Thursday, 25 February 2010

Come to my room

In the days when newspapers actually put on circulation one often effective way of increasing readership was to launch a competition.

Derek Jameson’s introduction of bingo in the early 1980s saw the Daily Star’s sale increase from around 1.2m to almost 1.8m.

But alongside that big money promotion the Star embarked on a far humbler but rather more bizarre sales booster : a contest to find the man or woman in the UK who could do the strangest thing Standing On One Leg Only. To plug the idea of SOOLO (pronounced like the Star Trek character first portrayed by George Takei) reporters were required, whenever they went to interview anyone famous, to ask the celebrity (after the story in hand had been covered, of course) whether they wouldn’t mind posing for a photograph …yes, you’ve guessed, Standing On One Leg Only.

A week or so into the project I was assigned to attend a book launch by Joan Collins, unveiling her autobiography Past Imperfect. In a top Manchester hotel, the Hollywood star dealt effortlessly with an array of questions from the Fourth Estate and then the assembled guests were all invited to a finger buffet. Seizing the moment I glided alongside the actress who was then starring in Dynasty and trying to make my ridiculous request sound as if it was an offer to play a potentially Oscar winning role I put my question. Joan smiled, put down her plate, which contained barely enough food to keep a gerbil going and said: “We’ll go to my room!”

Sadly it was more than 20 years into the future that reporters were able (indeed required) to take photographs as well as write stories so we were soon joined in her boudoir by one of Fleet Street’s finest snappers.

Like the trouper she is Joan struck a series of cumly poses which duly graced the pages of Victor Matthews’ brainchild tabloid. The political correspondent sent to interview Mrs Thatcher was not so lucky.

I know what you're thinking: who won the contest? Do you know it was that momentous I can't recall.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Hyper Local...in 1986


I have had an epiphany. I've finally grasped how to make money from the internet as a journalist. And do you know what? It was a business model I tried...in 1986. It seems to be working here. And good luck to local newspaper editor David Jackman who started hyper-local site Everything Epping Forest after being made redundant. He has now launched a second in neighbouring Harlow - called Everything Harlow.

The big difference for me between David and many millions of bloggers, is that he seems to be a real journalist. Solid stories, well written with attention to punctuation, spelling and grammar. (Some clown will, I'm sure, now visit the site and find a typo but you know what I mean).

My own venture into one man band publishing came after I took redundancy from a national newspaper. Partly inspired, I suppose, by Eddie Shah I bought an Apple Mac and tried to understand the Pagemaker programme. But keen to get started I actually convinced a local printer pal to produce copies of my brainchild The Stockport Sport and Leisure Guide.

The initial 12 page A-5 issue, on high quality, glossy paper, carried a testimonial from the then Mayor of Stockport Councillor John Howe. Inside was a lengthy interview with Stockport County chairman Dragan Lukic, a piece about hiking in the Lakes, a quiz, a news in brief section, a sporting events diary and three pages listing as many sports and leisure groups in the borough as I could find.

We printed 10,000 copies and distributed them around the borough in suitable venues, sports halls, gyms and so on. It was paid for, of course, by advertising. No business was too small to approach. A roofing contractor, a B&B, an accountant, pubs, hairdressers, all represented. The reaction was excellent, except for the Stockport Express. Its management was far from happy.

Advertisers got feedback and won new customers, so re-invested. They liked the way the magazine hung around in GPs' surgeries and dentists' waiting rooms, giving them extended exposure. The Express, however, began to target my advertisers and tried to undercut my already carefully chosen but, by Express standards, very modest rates.

I ran the thing for 10 issues and was still breaking even financially when I received a call from a Sunday Mirror executive asking me to come and work for it full time. Playing safe in this Brave New World of entrepreneurship I chose the reliable option and was back in tabloid journalism. Little did I know what Robert Maxwell was soon to do to the Mirror Group and indeed to journalism in general. Three lads who left the Sheffield Morning Telegraph (wisely, as it folded later) set up a similar venture across the Pennines, based around food and lifestyle and it proved a great success. After a lot of hard work, mind.

So I see now how hyper-local might work. The issue for me, however, was quite simple. Having worked on a national paper, having interviewed Joan Collins, Take That, Oliver Reed and so on, having exposed corruption at the highest levels of society, did I really want to go around collecting advertising revenues from hairdressers? No offence to the crimpers. The lure of what was then still Fleet Street was too great. The buzz was there, not working largely alone, detailing the triumphs of Stockport harriers and golfers.

Who knows what might have happened had I got my head around that Pagemaker programme? Eddie Shah sold out for £22m didn't he? I would have settled for a small fraction of that.