Coventry Telegraph editor Darren Parkin spoke of the challenges facing regional newspapers at the Coventry Conversation.
Addressing a mainly student audience at the Herbert Museum, he talked of the uncertain future facing local newspapers and how he began his great journey from tea boy to editor.
Now 39, Parkin went into journalism at the tender age of 18 and became the youngest editor in Britain, at 24, when he was working on local paper, The News of Wolverhampton.
Putting his meteoric rise down to a mixture of hard graft and good old fashioned luck, Parkin’s advice to budding young journalism students was suitably direct for a man that doesn’t waste time pulling his punches: “get yourself noticed and give it 100%. If you put the work in, you’ll get the rewards.”
Launched in 1891 by William Issaac, the Coventry Telegraph has proved its got what it takes to survive the tests of time – even weathering the upheaval of the 1944 Blitz. The building may have been destroyed, but the paper wasn’t – with that evening’s edition appearing on the streets just two hours later than usual, thanks to a relocation to Nuneaton. Writes Philip Shoulder…
By 1953 circulation had increased to an excess of 100,000. The Corporation Street building which the paper moved in to that year still houses The Coventry Telegraph, but with a fraction of the original 2000 staff. “More like two peas kicking around in an empty pringle tin”, said Parkin.
The acquisition of the Cylindrical Press in 1969 was a coup for the paper as it facilitated the covering of the moon landings in colour. The ‘Moon Quest’ Story featured the first colour photos printed anywhere in the world.
Since that time the paper has endured the highs and lows of the media world, culminating in the current struggle to gain more readers. This, he tells us has led him to concentrate on “the digital side of the newspaper world”. He went on to say: “Coventry Telegraph is fortunate in having a very successful website – One of the best websites in the UK – certainly the most successful. We’re aiming for 2 million users this year”.
Although constantly pursuing new ideas, Parkin has not lost touch with the ethos of a provincial newspaper, which, apart from reporting national news, is to reflect the community it serves. This has seen the printing of a double page spread of community news on Saturdays and the re-appearance of local weddings in the paper. In addition to this, he likes nothing more than to keep in touch with the local community. “Part of my daily ritual is to go over the road to the Co-operative and I always make a point of buying something there. If there is a long queue, it’s a perfect chance to see and hear what Coventry is and what’s going on in the city, because to stand in that queue, you will hear everything”.
Parkin deliberates on the three pence increase in the cost of the paper, causing an elderly lady he met to choose between the Coventry Telegraph or a loaf of bread. She reluctantly chose the loaf of bread after having bought the paper for 60 years. He laments the decline of the paper, but also felt that last year’s extremely bad weather had affected sales: “Many people, especially the older readership, struggled to venture out to buy their paper – which is why we’re encouraging more people to have it delivered. I expect to see some improvements this year”, he said.
Yet with the newspaper’s website www.coventrytelegraph.net booming, Parkin has reason to remain upbeat. “If the number of hits to the website equated to money, I could have retired by now”, he said. He also added that he is proud of his staff: “They are getting better and better all the time, thanks to the high level of training – both journalistic and customer service orientated”. This has resulted in journalists which are as capable as crafting quality copy, as they are liaising with the public.
Parkin also sung the praises of the paper’s ‘Geek Files’ Blog – an idea thought up by journalist David Bently, while admitting he was originally against the concept: “How wrong I was” he says, adding “The Geek Files is the most successful blog of it’s genre in the world. It’s a phenomenon”.
The young trail-blazing editor is keen to continually go forward, although coy about revealing his plans he promised that ideas lay around the corner. “There was one that came out of nowhere yesterday that I think is so bloody brilliant that we’re going to launch it in the middle of February”, he said.
He replied to the question of whether the Telegraph would be likely to put up an Internet pay wall he bluntly replied: “If it does, it won’t be while I’m there.”
Throughout the talk, Parkin stressed the importance of a multiplatform strategy to ensure survival. “We said last year, if news is the product, what is the vehicle”. “I said last year that the media world is changing very, very rapidly. Until we reach the point where we’ve decided that our newspaper is going to become digital, we need to adopt a multiplatform strategy, to ensure we’ve got everything covered.”
Keeping in touch with a younger audience is also a priority for Parkin and he feels this is dealt with by interaction with web chats, which are especially good for those interested in sport, and phone in sessions where he talks directly to readers about their concerns. After all, as he says: “We’ve got to change with the times. My favourite mantra is adapt or die. If newspapers don’t adapt to the situation and evolve, they will die”.