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Got to laugh

Traditionally, the regional press hasn’t felt comfortable doing humour. Yet recently, Peter Sands has detected a new found spirit of levity at some local publishers.

Peter Sands

Posted on: 19 May 2013

I once threatened to ban any mention of Comic Relief in the paper. I was irritated by the clowns who thought that lying in a bath of baked beans was funny. So I told the news editor to think of something original, or the red noses would be eradicated. He came back with a cracking idea … ask readers to send in their favourite joke. We Got to laughwould run them, with names and addresses, and give a donation to Comic Relief for each one published. We were inundated. Teachers set projects and pubs compiled joke lists. We ran pages of readers’ jokes, many with illustrations. If I hadn’t censored a third of them, we could have filled a supplement. I put out a bill that said ‘More than 1,000 jokes in today’s paper’ (and some chap wrote to ask if that was any more than usual). The Northern Echo showed a big sales rise the next day.

It was a clear lesson. People like a laugh. And yet regional newspapers remain, in the main, worthy and po-faced. On news-editing courses, I ask delegates to identify things in their paper that are genuinely entertaining. The record is three – including the horoscopes and the ubiquitous Horace and Doris.

One respected editor once told me humour simply wasn’t part of his remit. “We are here to reflect the community, not tell jokes.” His paper was crammed with crime, courts and coffee mornings – a reflection of his readers’ lives.

Of course humorous writing isn’t easy, perhaps it’s too hard for many under-pressure jobbing journalists. The nationals generally do it better. How many sales do Matt Pritchett’s cartoons add to the Daily Telegraph? The Sun, still the most irreverent of titles, remains our biggest selling daily paper. Then there are columnists such as Giles and Victoria Coren, Caitlin Moran, Matthew Parris and Quentin Letts. Two years ago, the Press Awards introduced a ‘Best of Humour’ category … won twice by the Daily Mail’s Craig Brown for his ‘laugh-out-loud funny’ column.

But in the regions, newspapers which consistently place humour on their agenda are more difficult to find. There are exceptions.

Honourable exceptions

Mike Lowe spent much of his career editing daily papers in Gloucester, Derby and Bristol. His titles always wore a humorous tone. Mike, now editor of Cotswold Life, says: “There's humour in the home and wit in the workplace. Why not reflect that in the pages of the local newspaper?

“When I first went to the Citizen in the 80s, we ran a series of shorts called '100 uses for the Citizen' which included a picture of the assistant editor in an elaborate folded affair called a Sunglasses Hat. You could almost smell the disapproval from the subs' desk.

“The easiest way to get humour into your pages is through columnists – and I don't mean the hackneyed whining of a harassed mother or anything labelled as a sideways look at life. It's got to be original, unexpected and a bit scary.

“Get it right and you create 'destination reading'; something customers seek out much in the way that I buy the Spectator just for Jeremy Clarke's Low Life column.”

Peter Barron, editor of the Northern Echo, has written a Dad at Large column for 20 years. It has spawned five successful (and very funny) books.

Apart from his column, Peter works hard at ensuring a lighter touch runs through the Echo. A big success is a game where readers are challenged to write better headlines than the subs. The result is aired on BBC radio each morning.

Peter says: “It has grown into a monster. People say they have become addicted to it. They like the interaction and the chance that their headline might be published. The BBC features it throughout the day and posts audio links. We publish a weekly round-up of the headlines and the scores.”

He says the responsibility for a lighter approach rests squarely with editors: “They have traditionally been far too stuffy but the fun has to come from them.”

Alan Geere has spent a colourful career editing papers from Hong Kong to Trinidad and Tobago. Now consultant editor at the Nottingham Post, he says: “One of my frustrations is that the inventiveness, energy, wit and fun of the newsroom rarely translates into the paper.”

Editor of the Eastern Daily Press and Evening News in Norwich, Nigel Pickover, is another editor who has always taken a sideways approach. He says: “In today’s media of colour, movement, sound and immediacy, text-built newspapers, in dull slabs, give the word grey a new meaning.

“They are a big turn off to readers – and some newspapers have suffered a long-term decline as a result. It is our duty to entertain.”

Humour drives web traffic

Recently, the approach to humour has taken a big lurch forward. It is still rare in most newspapers … but on the web, it’s an entirely different story. The holy grail these days is unique visitors … and the two big drivers on the web have long been humour and sex.

Regional newspapers are probably not ready to embrace sex but the whacky, the daft and the funny they can do. So if there are cock-ups, juxtapositions and anything that is outright weird … editors are eager to get it out there.

Earlier this year, an inconsequential court case brought in more than 40,000 unique hits to the North Devon Journal’s website. The reason – a headline that said ‘Man tried making love to ambulance in Barnstaple bus station’. A picture of the news bill, ‘Drunk Torched Peanut Bag and made love to ambulance’, was tweeted, picked up by BBC2 radio presenter Jeremy Vine, and went viral. The tweet took people back to the website … bringing in more hits.

Video, especially, will bring in an audience. At the Sentinel in Stoke, big hits have included fans, dressed in Elvis gear, singing You Are Always On My Mind before jetting off to Vegas, a singing binman, and footballer Ryan Shawcross hitting his head on the wing mirror of the team bus. Deputy editor Richard Bowyer says: “When UKIP's Nigel Farage was in town, we caught on video a bloke repeatedly shouting 'Eileen, come over here' drowning out Mr Farage. It was comedy gold and got big hits.”

“We don’t set out to get comedy because it can't be planned or if it is, it usually fails. But with video, anything can happen in a split second that makes you laugh. The art is spotting this and making a deal of it.”

There is also a fine line between people laughing with the paper … and at it. Some editors are happy to publish stories that would have been laughed out of the newsroom a decade ago. Examples have been collected into a book, Whitstable Mum in Custard Shortage. It is named after a story about a devastated woman unable to find a tin of Birds custard powder in her local shops. Other memorable non-stories include the notice on a door in Haywards Heath saying the shop would be opening late and the two dogs in Ringwood bumping noses on a walk (neither hurt). The world, including Dara O’Briain, covered the dog story with scorn on Twitter. But as the editor of the Salisbury Journal pointed out, 130,000 people logged on to the story in two days. So is that approach now fair game?

Do editors now deliberately publish ridiculous stories on their websites knowing that they're going to rack up hits. Mike Lowe thinks they do: “A story such as the hamster that was presumed dead and buried but came back to life at Easter, now gets 17 pars, three pictures and a video. And lots of visitors to the website.”

Anything that brings humour into regional papers and websites certainly gets my support. I have long maintained that being boring is the biggest sin. The challenge, though, is how one-off hits by transient visitors from across the globe can become an audience that is attractive to local advertisers? When someone cracks that, the regional media really will be laughing.


Some lighter moments …

* The Brentwood Gazette carried an FoI on councillors’ attendance records – how many questions they asked, how many times they voted etc. Instead of 800 words of 8pt, the paper presented the information as a set of Top Trumps cards.

* When a council was looking to sell off public property, the Kent and Sussex Courier took the chance to assess Tunbridge Wells’ assets as a Monopoly board.

* When Swansea City FC were promoted to the Premier League, a bookmaker said there was more chance of seeing Elvis alive than of the Swans avoiding relegation. So, when safety was assured, the South Wales Evening Post published a cut-out Elvis mask for fans to wear at the final match against Liverpool. Thousands did, the Swans won, and Kenny Dalglish was sacked.

* The Sentinel, in Stoke, lightens the mood with a spoof agony aunt, The World According To Dear Dave, dealing with problems faced by middle-aged men.

* Alan Geere’s famous phrase in the newsroom was ‘let’s have a recipe with that’. His papers have had, how to cook an auk, when a skeleton of the extinct bird was discovered, tasty tips for badger following a cull, hedgehog delights when they were hibernating too long and ladybird soup when a mystery plague broke out. He says: “I did trip up in Trinidad when I went to ham up ‘turtle wings fricassee’ only to find campaigners had spent 50 years trying to stop the locals eating endangered leatherback turtles!”

* The Todmorden News and Hebden Bridge Times used Ruben Skyjuice to write its horoscopes with advice such as: “Scorpio - Your sign will be under constant astral bombardment this week from Kakia, the Greek goddess of vice and moral badness. Traditionally depicted as a vain, plump and heavily made-up woman dressed in revealing clothes, Kakia tries to tempt people to become evil. You will encounter her real-life incarnation in the queue in a Todmorden chip shop on Thursday. Do not buy the pickled egg.”

About Peter Sands
(Details last updated: 25 April 2013)

Peter Sands is a newspaper consultant and designer. He has redesigned 85 titles, assisted publishers in changing their businesses and runs courses in all editorial disciplines. From 1989 to 1993 he was editor of the Northern Echo.

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