New building, new gaffer… but The Sentinel carries on

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Last week was a momentous one for Sentinel staff with the announcement of the impending move to the city centre and the departure of our Editor-in-Chief.

We had known about both decisions for some time and, while they were tinged with sadness, they also mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the newspaper’s history.

They remind us that while buildings and people may change, the newspaper itself continues inexorably – constantly adapting and evolving to suit its readership and patch.

Relocating to Hanley, where The Sentinel has been based for most of its 159 years, represents a return to our spiritual home.

The move makes absolute sense as we no longer have a print works here at Etruria and, happily, it coincides with the multi-million regeneration of the city centre.

Our new home from the Autumn, the former Bethesda Sunday School, is steeped in history and we couldn’t have chosen a better base for a company which has been part of the fabric of life in this neck of the woods since 1854.

Handily located next to the Cultural Quarter and the proposed Central Business District, it means shoppers and anyone working in the area can nip in for a chat with a Sentinel reporter.

We’ll also only be a stone’s throw away from Hanley Police Station, Hanley Community Fire Station, the crown court and our contacts at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, The Regent Theatre and the Vicki Hall – among others.

That’s not to say that moving won’t be a wrench. The Sentinel has been at Festival Park since 1987 and many of us have fond memories of colleagues, past editions and countless hours spent here at this sprawling site next to the canal where the last remnants of Josiah Wedgwood’s original factory stand as a reminder of the city’s proud industrial heritage.

For exactly half the 15 years yours truly has been with my home-town newspaper, the man who has just vacated the big chair has been my ‘gaffer’.

I knew Mike Sassi before he arrived in North Staffordshire, having previously worked with him at the Derby Telegraph.

No two Editors are ever the same and, believe me, the appointment of the top man, or woman, is still a matter of great significance – and not just for the writers and photographers who report to them.

To my mind a newspaper, partisan or non-partisan, will always reflect the personality and passions of its Editor.

In that respect, I think we dropped lucky when Mike Sassi took over in December 2005 (I can say that without being accused of fishing for a pay rise because he’s gone).

I think it’s fair to say that he was at the helm during some of the most turbulent years that the newspaper industry has faced – given the economic situation and the way in which the internet has changed the game.

However, rather than retreating, Mike had us reaching out to our readership in new and innovative ways, staging major public events and forging partnerships with a variety of organisations.

The Our Heroes awards, the Class Act campaign which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools, the Young Journalist Awards, and the hugely-popular Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition all happened on his watch.

These weren’t events intended to make us money or flog papers. Rather they were intended to cement The Sentinel at the heart of the communities it serves.

The campaigns we ran were the same: From Save Our Staffords which successfully fought to preserve the name of our local regiment with a 17,000-strong petition, through to the battle to bring the Staffordshire Hoard at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

But perhaps what I will remember most about Mike’s tenure was a night in December 2011 when yours truly was up to his neck in the troubles engulfing Port Vale.

It was Mike’s brave decision to run with the stories exposing how supporters had been misled by the then board of directors which led to the resignation of the club’s chief executive and the subsequent sacking of its chairman.

Any journalist will tell you that having the support of your Editor when the big calls are made is absolutely priceless.

Mike Sassi worked extremely hard to try to learn what makes North Staffordshire and its people tick.

He was as excited as anyone with Stoke City’s appearance at Wembley and the club’s adventures in Europe; Chuffed to bits with Vale’s recent promotion and genuinely proud to see the Staffordshire Saxon statue unveiled at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

I think our loss is genuinely the Nottingham Post’s gain but, as Mike will tell you himself, any Editor is simply the custodian – the caretaker, if you will – for the brand. He’ll hate this fuss but he’s earned it, in my opinion, and I’d like to wish Mike all the best in his new job.

Meanwhile, the original Neverending Story that is The Sentinel continues…

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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The final flight of Spitfire RW 388 – a piece of our city’s heritage

We Stokies have fond memories of 1986 because of the National Garden Festival which transformed a huge area of derelict land in the heart of the Potteries.

But it was also the year that an iconic piece of our heritage was unveiled at its new home after 20-odd years in a ‘greenhouse’.

The city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, RW 388, was gifted to the people of Stoke-on-Trent by the RAF in 1972 as an acknowledgment that Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell had been born in the city and received all of his education here.

Since that time it had been on display inside a huge glass hangar on Bethesda Street where generations of children – including me – gawped at its magnificence.

But on October 27, 1985, under cover of darkness RW 388 was carefully winched out of its glass hangar before being carried at lamppost height to the foot of Unity House where one of the largest cranes in the country took over the operation.

It soared over the museum at around 8.30am before being eased into blocks inside the courtyard of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery so that construction work could begin on a purpose-built gallery to house the classic fighter aircraft.

The cost of the project, to transfer the plane and create its new home ahead of the public opening of the gallery in the Spring of 1986, was put at around £89,000.

However the city’s taxpayers only had to find £40,000 as the remainder was covered by grants.
RW 388 never actually saw combat during the Second World War.

It was built in 1945 at Castle Bromwich and was first used as a training aircraft and then later for towing targets so that Royal Navy ships could practice accurately aiming their guns.

After that she was used as part of a gate display at two RAF bases – RAF Benson and RAF Andover.

This exposure to the elements for an aircraft only build to last a few years goes some way to explaining the deterioration of RW 388 as it approaches its 68th birthday.

Having said that, the city’s Spitfire is unusual in that it is not your typical mixed bag for an aircraft of its age.

It is estimated that around 85 per cent of RW 388 is original – just as it was when it rolled off the production line in Birmingham all those years ago.

That being the case, the city’s Spitfire is rather special – and remains a major attraction at a venue which also boasts the world-renowned Staffordshire Hoard and a fabulous collection of locally-made ceramics.

Earlier this year a campaign was launched to raise tens of thousands of pounds to conserve and ultimately restore RW 388 to pristine condition.

This will involve a major fund-raising event at the King’s Hall in Stoke on Friday, October 19, which will be compered by yours truly.

It is a project I am very proud to be associated with – one which will help to preserve an important piece of our heritage.

That the man who designed the aircraft which helped to turn the tide of the Battle of Britain came from our neck of the woods is something we should continue to celebrate – even as the generation which remembers those dark days leaves us.

*Anyone wishing to make a donation to the fund should visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia