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“Cut me and I bleed ink” - Malcolm Starbrook interview

Malcolm Starbrook retired in July after 45 years in journalism. In those 45 years, he worked for nationals and regionals, newspapers and magazines, publishers and regulators. In short, he’s seen it all. He tells Jon Slattery that, despite all the digital disruption, it’s still the journalism that matters and argues we need “more journalists not fewer”.

By Jon Slattery

Malcolm Starbrook started as a trainee on his local paper in the East End of London, went on to work for the Sun, edited the Milton Keynes Mirror, the Bury Free Press and the Croydon Advertiser and was on the Press Complaints Commission. He was editor / owner of the Milton Keynes Standard, worked in magazines for International Thomson and ended up as group editor for Archant Essex and East London.

Malcolm paints a vivid picture of his first editor, Laurie Huddleston, who took him on as an 18-year-old trainee on the East London Advertiser in 1969.

“He was the paper’s second only editor in more than 50 years; had started on the paper when he was 14 and covered the Cable Street riots in the 30s. He was a tiny man and I remember thinking he was my image of what a real journalist was: he chain smoked incessantly, his old cardigan was covered in cigarette ash, he wore sleeve braces, his tongue was coloured blue from constantly licking his Chinagraph subbing pencil and, most importantly, he wore a green eye-shade visor like all the grizzled hacks in the Hollywood movies.”

Starbrook says: “I got the job because I knew the paper inside out, was born and bred on patch and wrote regularly for it, even if it was just the Eton Manor rugby report. In 1969, it was the most important paper in the area and if it was not reported in the Advertiser, it hadn’t happened.”

Bruising time at the Sun

He went on to work at the Sun. “I started there when Larry Lamb was editor and one of my first jobs was writing captions for the Page 3. I did not realise how difficult that was. But I got the hang of it and was ‘promoted’ to writing Sun Spots: entire news stories tightened down to 15/20 words. That was a hard skill to master but it made me a better writer and, subsequently, a better sub-editor.”

His departure followed a dramatic incident like something from an East Enders script. “One night, the news desk got a call that a pub owned by Bobby Moore, the former West Ham and World Cup winning captain had been set alight the day before it was due to open in Stratford. I got down there as Bobby arrived with a couple of cars of ‘heavies’. I tried to grab an interview with him but got punched out by two of the minders. As I sat at home nursing my cuts and bruised ego, I got a call from a former evening newspaper editor offering me a job on his news desk in the build up to a major relaunch. So I joined him and left the Sun: it seemed safer!”

Introduction to magazines

After working on the newsdesk of the Oxford Mail and editing the Milton Keynes Mirror, Starbrook switched to magazines as editor-in-chief of International Thomson’s meat titles, including Meat Trades Journal, and later was chief sub of Press Gazette. How did magazines compare to working in newspapers?

“It was the pace that was so different”, he says. “Working on newspapers, both daily and weekly, tended to be relaxed until the final moments before deadline when all hell broke loose. Magazines, by contrast, were more structured in content and layout. The role of the graphic artist in designing and layout enjoyed a much higher profile than I was used to. But after an introductory period, I appreciated the strengths that the designers brought to the publications either weekly or monthly. It is still something that I believe many weekly newspaper operations tend to overlook.”

13 years at the Croydon Advertiser

Starbrook returned to newspapers as editor / owner of the Milton Keynes Standard, which he sold to Keith Barwell before becoming editor of the Bury Free Press. He was group editor of the Croydon Advertiser from 1989 to 2002 and editorial director for four years. “The Advertiser was a magnificent beast of a broadsheet weekly newspaper. When I was appointed, we had a staff of more than 70 journalists; five geographical editions and a separate division for our free newspapers with 17 journalists, and a third division looking after its magazines and readers’ holidays. It had its own printing press but that meant that print unions were able to hold the company as a hostage to fortune.”

“Nowadays, it seems difficult to remember just how much we were in thrall to the print unions. When Murdoch broke the back of the newspaper unions during the Wapping dispute, he achieved a success not just for his own company but for all UK newspapers and, for a time, the editorial departments resumed the responsibility for producing informative and fascinating newspapers that delivered great markets for our advertisers to reach.”

Debts mounted, however, and eventually the Advertiser’s owners sold out to Portsmouth and Sunderland. “The recession in the 80s increased the debt burden and my role increasingly became one of managing editorial costs: in other words, reducing the number of journalists and editions we produced.

“We retrenched back into Croydon and by 1998 managed to turn a £250,000 annual loss into a £250,000 annual profit. Staff levels were down to a total of 40 journalists; four weekly editions of the Advertiser and one free weekly for the greater Croydon area. At that point, we were sold and the cycle of staffing reductions began again under a new company with the supposedly non-revenue earning editorial department feeling the axe again: and the spiral of managing decline continued.”

Standing up for the PCC

Starbrook was on the Press Complaints Commission for six years and staunchly defends its work before it was engulfed by the hacking scandal. “The PCC was not perfect. Its critics failed to understand its purpose and relevance. Primarily it was set up to deal with breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice about the content of stories and the conduct of journalists.

“Complainants were given a voice in the newsroom by the PCC. Their complaints were investigated and reporters involved had to be able to show they could be trusted by their readers. So it was a big deal for a newspaper to carry an apology or correction for that indicated that the paper had let down itself and its readers. That was the argument that convinced me that our system of self-regulation worked.

“Hacking was and remains a criminal offence. The law was always there to deal with illegal behaviour. Unfortunately, the issues became entwined and confused and finally newspapers had too few champions to speak up for them.”

Starbrook says of new press regulator IPSO: “It will only be able to be a success once it can demonstrate that it has the public’s confidence. That will not come overnight and we will need to see how its decisions are made and how its corrections are enforced.”

Taking on the Town Hall Pravdas

In 2005, Starbrook joined Archant and became group editor for its Essex and East London titles, and became embroiled in a high profile battle with one of the so-called ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ (East End Life, produced by Tower Hamlets Council) which are seen as unfair competition by the local press. Who won?

“East End Life is still there, so perhaps you can say they did”, he says. “Despite the launch of a code of conduct governing council publications, no significant action has taken place against rogue authorities. The problem is that politicians like to control the flow of information to voters. Town hall critics of the Pravdas are vocal when they are in opposition but they become less so when they are in power.

He warns: “As the information flow becomes more computer or tablet based, we see local councils setting up their own news and websites, often working hand-in-glove with state organisations like local health services or the police, and bypassing local newspapers and websites. So the threat grows ever stronger and the potential for local newspapers to fight this insidious information control is reduced.”

Starbrook is concerned about the focus by newspapers on web revenue. “By love of, training in, and affection for… I am a newspaper hack: cut me and I bleed ink. So one of the biggest threats I feel facing the newspaper industry is our rush for web revenue without fully understanding what that is doing to the print business. Few of us have the power of the Daily Mail, Guardian or Bild to build significant audiences with little or no paywall. So we will always be playing catch up, and not very well at that.

“While we may be attracted by the sexiness of the web, digital ad gains scarcely impact on the print advertising losses. At the same time, the giants of the web, like Google, are enjoying major success in revenue from mobile advertising. So as newspapers struggle to get their revenue act together, Google is already getting the lion’s share of the market. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple will continue to try to get users to shop on the devices and web platforms they design and market, isolating newspapers further.”

Protecting editorial budgets

“As revenues get slimmer, publishers will continue to try to run stripped down versions of their newspapers with a direct result on content. Increasingly, we seem to be in the business of curation rather than creation and the unique voice of the newspaper is lost in the competing and strident shouts emanating from the world wide web publishing the same stories, same photos and same tokenism approach to breaking news.”

Starbrook argues more journalists are required. “We need web platforms that break stories and newspapers that explain and put that information into context. For that, we need more journalists not fewer. But then we struggle to convince people they need to value our journalism. The trend is for people not to pay for the news and information they can obtain though the web. However, as publishers, we need to continue to provide the news, views and information that impacts on people’s lives. By doing that, we will build the audience that our advertisers will want to interact with. It is still the journalism that matters and, internally, we need to support the importance of that basic function.”

What chance has a teenager today of being taken on by a local paper as Starbrook was? “It’s tough”, he says. “In the seventies, there were three times as many local newspapers as there are today. The last few decades have seen a switch to the recruitment of university graduates as trainee reporters on the basis that they will have better life skills at the age of 24 compared to 18 or 19 year old secondary school leavers." He claims that the increasing cost of higher education is making the graduate entry into journalism too dominated by middle class students. "Higher tertiary education costs have whittled down the student population and middle class students, who have access to the bank of mum and dad, are the only ones managing to complete their degrees and then finance themselves through journalism training colleges.”

Starbrook adds: “I would not argue that apprentices are a better option than graduate trainees, or vice versa. We need both to get a balanced newsroom in the communities we serve.”