Many regional newspaper editors have lost their jobs in recent months, often in mid-career. But Doug Melloy retires on his 65th birthday this June, after three decades as editor. Steve Dyson reports.
As Doug Melloy carefully searched through thick archive volumes of the Rotherham Advertiser, his pride in the title he’s edited since 1985 was obvious.
I’d asked why he had stayed at the South Yorkshire title for so long, and he was explaining with ink on paper examples. “Here it is,” he announced, revealing the front page headline from 15 May 1998 – a gigantic ‘NO’.
“The council was considering building a commercial estate on playing fields that had been left to the public as open, green space. It was near Rotherham Hospice, which local people had subscribed to, created and supported for years, and patients looked out onto this area.
“There was huge public outcry, but the council were ignoring it, insisting that ‘our research proves people are in favour’. This wasn’t what we were hearing and so we held a telephone vote asking: ‘Are you in favour or not?’”
A resounding 4,614 votes to 473 created the huge ‘NO’ headline, the development never took place and 14 years later the much-loved hospice has expanded. “The then council leader lost his seat the next year as well,” added Melloy.
It was a typical example of the Advertiser sticking up for the ordinary men, women and issues of Rotherham, which became so much a part of Melloy’s life that he never wanted to leave.
Your Friday Friend
“If there’s one thing that really gets my goat, it’s unfairness and bullying. Our motto is ‘Your Friday friend’ – friend of the downtrodden, those afflicted by the council, big business or the police. When we’ve been battling someone’s case, I’ve often driven home on a Wednesday getting angrier and angrier, and when I come in on Thursday, press day, I know exactly what we’re going to say.”
Another big one was in 2002, when the then deputy leader of the council, Garvin Reed, was heading the ‘National Local Government Forum Against Poverty’ fund, supposedly to help steel-making communities suffering because of the industry’s decline.
“Reed and others were siphoning off money from the fund, spending it on lavish hotels, wine, food and prostitutes. We weren’t the only ones chasing this, but we developed the story and conspiracy to defraud £172,000 was revealed in court.”
Reed was jailed for three years, and so another edition of the Advertiser went to press, another injustice was resolved and, importantly, was seen to be resolved by Rotherham readers.
“People appeal to us because of alleged unfairness,” said Melloy, remembering smaller recent revelations like a council leader claiming train fares in expenses when he’d actually received lifts, and other councillors shamed for evading parking fines.
“It’s the kind of thing the public can’t stand, and they know the Advertiser will expose it,” said Melloy. “It hasn’t made me very popular with local big wigs, but as long as we follow two important principles I’m happy: we don’t do anything for the wrong reasons – by this I mean personal opinion or views of a politician or official; and we don’t do anything we can’t justify.”
Nothing else stops the Advertiser from defending readers – even after they’ve died. On 30 March 2012, the week I was in Rotherham, the ‘Fury at secret funeral’ front page headline described how a pensioner was cremated before grieving relatives had arrived to pay their respects.
But Melloy has also enjoyed giving readers fun, as shown in an archive from March 1997, headlined ‘Election free zone’: “It was the run-up to the General Election and I felt people were getting tired of it all, so I decided to ban all election politics from the paper.
“We said who was standing, the election date and, ultimately, the result, but nothing else for seven weeks. I even turned down advertising from a political party. I expected a backlash but there was none. The story went international and the readers loved it.”
Melloy entered journalism nearly 50 years ago as a 15-year-old junior reporter on his local weekly in Perthshire. At 19 he wanted to “flee the nest” and applied to four jobs advertised in the then fledgling UK Press Gazette.
“Three offered jobs without interview, but the Derbyshire Times said ‘come for a chat’ and so I did, liked what I saw and was made senior reporter.”
The young Scot worked through the ranks: sports editor, chief sub and deputy editor to another legendary editor, Alex Leys. Then, in 1982, as Britain sailed south to retake the Falklands, Melloy took over at the Derbyshire Times as Leys began daily editing at the Lincolnshire Echo.
After three years editing the Times, Melloy moved on to his current role at Rotherham: “I felt 18 years at Derby was long enough, plus Johnston Press had taken over from the Wilfred Edmunds Group and I felt the winds of change.
“Little did I know I’d spend the next 27 years at Rotherham! At first I had ambitions of eventually applying for a daily or evening [editorship] but I never did. I did a good job, enjoyed myself, blinked and 20-odd years had gone.”
You soon realise that “did a good job” is a huge understatement when you review the Advertiser’s circulation history. The average weekly sale in 2011 was 27,097, just 500 or so less than when Melloy took over in 1985.
He led the Advertiser into 12 years of consecutive sales rises, reaching a peak of nearly 35,000 in 2007. Only in the last four years have sales steadily declined.
“I’m shocked to find sales dropping. None of us claim to produce the world’s best newspaper, but the Advertiser is for Rotherham, about Rotherham and given what we turn out on a weekly basis, I just can’t understand why more people don’t buy it.
“There’s the internet, of course. We’re part of that – we have our own iPhone app, a ‘FLOG it quick!’ website and led the industry in putting births, marriages and deaths online, so we are using new technology for new revenues.
“But it must be hitting circulation. Jim Chisholm [newspaper consultant and regular InPublishing contributor] tells us ‘there’s no research that proves online is damaging newspapers’. Well once there was no evidence that asbestos caused cancer!
“People have so many choices to get news for free. Stories go up every day on our own website, although we save exclusives until Friday’s paper. But for some people, the website is enough.”
The Rotherham Advertiser is owned by the town’s independent Garnett Dickinson Group, which also delivers the free Rotherham Record to 60,000 homes every week, and the Dearne Valley Weekender to another 50,000 homes.
“Free newspapers haven’t helped. They have limited editorial, but some people feel it’s enough not to buy another paper. The recession makes a difference too. People find it harder to find 60p [the cover price], and are not always willing to trudge miles when some newsagents close.”
None of this means newspapers are doomed, according to Melloy: “I’m firmly expecting circulation to rise again, especially when the economy turns. Even now, our decline is bottoming out, the print run showing year-on-year increases for several weeks this year. I may be deluded, but I’m still looking at us fighting back.”
When the Advertiser won overall Newspaper of the Year in 2011 against the neighbouring daily giants of Yorkshire, Melloy said one of the paper’s strengths was the lack of editorial cutbacks.
There were “19 or 20” editorial staff when he joined, and 27 years later there are still 16: “Unlike the major groups, I’ve virtually avoided the ‘R’ word, successfully arguing against redundancies. I think it’s important to maintain editorial quality to try to recover readership.
“I’ve only made two redundancies. One in the backroom of photographic when technology changed, the other a reporter, the late Keith Bishop – a great journalist – who was seriously ill and I did him a favour by getting him a pay off.”
It’s a record any editor should be proud of – two redundancies after 30 years in the chair. Melloy qualified this: “There have been a few non-replacements. And no pay rises for two years – if it hadn’t been for that more jobs would have gone.”
But how can the Advertiser and other regionals survive the technological and economic pressures, not to mention the fall-out from Leveson?
“By doing the right thing. We’re ‘The Friday friend’. We listen. We stand up for readers. And if we get critical comments, we always, always debate it. That’s key to any newspaper’s success: it needs to respond.
“When Leveson started and criticisms were coming out, we discussed them. We can’t just say ‘it’s nothing to do with us’. If the public say newspapers, they mean newspapers – they don’t differentiate between dailies, weeklies, regionals and nationals.
“People feel wronged and want us to be embarrassed. And if some say we’re acting like tabloids then we have to consider this and challenge ourselves. Even things like free access for travel features, and free meals to review a restaurant – we’ve decided we need to think very carefully about these, and declare it when such things are given to us.
“We do get complaints from time to time and take all of them seriously. Whenever I get a complaint, I respond within hours, not the few days that the Press Complaints Commission allows.”
It sounds like there’s lots to do, so won’t Melloy miss the challenge? “I’ll miss the buzz, the events, the people, contacts, colleagues and friends who I’ve enjoyed spending so much time with. But I hope not to be bored.
“My wife, Dawn, is also retiring, and we’re about to celebrate our silver wedding. We love travel and food and want to enjoy meandering through France and Italy to see where that takes us, and explore the west coast of Scotland.”
Melloy also has two daughters and three grandchildren; plus he and Dawn are scuba-diving enthusiasts; and they love opera – having first met when playing Ravenal and Magnolia in a Chesterfield production of Show Boat.
He added: “Since the age of 15, I’ve worked for 49 years without a break, and I think that’s enough. But I will miss the buzz.”