15 years… but I’m only just starting, really

Our Sir Stan tribute.

Our Sir Stan tribute.

A £500 pay cut and a demotion. That’s what it cost me to land a job here at The Sentinel in October 1998.

To be fair to the then Editor-in-Chief, who I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by, there were no vacancies on the Newsdesk and so I began life at my home city paper as a reporter.

As for the pay cut, I think it was perhaps his way of saying: ‘You’re on probation. Just another reporter. Show me what you can do.”

Against all odds, I’m still here – 15 years later – having seen off (in the nicest possible way) two editors and almost 200 journalist colleagues who have retired, been made redundant, left the company, or, in some sad cases, passed away.

To say that The Sentinel has changed a great deal during that time would be an understatement – both in terms of our working environment and what we do.

When I started, our photographers were still developing prints in the dark room.

Fax machines were still de rigueur. There was no internet and mobile telephones were still like bricks.

Few people had them and the idea of sitting there and being ignorant of the world and everyone around you while fiddling with a phone would have seemed preposterous.

The internet was still very much a geek thing and if you wanted information you couldn’t just ‘Google it’ or fall back on Wikipedia.

You either telephoned someone, picked up a reference book or looked in our library – which is probably one of the reasons I have such a healthy respect for our archive.

Many of my colleagues (particularly the crotchety old, cardigan-wearing sub-editors) at our Festival Park offices would disappear off to the pub at lunchtime for a couple of pints to ‘liven them up’ for the afternoon.

Half the journalists regularly frequented the ‘smoking room’ which was located up a corner of our vast ground floor editorial department.

It stunk to high heaven and every time someone opened the door the awful smell wafted across the newsroom.

Those early days are a blur for me. Within two weeks of starting my job I was doing shifts on the Newsdesk – the engine room of any newsroom.

The hours were long, as they still are, and I’d be up at 4am to drive into the office and prepare the news list for morning conference.

We had seven editions back then – all printed on site and staggered throughout the day. I couldn’t help but feel proud of working here.

Within a couple of months of me joining the paper the gaffer had appointed me Deputy News Editor.

Since then I’ve been privileged to be News Editor, Head of Content, Assistant Editor and now Deputy Editor and columnist.

My memories of colleagues who have moved on are still fresh and my recollections of each role vivid.

Our campaigns – such as Proud of the Potteries, in answer to some half-baked survey which said Stoke-on-Trent was the worst place to live in England and Wales – really mattered to me, as a local lad.

When Sir Stanley Matthews died I remember the UK Press Gazette (the trade magazine for hacks) lauding the Blackpool Gazette for its special 24-page tribute to the great man which had been produced by its journalists who had worked ‘through the night’.

We had worked 24 hours straight and produced 64 pages for the next day. From scratch. I’ve still got a copy.

I recall our 20,000-signature campaign for a new North Staffs Hospital – taken to 10 Downing Street by a little lad who must now be old enough to go the pub.

I remember the first time I planned and compered a Sentinel event – Our Heroes in 2006. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat a thing and spilt red wine down my tux.

I remember the first Stoke’s Top Talent variety contest – with a queue of entrants snaking round the Victoria Hall at half eight on a Saturday morning.

I recall planning our first Young Journalist Awards and Class Act competition which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools.

I’ll never forget the sheer terror of walking on stage at The Regent theatre in panto for the first time – and the strange mixture of elation and sadness as I took my final bow 33 shows later.

More recently I returned to news writing to help expose wrong-doing by former directors at Port Vale and was proud to be involved in the subsequent battle to save the club.

I was also privileged to travel down to London with two veterans to present our 17,000-strong petition to save the name of The Staffords.

And so it goes on.

Fifteen years ago this week I joined The Sentinel and now I look around the newsroom and there are only a handful of people who have been here longer than yours truly. Suddenly (and I’m not quite sure how it happened) I’m one of the old heads.

Thankfully I’ve still got Rob Cotterill, Dave Blackhurst, Steve Bould and Dianne Gibbons to look up to.

Astonishingly, they’ve more than 150 years’ service between them.

All local. All proud.

I guess I’m only just starting, really.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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

In all honesty, this press regulation bun-fight has nothing to do with regional newspapers

The Sun's excellent front page yesterday.

The Sun’s excellent front page yesterday.

In the wake of yesterday’s historic agreement on press regulation we now have the entirely predictable and unseemly spectacle of the main protagonists doing their very best to claim victory and rewrite history.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it’s plain for all to see that, as per usual, leaders of all three political parties were more interested in point-scoring and saving face than genuinely achieving an accord which satisfied both the public clamour for change while safeguarding one of the pillars of our democracy.

Frankly, I’m very cynical about the Leveson Inquiry and rather despondent about the subsequent witch hunt.

This is not because I don’t think the inquiry was warranted. Neither am I cynical because I would try to defend any of the nefarious activities of certain journalists working for certain media organisations.

I’m cynical because I see how MPs, scarred and seething in the wake of the expenses scandal, were champing at the bit to bash Fleet Street.

I’m cynical because the rich and famous with axes to grind turned the inquiry into a cause célèbre and rather hijacked the very legitimate aims and concerns of the Hacked Off campaigners.

I’m cynical because, if anything, the real danger to people’s privacy and the enemy of good journalism – the internet and social media – was beyond Lord Justice Leveson’s remit, despite it becoming more relevant (and intrusive) by the day.

I’m cynical because many broadcast journalists who should know better are taking the moral high ground and reacting as though their counterparts in the print media have leprosy.

I’m cynical because the hacking of telephones by a minority of national newspaper journalists (exposed, of course, by other national newspaper journalists) has somehow been allowed to tar the entire industry with the same brush.

Lastly, I’m cynical because my colleagues and I in the regional press are wondering where Leveson and yesterday’s vote leaves us – the thousands of ordinary regional newspaper journalists who haven’t the faintest interest in hacking someone’s phone but may well pay a heavy price because some fools once did.

A few days ago the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Lord Hunt visited The Sentinel.

We gave him a whirlwind tour of Stoke-on-Trent and then he met staff on a paper that’s been chronicling the history of this part of the country for 159 years.

Lord Hunt gave us an insight into his meetings with senior politicians ahead of yesterday’s all-important vote and spoke of his hopes and fears.

We expressed our concerns that the regional press seemed to have been forgotten in the almighty post-Leveson scrap but could well pay the price of misdemeanours by staff on national newspapers.

He spent a couple of hours at Sentinel HQ and during that time we did our best to accentuate the differences between ourselves as A Friend Of The Family and the red tops and broadsheets who caused this mess.

We explained that we are the only media organisation with the resources and the inclination to cover both magistrates and crown courts in North Staffordshire on a daily basis – thus playing our role in the administration of justice locally.

To that end we extolled the virtues of my colleague Dianne Gibbons, who greets me in the office each day at 7.30am with a smile before heading off to court.

Dianne has been with The Sentinel for more than 50 years.

Like her colleague Dave Blackhurst, our health reporter for more than 30 years, Dianne’s knowledge and professionalism is unparalleled and the service they both provide to our readers is vital.

We informed the Chairman of the PCC that we are the only media organisation which provides in-depth coverage of local government – attending every city council meeting and outlining in full the ramifications of things like local authority cutbacks.

We told him of our investigative work which has exposed everything from the goings-on at Port Vale under the previous board of directors to various council gaffes and concerns over the capability of doctors at our local hospital.

We showed Lord Hunt our successful campaign to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment which attracted 17,000 signatures on a petition which was taken by veterans to 10 Downing Street.

We told him about our public events – from the ever-popular Our Heroes Community Awards and the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in its 38th year) to our Class Act campaign for schools, our Young Journalist Awards scheme run in conjunction with Staffordshire University, The Sentinel Business Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent which we organise in partnership with The Regent Theatre.

We pointed out that we mark all the important occasions in our neck of the woods with souvenir supplements – from the Olympic Torch coming to our city to Stoke City’s 150th anniversary or 40 years of the Dougie Mac.

Hopefully Lord Hunt went away knowing that we echo the view of Lord Leveson himself who said: “It is clear to me that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role.”

This is what we strive to do at The Sentinel every day – irrespective of what Hugh Grant thinks.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Don’t write local newspapers like The Sentinel off just yet

There is a book in the mini library in my office. It is blue with gold lettering and is entitled: ‘Rendezvous With The Past: Sentinel Centenary’.

It celebrates the first 100 years of the newspaper I work for and, unbelievably, was published back in 1954 – almost 20 years before I was born.

That’s right, The Sentinel is 158 years old. Its first issue emerged on January 7, 1854, and it was sold for threepence.

Since then, through two World Wars, various economic crises, under several monarchs, and despite numerous technological advances, this newspaper has been part and parcel of life in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

Last week, however, some of our colleagues in the broadcast media were voicing The Sentinel’s obituary.

Blurring the stories of the takeover our parent company with a separate decision to close the Daily Mail’s printing press in Stoke-on-Trent, they were helpfully reading us the last rites.

The first many of us knew of the rumours of our demise were from the messages of condolence which appeared on social media on Thursday morning.

‘Sad to hear about The Sentinel closing’ Tweeted one concerned city councillor.

Then readers began ringing in and advertisers started querying their accounts.

Suffice to say The Editor-in-Chief wasn’t best pleased and the thin partition wall separating our rooms did little to muffle his annoyance.

To be fair, many ‘experts’ – usually former journalists or academics – have been predicting The Sentinel’s imminent closure for several years now.

Indeed, if I had a fiver for every time someone had claimed the end is nigh for us old-fashioned print hacks here at Etruria I’d have enough money to, well… buy an annual subscription for The Sentinel.

The doom-mongers’ logic is simple: The circulation figures of every newspaper in the country – both national and local – have fallen over the last 20 years, thanks in large part to the advent of the internet and digital media.

They argue that people can now access information on their telephones and other hand-held devices or computers at home and in the workplace and many enjoy the immediacy of broadcast media.

It is also absolutely correct to say the economic downturn has hit advertising revenues hard and my industry has suffered more than its fair share of redundancies since 2008.

On the face of it, the prognosis seems gloomy and it is, of course, in the interests of our colleagues in radio and television to talk up our decline.

Their pessimism is shared by many former newspaper journalists turned public relations professionals/retired persons espousing the view that standards have fallen and things are ‘not how they were in their day’.

At the same time we have seen the rise of so-called ‘citizen journalism’.

It seems anyone can be a journalist these days. You don’t need any training, you don’t need any knowledge of the law and you don’t need to be able to assimilate information or even string a sentence together.

Just get yourself access to the internet, a funky pseudonym and an attitude and, hey presto, you’re Clark Kent. Or not.

You see, it’s one thing to write some unsubstantiated nonsense on a website read by three men and a dog and another thing entirely to have you work printed in a format which is properly scrutinised daily by hundreds of thousands of people.

Very few people record radio station news bulletins or can be bothered to listen again or watch TV news programmes on the internet.

However, there are plenty who will march into The Sentinel’s reception waving a copy of yesterday’s paper and crying foul if we make a mistake.

Working for a newspaper is harder than working as a broadcast journalist and please don’t let anyone ever tell you different.

As one of the few people left at The Sentinel who has ever had the dubious privilege of making a phone call and saying the immortal words: ‘Stop the press’, I’d just like to say: Don’t write us off just yet.

The Sentinel still sells almost 50,000 copies every day – making it the sixth biggest-selling regional newspaper in the country.

In addition, our website is visited by more than 400,000 unique users each month. See, we can do new-fangled too.

Here at Etruria we employ nearly 50 full-time journalists and still see it as vital to cover council meetings and court hearings and inquests every day – something no other media organisation locally has the staff to do on anything other than an occasional basis.

How many times does a regional television camera crew visit the ST postcode area each month? How often do you hear local radio stations following our lead on stories?

What’s more, The Sentinel still understands the importance of championing the communities it serves – as do its journalists, many of whom are local to the area.

Think about the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards; The Sentinel’s Business Awards; the Class Act campaign for local schools; the Young Journalist Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition.

Whether it’s through the Our Heroes community awards, the Save Our Staffords campaign or by breaking the stories such as the ones which led to the removal of the discredited board of directors at Port Vale – this newspaper provides what I honestly believe is an invaluable service.

The Sentinel had been doing its job for 118 years when yours truly was born and I’m confident it will still be delivering journalism to local people long after I’ve gone.

We walk with the ghosts of colleagues long since passed here at The Sentinel and let me tell you we carry the burden of the weight of history proudly.

So the next time someone tells you the local rag is finished, just give a wry smile and tell them you’ll only believe it when you read it in The Sentinel.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Petitions are democracy in action – unlike modern-day elections

There is nothing more depressing than reading the turn-out statistics for local elections here in North Staffordshire.
When only 20-something per cent of the electorate in certain wards can be bothered to vote it leads me to the inevitable conclusion that most of our communities have been disenfranchised.
The questions are: Who is at fault and what can we do about it?
Plenty of people are only too quick to moan about how useless their local council/councillors are but then they refuse to get off their backsides to vote to change anything.
Over the years I’ve heard all the excuses under the sun…
“They’re all the same anyway.” “Councillors are only in it for themselves.” “What’s the point? Nothing ever changes.”
Others have no excuse. They simply can’t be bothered and I find this complete abdication of responsibility breathtaking.
I can’t help but feel that more needs to be done to engage young people in politics because the current system patently isn’t working and isn’t representative of the population as a whole.
Thankfully, as evidenced by a story in yesterday’s Sentinel, democracy is alive and well in the ST postcode area.
The lead story on P13 won’t perhaps have been the most read item in yesterday’s editions of the paper.
However, its significance should not be underestimated as it clearly demonstrates how ordinary people really can influence change – if they can be bothered to try.
Our story revealed that more than half of all petitions submitted by campaigners during the last 12 months led to the city council back-tracking on controversial decisions or taking action to appease residents.
The figures showed that more than 16,000 people signed 33 petitions which were presented to the local authority on a range of issues.
Some were very parochial – such as a successful 53-signature petition calling for parking restrictions on Tunstall High Street to be relaxed.
But other petitions, such as those calling for a full review of care services delivered in elderly people’s homes or fighting to save the ceremonial role of Lord Mayor, transcended geographic boundaries and attracted the support of thousands of people.
The city council, and its elected members, are often criticised for not listening to taxpayers and for wasting money or making bizarre decisions.
But when so few people can be bothered to vote at election time and engage with the political process or those prepared to stand for office then I think they can be forgiven for, at times, seeming out of touch.
The city council’s petitions scheme really is democracy in action.
It represents council officers being forced to listen and take note of the concerns of ordinary people – most of whom pay towards their wages.
Only people living or working in a particular area can really know what affect a new building, new road, new business or changes to traffic regulations will have.
Only people using a particular service can truly gauge its worth.
That is why petitions are so important as a barometer of public feeling and why I believe they have, in many ways, become more important than polling day.
The Sentinel itself, in its role as champion of the communities it serves, is no stranger to petitions and every so often will support a particular cause.
Very often, with petitions, it is all about timing.
It certainly was back in January 2001 when the then Editor accompanied five-year-old patient Jacob Bradbury down to Downing Street to present 19,000 signatures from Sentinel readers calling for a new superhospital for North Staffordshire.
The presentation was timed just a few months before the country went to the polls and the then Labour Government wasn’t minded to ignore the plea by thousands of potential voters.
I’m hoping our current petition to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment amid Army cutbacks is equally successful.
The sheer amount of correspondence from the public and the fact that we already have in excess of 12,000 signatures underlines quite clearly the strength of feeling.
I’ve never seen so many letters and so many personal stories on one topic – from people who have served with the Staffords or whose relatives have or still are.
Even in an age when traditional elections are unpopular and perhaps even scorned by many people, petitions offer us all the chance to genuinely influence things which affect our everyday lives.
They give us all a voice which we are comfortable in raising and perhaps point the decision-makers to what we, the general public, think are the most important issues – rather than what we are told are.
*Sign The Sentinel’s petition by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com or filling in the coupon which appears in the paper daily

Staffords’ proud record echoes through the ages

The Sentinel’s campaign to save the name of the Staffords is going from strength to strength and it has prompted me to delve into the archives.

I was proud to discover that this newspaper’s association with the Staffordshire Regiment goes back a long, long way.

In actual fact, Sentinel writers were reporting on the exploits of soldiers from our neck of the woods as far back as the Zulu War of 1879.

At the time it was known as the 80th Regiment of Foot (the Staffordshire Volunteers).

Our lads formed the front of the British square at the decisive Battle of Ulundi – with two of its soldiers, Private S. Wassall and Colour Sergeant A. Booth winning Victoria Crosses during the campaign.

Fast forward 100 years because I was particularly interested in what the Staffords were up to during the Eighties.

At the decade came to a close the 1st Battalion, The Staffordshire Regiment, as it was, was described ‘as a standard infantry unit of 650 men’.

Within the British Army in Germany it was known as an Armoured Infantry Battalion as every soldier was part of the crew of an Armoured Fighting Vehicle.

They completed two tours of Northern during the 1980s.

Indeed, that is how the decade began for the boys with the Staffordshire knot on their cap badges.

In September 1979 the First Battalion moved to Londonderry for sixteen months, accompanied by their families.

It was during this tour, on January 20, 1981, that Private Christopher Shenton was killed by an IRA sniper in the Bogside area of Londonderry.

In July of that year the Battalion and its families moved to Gibraltar for a two year tour which had to be reduced to 20 months because the Falklands Crisis and the Spanish elections limited the training opportunities.

The highlight of the tour to The Rock was the role played by the Battalion in the evacuation of British nationals from The Gambia.

After receiving new colours from the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire in 1983, the Battalion went on a training exercise to Canada to make up for training lost in Gibraltar.

The Battalion then returned to Northern Ireland in February 1984 and was deployed in South Armagh until June and during that time suffered another tragic loss.

On May 29, 1984, Lance Corporal Stephen Anderson was killed by an IRA landmine in Crossmaglen.

It was then off to Germany for our boys in the autumn for Exercise Lionheart – the biggest post-war exercise undertaken by the British Army.

The following year saw the Battalion deploy to Seattle in the U.S. for training and, on its return, it received the new Saxon Wheeled Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC).

The autumn of that year was dominated by exercises; Exercise Brave Defender saw the Battalion deployed to northern Scotland and this was followed by Exercise Purple Warrior when the Battalion played enemy to 5 Airborne Brigade at Otterburn in Northumberland.

In January 1987, the Battalion deployed to Fallingbostel, West Germany as part of 7 Armoured Brigade. During the first three years of its tour, it repeatedly trained at BATUS (British Army Training Unit Suffield) in Alberta, Canada.

By late 1988 the Staffords had been re-equipped as an Armoured Infantry Battalion using the new Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle.

In April 1988, the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion of the Staffordshire Regiment was formed from the 1 Mercian Volunteers who were disbanded.

They were the direct descendant of the old 5 South and 5 North Territorial Army battalions who were disbanded in the 1960s to form the Mercian Volunteers.

1988 was also the year that the 1st Battalion were named the Army’s Grade 3 boxing champions.

In April of 1989, Her Majesty The Queen appointed her second son, His Royal Highness The Duke of York, as Colonel in Chief of the Regiment.

He visited the Battalion in Fallingbostel in Germany in July of that year.

Whatever decade I researched the stories were the same – reflecting gallantry and unstinting service which echoed the Staffords’ motto of ‘Stand Firm, Strike Hard’.

I would suggest the lads currently serving with 3 Mercian and the thousands who went before them, many of whom gave their lives for this country, deserve better than to be wiped from history at the stroke of a civil servant’s pen.

*If you agree with Martin you can sign our petition to save the name of the Staffords by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com

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