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About A Week: Old Joe Woodhead

Peter Hinchliffe reports that some British provincial newspapers are struggling to survive.

Regional newspapers serving scores of provincial towns and cities in Britain are feeling the full force of the credit crunch hurricane which is blasting through the British economy. Huge chunks of their income are derived from adverts for cars and houses.

New car sales in the UK slumped by 18.6% in August. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reported the lowest single-month sales since 1966.

House sales last month were down by 95% on a year ago. Around 150 estates agents (realtors) are closing down every week.

Estate agents, fighting for business in a highly competitive sector, have been the leading advertisers in the provincial press until recently. Our local evening newspaper was putting out a weekly 64-page supplement crammed solely with house adverts. The size of the supplement has shrunk to match a diminishing housing market.

Jane Martinson, writing in The Guardian this week, asked, “Which newspaper group will be the first to go bust? Politics may be fascinating on both sides of the Atlantic and talk of a crisis in the financial system so constant that subeditors are already trying to ban all those nasty C-words - catastrophe, collapse, credit crunch, calamity and indeed crisis - but get a huddle of newspaper executives together in a late-night corner and what they want to know is, will we all survive?

The numbers are not good and will get worse before they get better. Analysts predict earnings declines of as much as 30% for the ad-dependent media sector.

The question is how many UK newspaper groups will survive the next 15 months and whether anything can be done to save them, particularly in the regions. Ad revenues have already fallen off a cliff. Just look at Friday's profits warning from Associated, the owner of the Daily Mail. Property advertising in its regional arm, Northcliffe, fell 45% in July and August compared with last year. In September, the new cruellest month, Northcliffe ad revenues as a whole were down 24%.’’

Newspaper guru Roy Greenslade, commenting on Martindale’s article wrote, “In recent years I've tended to be a lone voice on the inevitable collapse of a group, or groups. So it is good to hear another voice supporting my view. However, lest anyone get the wrong idea, I am not a cheerleader for disaster.

As I explain patiently to other journalists, explaining reality and predicting doom does not mean I want it to happen. My analysis, as with Martinson's, is based on the figures. Whether the figures relate to circulation, ad revenue, share prices, debts, pension fund liabilities, non-newspaper website user numbers, the picture is as gloomy as it could possibly be.’’

I’ve been hooked on newspapers since the days before I learned to read. My father, without realising what he was doing, set me on the road to becoming a journalist.

Dad worked in a stinking, foul chemical works, making sulphuric acid. After a hard day’s labour he would settle himself in a cracked-leather armchair and pick up the latest edition of the News Chronicle, his favourite reading material.

Before he had chance to settle, a little head would peer round the edge of the paper to ask, “What does this say, Dad?’’

And Dad would read to me the latest account of a battle in the North African desert involving British troops and Rommel’s Afrika Corps (these were wartime days). Of course I didn’t understand the story. I was four years old. But those nightly reading sessions imbued a love of words and newspapers.

The first daily paper I worked for as a reporter was the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, founded by local man Joseph Woodhead in 1851.

Joseph, the youngest of nine children, was the son of Godfrey, a Holmfirth currier and leather merchant.
He grew up in a home where books were highly valued. There were lively readings by father of scenes from history, followed by family discussions.

When Joseph was a boy his elder brother German sent him out every Saturday morning to fetch the Leeds Mercury. On his way home he read it.

When he was 15 Joseph was apprenticed to a Holmfirth woollen manufacturer. He was strong, the only one in the mill who could carry a bale of wool upstairs on his back. He worked from 6am to 8pm, then studied late into the night.

Joseph was a teetotaller. After speaking at a temperance meeting in Thorne he accompanied his host, a building contractor, to his business premises. The building workers, during their lunch break, were putting the stone, their version of the shot-putt.

'"Let's see what Teetotal can do," one of them jeered.

Joseph sent the stone crashing through a door, far beyond the previous record mark. A number of workers promptly signed the pledge.

Joseph and his liberal friends became increasingly disenchanted by the newspapers of the day that did not represent their radical views. To advance these views Joseph, with slender capital, set up the Huddersfield And Holmfirth Examiner. The first edition came out on September 6, 1851.

Joseph daily walked the six miles to and from Huddersfield, carrying newspaper proofs and other papers in a large bag. James Drake, a friend who lived in a nearby village, accompanied him on the trip. They told each other stories. Both loved practical jokes.

The Examiner had a rocky beginning. Once Catherine, Joseph’s wife, went to Manchester to pawn her husband's gold watch to raise money for wages.

As the paper began to prosper. Joseph, who was publisher and editor, became increasingly active in public life. He was Mayor of Huddersfield three times. He won an acrimonious argument with Sir John Ramsden, the town's leading land-owner, over the siting of Huddersfield Town Hall. The Town Hall, a famous concert venue for many years, was built opposite the Examiner’s office in Ramsden Street.

Joseph served as a Member of Parliament for seven years. He turned down the chance to become a baronet, saying he had no wish to be known as anything other than Joe Woodhead.

One of his sons, Ernest, who played rugby for England, edited the newspaper for 42 years. He believed that a well-written story was far more important than an eye-catching headline.

When he was 80 Ernest learned to speak Russian.

I news edited the paper for 23 years, returning to Huddersfield after working for newspapers in the United States, Africa and other parts of England.

The Examiner’s most successful years were the 1970s. Sales steadily increased to nearly 54,000 a day. The paper now sells less than half that.

Printed newspapers are going out of fashion. The majority of those under 30 wouldn’t dream of buying and reading them.

Old Joe Woodhead, with his optimism and public-spiritedness, would never have dreamed that such a day would come.


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