“Local newspapers are doing well; their advertising position is strong, their circulation steady. And they are surprisingly unaffected by the increasing sophistication of communication.”
So wrote Denis Hart in a feature on the local press published in the 25 February, 1972, edition of The Daily Telegraph Magazine.
The article was unearthed by a Press Gazette reader and sent in as a fascinating snapshot of the regional newspaper industry 45 years ago.
For his piece, Hart profiled six local newspapers: The Henley Standard, Slough Observer, Carmarthen Times, Pateley Bridge & Nidderdale Herald, Rochdale Observer and The St Ives Times & Echo.
Hart made a bold claim following his interviews with the staff on those papers. He said: “By contrast with some Fleet Street papers, they face an apparently assured and profitable future.”
Press Gazette decided to look at all the papers profiled by Hart to find out how they are doing in today’s much tougher economic climate for the local newspaper industry.
We found that only one of them has closed and the other five have had mixed fortunes.
The two titles which have remained independently owned actually have bigger editorial teams today than they did then, helped by lower print production costs (in 1972 newspaper printing and distribution required far more people and print workers were better paid thanks to their strong unions).
Three of the titles which were subsumed into national regional press groups have smaller editorial teams today and typically no longer have locally-based staff, instead relying on pooled content.
The Henley Standard (still independently owned and has more journalists today):
When Hart looked into The Henley Standard in 1972, he spoke with the proprietor John Luker. The Henley Standard is still owned by the Luker family: Stephen Luker shares the joint chairmanship of the Higgs Group paper with his sister Julie Smith.
Hart was told that The Henley standard had “no features and doesn’t often write leaders or anything like that”. He also discovered that then senior reporter Percy Churchill-Coleman had “been with the paper for nearly 40 years”.
The tabloid today carries features, but it still stays clear of publishing regular leader columns.
Nobody on the editorial staff has been at the paper for forty years, but the team has grown. Hart was told the paper had an editorial staff of “two and a half”. Editor of the Henley Standard Simon Bradshaw says that figure has gone up to “eight-and-a-half”.
Bradshaw, who has been editing the paper for nine years, explained why the editorial team has grown.
“The papers we produce are much larger than in the seventies and we also have the web too now, not to mention a magazine and various other supplements and publications, town guide, visitor guide etc. And, if I may boast, what we produce is good.”
The Luker family will probably be happy with the paper’s direction of travel since 1972, when the paper had a circulation of about 6,000. Today the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard has an increased circulation of 8,998, according to the latest ABC figures.
Carmarthen Times (no longer published):
Former editor of the Carmarthen Times John Hughes told The Daily Telegraph Magazine: “I’m told that when they go to the Town Hall with their housing problems they say: ‘Do something or I’ll go to the Times.’”
The paper enjoyed a healthy circulation of about 16,000. Speaking to Hart, Hughes recounted running out of copies when they ran a story about two local women being turned away from a social club after being accused of dancing in the nude.
The Carmarthen Times is no longer published but the long-established Carmarthen Journal still covers the beat, partly through Trinity Mirror’s Wales Online website, and partly through its print edition, which has a circulation of 9,759.
Pateley Bridge & Nidderdale Herald (part of Johnston Press) :
Harold Hardcastle was the entire reporting staff of the North Yorkshire-based Pateley Bridge and Nidderdale Herald in 1972. Then editor Robert Stockton told Hart: “Harry’s a good journalist. He loves the dale. He knows farming. The people of the dale know him and knew his forebears.”
Harold died in 2005, having been a reporter at the paper for 24 years.
Today the title it no longer has a dedicated reporter and is part of regional press giant Johnston Press. The circulation is believed to be somewhere above the 1,000-mark, but it is not audited by ABC, compared with around 3,000 in the 1970s.
A pool of reporters based in Harrogate provide coverage for the title as well as other newspapers and websites in the area. Reporters still visit the village but not as frequently as in the past.
The title got behind Pateley Bridge’s bid to win the Great British High Street Competition last year and helped it secure first place in the village category.
St Ives Times & Echo ( still family owned and with triple the editorial staff):
The St Ives Times & Echo had a circulation of 4,000 in an area with a population of 8,780, according to Hart’s report. Today it has a circulation of around 2,300 in a population area of 11,226.
Current St Ives Times & Echo proprietor-editor Toni Carver (pictured above from the Telegraph cover photo in 1972) was “managing the printing” when his family’s paper – then edited by his uncle Geoffrey – was photographed for Hart’s cover story.
His uncle Geoffrey told Hart that, while local news was profitable, it was also “a constant battle against overheads”.
Does Carver (pictured below as he looks today) recognise that description today? “Yeah, absolutely. We’re always on a wing and a prayer and it’s surprising how we survive.
“What protects our revenue is the cover charge as much as the advertising, because we don’t have anything like the amount of advertising we used to.”
Carver says his policy of not giving news away for free online has kept his paper on its feet.
Despite its drop in advertising and circulation, the Times & Echo staff has grown from an editorial staff of one in 1972 to a total of three today, partly helped by lower printing costs compared to when it ran its own presses.
“Both my sons are in the business,” Carver says. “They both do pretty much everything, they’re both journalists and Barnaby is a Cornish language speaker.”
However confident he is in his own paper’s reporting, Carver is less keen on the work of other papers. Speaking to Hart in 1972, Carver’s uncle said Cornwall had “very good weeklies”. But Carver argues that local papers are no longer “getting out and covering council meetings and all the bread and butter of local journalism”.
Geoffrey Carver did not retire from his post at the Times & Echo until he was in his eighties. Toni Carver is now approaching his seventies, but he cannot think about retirement.
“I’m pretty fit and there’s no reason why one shouldn’t go on indefinitely. It’s just a bit of pain because there’s lots of other things one would like to do.”
Rochdale Observer (now part of Trinity Mirror pooled newsroom):
The Rochdale Observer is a long standing, twice-weekly local paper. Hart wrote in The Daily Telegraph Magazine: “Two Rochdale printers founded the Observer in 1856 and after four issues prepared to close it, but instead it was taken over by a group of local people, one of whom, a chemist named William Andrew Scott, became sole proprietor in 1865.”
It was part of a group of four titles at the time, each with its own editor and staff and without “even a children’s page in common”.
Today the paper is still standing, albeit with a lower circulation of 5,016 on Wednesdays and 8,848 on Saturdays according to ABC compared to 25,274 and 38,354 respectively in 1972.
The Rochdale Observer no longer has its own dedicated editorial team. In 2010, following the take-over by Trinity Mirror, staff moved to Oldham seven miles away where the same pool of reporters provide coverage for the Manchester Evening News and around 20 weekly newspapers.
Slough Observer (bought by Newsquest in 2015):
The Slough Observer had a circulation of 28,000 at the time Hart wrote his feature. ABC figures published in February show that the tabloid, now called the Slough & South Bucks Observer, has a total circulation of 3,880.
Its cover price today is 60p compared with two and half pence in 1972.
Local resident Mary Pierce told Hart that the Slough Observer was “fun to read. It’s a gossipy paper. There’s a lot of advertisements, but there’s also heaps and heaps of reading matter”.
The Slough Observer was described by Hart as a chunky 52-pager with “lots of pictures and letters”. The midweek edition has 28 pages today.
At the time of Hart’s piece, Slough Observer was an independent newspaper.
In 2015 it was part of a group of title’s owned by the Romanes Group which was sold to Newsquest. Since then sub-editing of the title has been outsourced to Southhampton.