Media: A new editor? Now that's front-page news: Ben Leapman discovers a beacon of traditional press values in rural Brecon

CHANGE is not much welcomed in rural mid-Wales, and is undertaken only with careful thought. That is why it was only three years ago that the local weekly paper, the Brecon & Radnor Express and Powys County Times, replaced its front-page advertisements with news. After the initial shock, the locals came to terms with the innovation, and sales have risen.

The end of this month sees another cathartic change. After 52 years, 34 of them as editor, Edward Griffiths is retiring at 68 from one of Britain's most local of local newspapers, in which whist drives earn as much coverage as crime.

In the past three years, there have been other developments at the Express. Apart from the front-page news, control has passed from the family who owned the paper since 1914 to a newly formed company, and layout and production are now computerised.

Yet the paper's news values have not altered. Mr Griffiths said: 'When I joined in 1940 the content was not very different. We use purely local news, things that happen in the community. Dances, whist drives. weddings, funerals. People like to see their names and pictures in the paper.' As many as 1,000 names of mourners and donors can appear in a page of funeral reports.

Mr Griffiths joined the paper at 15 as a cub reporter after he left school. After a spell in the Army, he returned as a district reporter, and became editor in 1958. 'I did think about moving to Fleet Street, but then I got married and settled down.'

Other staff are equally comfortable in their posts. The paper's three reporters are all long serving, and from in or near the paper's circulation area. Two are based in the head office, the third covers Llandrindod Wells, home of Powys County Council.

The newspaper's appearance is striking for the lack of noise. No screaming tabloid headlines here; this is a sober broadsheet with front-page lead headlines such as 'Expansion Of Military Camp Is Another Boost To Brecon'.

Founded in 1889 in support of the Liberal Party, the paper was bought in 1914 by G E Sayce, who in 1933 took over and subsumed the Conservative rival across the road. Nowadays the newspaper takes no political side and has no regular editorial column. What divisions there are often emerge in the form of letters to the editor.

The biggest story covered in recent years, and the last time the paper ran an editorial, was the 1985 Brecon and Radnor by-election in which the Liberals took the seat from the Conservatives. Mr Griffiths says: 'It was a big occasion for the whole country. We ran an editorial afterwards, saying it was a change.'

The newspaper, based in an imposing Georgian building in the middle of Brecon, is the only one serving the remote area, much of which is in the Brecon Beacons National Park. There is a widely scattered population in the hills, many of whom are sheep farmers. Brecon itself is an attractive small town with a historic feel. Mr Griffiths is a pillar of local society.

The effect of the past few years' changes has been muted. The ads, although displaced from the front page, still keep news off pages two and three. When a newspaper moves to computerised layout there is an opportunity for a new design, but when the Express switched last July the biggest change was the inclusion of company logos in display ads.

The new company running the paper, Powys Newspaper Ltd, is partly controlled by Cambrian News in Aberystwyth, but Elizabeth Hope, a niece of G E Sayce, still represents the old family on the board, and the Brecon staff are unchanged. Mr Griffiths's successor has yet to be appointed, but the new editor will have the opportunity to shake things up. To come into line with more typical local papers, the design could be bolder, with brasher headlines. And the stories could be more sensational, with crimes dramatised beneath the banner headlines.

But Mr Griffiths says: 'The paper has got an identity of its own.' He maintains it is traditional, not old-fashioned, and that the recent adjustments have proved a success. 'Circulation has gone up in the past two years. It's just over 10,000 - that's more or less saturation. Going tabloid has been thought of, but no decision has been made. There may well be changes, I don't think they'll be sweeping.'

National debates on new press restraint laws and the Calcutt Report will have little impact in Brecon. 'We don't run that sort of story,' says Mr Griffiths.

The Express is set in its ways, but profitable. It may have found the best way to provide for the particular needs of its readers. The sober tone is certainly related to its peaceful environment; Mr Griffiths insists that crime would be given more coverage if there were any more to report.

The paper's popularity is confirmed by a local newsagent: 'They all buy a copy. You have to know what's going on, although sometimes you can't see the difference from one week to the next.'

(Photographs omitted)

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