Return of the local paper

A new look for the Birmingham Mail plus a pledge to serve the grass roots aim to reverse a drastic fall in its circulation
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The Independent Online

Except that Steve Dyson, editor of the newspaper that is today re-branded as the Birmingham Mail, will not even engage with terms such as "re-launch" or "re-brand" because he feels they don't do justice to the radical nature of the changes that he is making.

"By changing its name, the shape of its masthead and the entire positioning of the paper in terms of its content, tone and front page, we are smacking our readers across the head and telling them: 'It's bloody different'," he says of the newspaper known for the past 38 years as the Birmingham Evening Mail.

"This is not a re-launch or a tweak that editors make when they come to a paper. This is my old paper and I've come back to it and it needs completely reinventing." Dyson, a Brummie, who returned to the Mail two months ago, after a successful spell editing a Trinity Mirror stablemate, the Teesside Evening Gazette, is intent on "reinventing" the paper that he grew up reading. "We have to challenge everything we do," he says.

The newspaper of Britain's second city has a circulation of just 94,339. That figure results from devastating, unsustainable 10 per cent reductions in sales over each of the past two years. It is a woeful story but one that represents the recent fate of large city evening newspapers across the country.

Dyson, who likes to see himself as hands-on, going into the boardroom as little as possible and having his PC next to that of the chief sub, says: "Editors on regional newspapers are sometimes too big for their own boots. They need to be good at what they are good at, which is local news." He has immediately reversed the previous Trinity Mirror (the Mail became part of Mirror Group in 1997) strategy of paring down staff numbers to improve profit margins. That means "re-populating" satellite offices in places such as Sutton Coldfield, Solihull, Redditch and Tamworth. "Trinity Mirror has to take sight of some of the mistakes that have been made in budget cuts," he says. Dyson is also doubling the number of editions (reduced by Trinity Mirror to save money).

There are seven new editions, chosen geographically, and each one will have a minimum of five local stories. "When I say local, I mean grass roots," he says. "We are publishing planning applications again for every single area. We are publishing the full courts convictions lists, so that people will know who's in court from their area, everything from dodging TV licences to flashing on the bus. Real local stuff.

"The only thing we are unique at is our local coverage, but we had started to turn people away. They were phoning about their 40th anniversary celebrations and we were saying: 'Sorry, we haven't got the room for that.' "

Birmingham has a rarely publicised divide between north and south. "In Birmingham, you're either from the north or the the south and never the twain shall meet," says Dyson. "We've never had two editions in Birmingham before. People were turning off the newspaper saying: 'There's nothing about my area.' "

After considerable market research and in spite of the fact that Birmingham will be one of the first cities in the UK to have a non-white majority population, Dyson has chosen not to tailor editorial to suit different ethnic groups. "In recent years, white men sitting round tables in newspapers have sometimes made too much of a tokenisation of covering ethnic issues," he says.

The Mail, like most big city papers, has traditionally struggled to find the diversity of staff and the relationships with all communities that would ensure a level playing field in terms of the evaluation of the day's news.

Dyson has, however, created a new Central Birmingham edition, covering neighbourhoods such as Aston, Handsworth and Sparkhill, which all have large minority ethnic populations.

The heavily editionalised news will be backed up by a range of new sections on subjects such as Family Life and Shopping. Dyson makes no bones about a front page that looks "colourful and magaziney" with "a minimum of 10 entry points on the front".

The editor was the guest of Birmingham broadcasting stalwart Ed Doolan last Friday, fielding calls from readers. "Our traditional readers were saying that's what we call it anyway, it should never have changed its name in 1967," says Dyson, before adding: "But for the modern readers, we need to grab their attention."