chatter about it not living up to the promises previously made by the Government”.
The Trainspotting idea came from Westminster editor Dan O’Donoghue and designer Gary Beckwith of The Chronicle and The Journal in Newcastle executed it.
Parsons said: “It was such a striking front page and with the exact tone we wanted so all the editors at titles across the North were excited about running it.
“The only issue then was exactly when we ran it as there were conflicting reports about when the IRP was going to land, but in the end we decided to run it two days before the report.”
He said there had been a “hugely positive” with messages coming in “from people both in and outside of Northern politics saying how much they appreciated the campaign and how powerful it is when different parts of the North unite behind a common message”.
Asked how they decide what tone to strike, Parsons said: “We certainly wanted to get across the feelings of readers who have had to put up with sub-standard transport in the North for years. But we also wanted to highlight the fact that Boris Johnson got into power in 2019 on the back of promises made to Northern voters and we wanted him and his Cabinet to be fully aware that we expected those promises to be kept.
“Obviously across our big and diverse patch there are readers with different views on the current government, both positive and negative, but we thought it was important to put this message out there so people knew the standard they should be judging the rail report against.”
At a press conference on Thursday, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham praised the media of the North for their transport campaigning and urged them to keep up the fight.
In 2018 a historic “One North” collaboration of more than 20 newspapers published by Johnston Press (now JPI Media), Reach and Newsquest called for action on the Northern Rail crisis that meant constant transport disruption following years of “endemic underinvestment”. The papers published a single comment piece with a list of five main demands for the Prime Minister.