Britain’s smallest newspaper . . . early technology . . . sex on page
one . . .that first editorial team . . . a TV-star scoop . . . hoaxed
by the scientists . . . lifted by the Sun . . . reporting
tragedy . . . an opposition title . . .
Britain’s smallest newspaper - that was the proud slogan of the Richmond Reporter, the tiny weekly that I launched single-handedly at Richmond College, Sheffield, in September 1971. Forgive the conspicuous lack of modesty here, but the Reporter was my very own baby and I remain as proud of it today as I was each Wednesday in term-time when it brought the week’s news and gossip to students and staff in a couple of thousand micro-typed words on four A5 pages.
Tiny it might have been. A simple ‘training aid’ - yes, maybe. But this was a serious publication and it introduced hundreds of totally inexperienced students to deadlines, scoops, ruthless cutting, last-minute rewrites, embarrassing mistakes, apologies, hoaxes, libellous letters and pretty well all the other entertaining elements of a journalist’s working life. Many of those beginners now hold influential positions in newspapers, radio and television, and I’ve occasionally been delighted to hear of two such people unexpectedly coming face to face and swopping memories of their ‘first paper’.
We are not talking about a ‘college mag’ here. Scores of universities, colleges and schools produce their own publications, written by students who fancy the idea of being writers, reviewers, critics and commentators. Some indeed produce work of a high standard but, in general, the largely-subjective articles are still fundamentally essays rather than news reports - a newspaper recruit who was chief reporter at university still needs much knocking into shape. No - the Reporter, despite its midget appearance, was the real thing, edited not by a dilettante dabbler but by a journalist who was aiming to make the experience 100-per-cent authentic, short of actually paying salaries or firing anybody. (It was so true to life, in fact, that more than one student suggested that a weekly wage would be in order).
In the early experimental days of this ambitious operation, the students found all the stories in their own time and simply slipped handwritten copy to me as we passed in a corridor. The secretarial department possessed one special golf-ball typewriter that could produce tiny six-point letters and, by an unwieldy process that sounds comically laborious in this computerised age, I then had to find time - much of it at home, and occasionally at about four o’clock in the morning - to type up the stories and turn them into column-width strips with which I could create camera-ready paste-ups complete with headlines. A big, clumsy photo-copier (state-of-the-art gear at the time) took care of the rest and, on the technical side, that was it.
But the college’s pattern of 45-minute lecture-slots, tea-breaks and a fixed lunch-hour threatened to scupper the whole thing as far as realism was concerned. Students could hardly be put under genuine pressure to chase stories if they had to break off for shorthand sessions, law lectures and all the rest of it. Delicately persuasive negotiations took place with specialist staff whose weekly pattern of work had to be rejigged, and it was eventually agreed that, for those involved with the Reporter, Tuesday would be completely free of formal lectures. Instead, it would be a full day dedicated to finding and writing stories and completing the paste-ups of four pages ready for printing first thing on Wednesday morning, for sale at the morning break. ‘Full day’ really meant full day - the group met for a news conference at 9.30am and worked through until the janitors rattled their keys in threatening fashion at 9.00pm and sent us off into the night. By that time, if all had gone well, the last couple of headlines were being hastily positioned. If not, I was in at crack of dawn next day to finish the thing off on my own, as the ‘staff’ had become students again by that time and were trying to memorise the restrictions imposed by the 1996 Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act or struggling to take a councillor’s speech down at 60 words a minute.
The Reporter came out every week, in term time, from 1971 until 1976, and the bound copies still have a proud place in my little office at home. The novelty of the first issue, on October 7, 1971, ensured that everybody in the building got hold of a copy somehow, though we printed only about 300 at a time when there would be perhaps 1000 people in the building, on and off, throughout the day. Luckily, a few of the students turned out to be born news-vendors and they happily manned a table near the refectory to sell copies at 1p a time, racing back to the office-machinery room for more copies every time they sold out. It was deeply satisfying to note that the refectory was quieter than usual - everyone was reading. One week later, when the second issue appeared, a shorthand lecturer expressed surprise. ‘I thought it was a one-off exercise,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know you were doing another.’ When I explained that it would appear every week she seemed amazed. ‘Do you think there’ll be enough to write about?’ she asked. Enough to write about! There was never a week when we didn’t have to hold stories over or scrap them altogether. The disappointed writers were upset and sulked. But they soon learned that the answer was to come up with decent stories that would not only survive but would earn a place on that tiny front page.
We launched on October 7, 1971, and were in trouble within minutes. The page-one splash was ‘SEX - UNDER THE COUNTER’ . . . and there were immediate mutterings that this minuscule publication was already aiming for News of the World prurience and that ‘gutter journalism’ was the latest subject on the college curriculum. To be fair, I can see how the appearance of ‘SEX’ in caps on our very first front page had lit the fuse for the more sober members of the teaching staff. But we’d been lucky - it just happened to be decided that week that sex-education books were to be made available in college but that they would need to be specifically requested from under the counter! The reporter who had been assigned to interview the college librarian was delighted to hear this gem fall from her lips and managed to get a few nice quotes. Said the story: The problem of openly displaying the eight books has worried Miss Mary Gregory, the librarian, as the volumes are ‘the kind that tend to get stolen’. She told our reporter: ‘I am concerned now, though, about possible embarrassment in actually asking for the books. Those who would most benefit will probably be the ones most reluctant to ask.’
That first issue contained stories about refectory delays, a student’s skiing accident in Austria, a member of staff whose wife was fostering a Malaysian baby, the wedding of the Principal’s secretary and a visit to college of William Van Straubenzee, parliamentary under-secretary of state for education and science . . . but the under-the-counter sex books made the best lead.
I have the bound set of the first year’s Richmond Reporters before me as I write. Pasted on the flyleaf is a group photograph of the nineteen young people who were involved, and they are listed, along with the names of their home towns. One went to Fleet Street, one is a television sports presenter, one is a sub-editor on a leading evening paper, and another later left journalism and became a university professor. I’ve lost track of the rest, but here - just in case any of them should happen to see this - is that historic list: Debbie Ambrose (London), Lesley Bray (Boston), Dick Bower (Leicester), Lorna Doyle (Manchester), Martin Finney (Leicester), Jennifer Goldsmith (Bradford), Mandy Green (Scarborough), Keith Hamer (Barnsley), Geraldine Hosier (London), Sue Kettlewell (Grimsby), Andy Knowles (Loughborough), Ian Lyness (Barnet), Helen Maskill (Halifax), Sarah Morley (Lincoln), Fiona Pentith (Stratford), Judith Powell (Derby), Juliette Rudderham (Northampton), Jo Shirt (Ilkley), Alan Whitaker (Bradford) and Paul Williamson (Heanor, Derbyshire).
Paul Williamson, listed at the end there, became the staff photographer for the very practical reason that he was the only one with a camera. He didn’t realise it then, but he was doubly unfortunate in a way - his ‘W’ surname doomed him to be always at the tag-end of alphabetical lists but, conversely, fate had delivered him to college about ten years too early for the press-photography courses that arrived in the 1980s. Paul would no doubt then have been a star student, but in the early seventies he was simply a reporter with a camera. Sixty of his pictures appear in that bound set of the first year’s issues . . . nostalgic images of students, lecturers, builders at work on a college extension, a car-crash, the wedding of two journalism trainees and so on. (The college-extension pictures now have an ironic ring, as the whole place was later demolished. The marriage, on the other hand, perhaps survived).
Early reproduction of the pictures was, in a word, dreadful, though it improved slightly as we experimented with different ways of screening. We got excited about using a new-fangled ‘instant camera’ at one stage, but the optimism was short-lived. The college had a photography section in which the subject was taught to A-level, and I often had to sweet-talk the experts there to help us produce a passable picture. But this was, after all, a training aid, and the students learned a lot about the problems associated with decent artwork. Headlines presented great difficulties too. In the first fifteen issues they were hand-drawn with as much neat uniformity as I could manage. But then we made a giant leap into new technology - we spent about a fiver on a couple of plastic letter-stencils that enabled me to produce two sizes of ‘type’ in caps or lower-case. Some years later we managed to lay hands on a Kroy machine that churned out headlines on paper strips - but only when the operator had slowly dialled each individual letter on a plastic wheel the size of a dinner plate and then pressed a button. This painfully slow business was a brilliant advance at the time; today’s most basic computer set-up would reduce those hours of work on both text and pictures to a matter of minutes.
Given routine assignments at the morning conference, students would set off to find the refectory supervisor, the Students’ Union president, the vice-principal and so on, just as working journalists all over the country make daily calls on fire stations, police stations, hospitals and town halls. Those who seemed destined to do well in this business arrived with their own story ideas, eager to follow up something they had perhaps overheard in a corridor or during lunch. My stock question, at the start of the conference, was ‘Has anyone got anything new?’ And one of the best answers I remember (from student Paul Calverley, later head of network development at ITV Wales) was ‘Yes, I’ve heard that Marti Caine, the comedienne, is a student here under a different name.’ It was true, it turned out - Marti, who had just made national headlines by winning a television talent contest, was at college on Tuesdays and Fridays studying for English and French O-levels under her real name of Lynne Stringer. But in class she wore a wig, and not even those classmates who had watched her triumphant TV performance realised who she was. A great story for us, but I realised that the national showbiz reporters would beat us to it if they heard from some other source that this glamorous and dynamic redhead was busy, in silent anonymity, at a college desk in Sheffield.
There was a buzz of excitement as I suggested we keep the whole thing secret for nine days until we could engineer a surprise denouement in the lecture-room. We would let the nationals know at the last moment. The surprise arrival of a crowd of daily-paper photographers to record the moment as Lynne Stringer turned into Marti Caine would be our story, and that way everyone would be happy. It worked beautifully. I made a few night-desk calls and cameramen from the Mirror, the Sun, the Mail and both Sheffield newspapers were waiting in the corridor next morning. English lecturer Margaret Perry was not too happy about what she saw as frivolous disruption of her class but, let in on the secret a few minutes earlier, she stoically went along with it. ‘Lynne, could you stand, please,’ she said. Lynne put down her pen. The photographers poured into the room. Lynne removed her nondescript wig and her famous mass of red hair tumbled about her shoulders. There was no need to explain to the astonished classmates. This was Marti Caine, no doubt about it. The students were delighted that the humble Reporter had been one step ahead of the most powerful publications in the land and waited with interest to see what the nationals would do with the story.
Then fate threw a spanner into the works. It was January 1975. A Fleet Street printing dispute (how’s that for a bit of history?) led to shrunken editions of the Sun and the Mail, and the Mirror did not appear at all. In Sheffield, the Star and the Morning Telegraph ran Marti on their front pages. And when the Mirror reappeared a couple of days later, ‘our’ story topped page 11, under the heading ‘NO JOKING - TV STAR MARTI IS A STUDENT’.
Marti never did get the O-levels. She swept to real celebrity status and was too busy starring in Las Vegas to take exams at a desk in Sheffield. She became a good friend of the journalism section over the next few years, and when we invited her to come back one day to stage a celebrity press conference she arrived in style - driving a cream Rolls Royce. (The effect was somewhat spoiled by a bit of carpet sticking out from under the lid of the boot. She was delivering it to an old friend in town, it turned out.) Someone asked her if it was true that she’d had to get married as a youngster. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘I could have waited another fortnight’. Sadly, Marti died in 1995 aged only 50. Her brave autobiography contained one of her memorable one-liners - told that cancer had affected her lymph glands she asked ‘Does that mean I’m a lymphomaniac?’
Many other Reporter stories were picked up by the nationals. Realising that there was money to be made from tip-offs, the shrewder students were obviously going to be tempted to contact the ‘real’ newspapers when a good tale came their way. We told them to speak to us before making any such move, not because we wanted our cut but to avoid the embarrassment that could easily result from a dodgy story being handled by an eager beginner. A mischievous member of the physics staff once claimed, for example, that he and his colleagues had discovered a hitherto-unknown atomic particle. The Reporter lad to whom this gob-smacking snippet was entrusted was trembling with excitement when he returned to the newsroom.
All I can say in my own defence is that it sounded highly dubious but, having sent the lad back to check that he had heard aright, I decided to run the story. I made it clear that we were not making this claim, we were merely reporting that our scientists were making the claim. The Reporter duly appeared . . . and both Sheffield newspapers carried the tale. Their re-jigged versions said something like ‘No-one at the college was available to comment’ . . . it turned out that the lecturer who had set this hare running was hiding in a cupboard as his story gained momentum. There was a par about it in one of the nationals, and we heard much later that physicists at Sheffield University had been investigating the claims and that someone from a Government department had been up from London to investigate, complete with dark coat and bowler hat.
We all tend to believe so-called ‘experts’. If Patrick Moore stares at you intently through his monocle and tells you that ice has been found on Mars or grass has been spotted on Jupiter you tend to take his word for it. Under the page-one heading ‘MYSTERY PARTICLES IN LAB TESTS’, that hoax issue of March 16, 1972, says:
Experiments in the Richmond College physics laboratory indicate that the staff may have discovered a previously-unknown atomic particle.
The discovery was made accidentally when Mr Ernest Whalley was preparing an experiment designed to show the movement of electrons in magnetic fields. Particles he thought were electrons started to give the wrong results - which meant that they could not possibly be electrons.
Mr Dick Dean, head of the physics section, said: ‘As yet we do not know what these are or what they do, but we are fairly confident that they are new particles.’ The idea is not likely to revolutionise the scientific world, said Mr Dean, adding: ‘This discovery would simply mean that several queries could be explained more easily, and the jigsaw would be nearer completion by just one more piece.’
There are several more paragraphs in the same vein, and the whole thing sounds pretty convincing. The lad who wrote the story was vexed and embarrassed when it emerged that he had been stitched up, but it taught him that reporters need to be what someone once neatly described as ‘suitably sceptical’. The hoax I didn’t mind . . . but I was cross that he’d got the experimenter’s name wrong. It turned out to be Whaley, not Whalley.
The Sun occasionally picked up a Reporter story and skilfully twisted it into its own entertaining fiction. We told of a resourceful maths lecturer who stimulated his class of teenage lads by instructing them to gather the vital statistics of about a dozen girl students - height, weight, shoe-size, dress size and so on - and then examine the correlation between the numbers thus gathered. In reality, the information was collected during innocent interviews in the refectory at break time . . . but the Sun’s pictorial version had a steelworks apprentice positioning a tape-measure across a girl’s thrusting bosom while three or four classmates leered in the background. Not that there was any coercion - the shapely young lady who helped to illustrate this serious bit of research needed no persuading to perch herself provocatively on a desk. The headline, inevitably, said something about a lecturer whose novel teaching methods had caused a ‘bust-up’ in college, though nothing remotely like that had actually happened.
One of the lab technicians had a reputation for never buying a newspaper of his own but pinching someone else’s copy of the Sun when he went home. One day he arrived at college with his own copy and was greeted with hoots of astonishment and sarcastic cheers. Later that afternoon one of his colleagues asked if we accepted birth announcements in the Reporter, and handed me a slip of paper. It said: ‘To Adrian, a Sun. Congratulations from all your colleagues.’ The Sun liked that one. And they got it right.
As in any provincial newsroom, there were always a few self-starters who could be relied upon to come up with stories. But there were also plodders who needed to be handed specific assignments to jog them into action, and one such young fellow had a good story staring him in the face for two or three weeks before it was taken out of his hands by a classmate with initiative. The lecture-room windows looked out over the single-storey refectory, and one day we saw workmen busy on the flat roof of the adjoining kitchens. They attached some mysterious coiled contraption to the tall chimney, and at the weekly news-conference I gave this less-than-sparkling lad the job of finding out what it was. In the evening, as the last few headlines went into place, I realised we had heard nothing more on the subject. Collared next day, the lad said there had been no-one around when he had been to the kitchen to enquire.
I left the job with him, but he failed to produce anything the following week, or the week after that. No-one seemed to know what it was, he said. He had clearly reverted to his usual technique of wandering around the building hoping to come across a shock-horror exclusive out of the blue. But one of the brighter sparks decided to investigate - and he came to me quivering with excitement. ‘Guess what?’ he said. ‘There’s been a danger of a terrific explosion in the kitchen during the cold weather, because the steam that escapes from the dish-washing equipment can freeze when it gets high up the escape-pipe on the side of the chimney. That coil thing is a heating device that comes on automatically when the temperature drops below freezing, so that the steam can escape. It’s been like a time-bomb - a chap has told me the kitchen could have blown up if there’d been an early frost. They’d been waiting for that equipment to arrive from abroad.’
The story may have been three weeks old, but for a college newspaper it was a good page-one lead. News values are relative . . . discovery of a similar risk in the kitchen at 10 Downing Street would make the nationals. The trainee deserved the by-line that accompanied his ‘time-bomb’ story, even though he had admittedly been pointed in the right direction at the conference. We attached great importance to initiative. To a large extent, news agencies - and freelance reporters in general - are plagiarists by trade, continually scouring provincial newspapers for stories that they can embroider and sell to the nationals. Similarly, any competent staff reporter can follow up a snippet from another paper, a press-release, an entry in the office diary or an informant’s telephone call. But we liked to feel that we turned out reporters who, constantly alert and in regular touch with good contacts, could spring pleasant surprises on their know-it-all news-editors.
The Principal could have been a thorn in our side, but on very few occasions did he attempt to influence what we printed. The only time we seriously disagreed was when a girl student had been raped on a footpath near the college in June and we decided to resurrect the story when we resumed publication in September. The Principal and the influential head of secretarial studies accused us of raking the incident into life simply for the sake of it and demanded that we drop the idea. But the police confirmed that the rapist was still at large, and the Reporter view was that the new intake of girl students should be made aware of what had happened. The Principal, to his credit, reluctantly accepted our argument that journalism students needed to learn that they would sometimes have to stand up to attempted censorship from on high, and we ran the story.
On another occasion, I remember, the Principal called an extraordinary evening meeting of Student Union officials, out of the blue. We were intrigued and sent a reporter - but she was barred from admission. It happened on pre-publication evening, and the girl returned to the office to report failure. I told her to go back and wait outside the door until the meeting ended, in the hope of picking up something. She returned about half-an-hour later. ‘There’s no story,’ she said. ‘The Principal has told them all not to speak to me.’ We had reserved a page-one place for the tale, and the disappointed girl assumed we’d have to fill it with something else. She was delighted when she realised that in fact she had produced a ‘mystery meeting’ story and that the Principal’s unusual action in banning comment was itself worth reporting. Another lesson learned.
Where we did agree with the boss was on the issue of bomb scares. It was common at that time for such places as colleges and department stores to receive muttered threats on the phone, and the first time it happened at Richmond we ran a story. But as the threats became more frequent - one every couple of weeks or so - we refrained from reporting them on the grounds that every mention of such a thing encouraged a couple of other weirdies to have a go themselves.
My insistence on the reality of the Reporter meant - though I had not realised it at first - that we were occasionally obliged to face up to the less agreeable aspects of the journalist’s job. When a prominent member of the student union failed to reappear after the summer break it turned out that he had been killed in a road accident in France. The easy way would have been to re-jig the versions in Sheffield’s Star and Morning Telegraph, but we sent a reporter to talk to his parents and friends. A lecturer lost his son in a tragic drowning accident, and once again someone had to handle this delicate story. On another occasion, when a student was involved in some foreign fracas, the ‘real’ newspapers reported that he had gone missing . . . but, determined to be bang up to date with the situation, we had one of our reporting team at the student’s lodgings when he arrived home late at night and were able next morning to report his safe return to Sheffield.
It was on Budget Day, on the two or three occasions that we were able to fit it in, that the humble Reporter really excelled itself. While the Chancellor was still on his feet in the Commons, a special edition was being distributed around college carrying the main points - the beer-and-fags, car-tax, petrol-prices stuff that everyone wants to hear. We managed it by carting a TV set and a radio into the Reporter room and having about a dozen students listening intently, some making notes, others typing the stories on to pre-prepared strips of paper, others pasting them into pages and a couple of people racing downstairs to have them printed in the office-machinery room. As I recall, the ‘special budget edition’ was the brainchild of my senior colleague at the time, Ron Eyley, and it worked like a dream. The trainees loved the urgency of it all, and staff and non-journalism students emerging from lectures seemed amazed that we had beaten the Sheffield Star to the post!
Faced with genuine challenges of this sort that reinforced the many theoretical exercises that they had to tackle, students always responded with enthusiasm. Occasionally, presented with a late-night event in the city on the eve of publication, a student would have to write two or three guesswork versions in advance and then come in very early next morning to see the appropriate version pasted into place a few minutes before the print-run started. And it’s pretty impressive to get a student into college before breakfast.
The only thing that the Reporter really lacked was opposition - and for a brief period we tried to rectify that by running two papers at once. The Gazette and the Herald - each only one two-sided sheet - were produced in separate rooms by separate teams of five students, with two different lecturers in charge. They were both produced at the same time, which meant that rival reporters were roaming around college all day, contacting the same sources and trying not to let slip what they were up to. The next morning’s lead story was sometimes the same in each paper (just look at the daily-paper splashes on the news-stands), but the difference in the treatment - and often in the facts - made for interesting discussion. What each paper wanted, of course, was a good tale that the opposition had missed, and it happened a few times, to the great joy of the team with the exclusive. But the regular contacts rapidly tired of being interviewed twice over and sworn to secrecy, and other complications made the whole thing a dreadful headache, so the two-papers idea was abandoned.
Our first issues, as I have said, sold for 1p. We held that price for three years, then it rocketed to 2p. The printing costs were part of the college’s general budget, as any lecturer’s photo-copying would be, and our modest income from sales simply covered the occasional long-distance phone call and the even more occasional taxi. I was a rather sloppy financial director and the funds - mostly in 2p pieces - were kept in an old training shoe in a locker, much to the dismay of one of my colleagues who warned that I’d be in trouble if the auditors found out. That risk eventually evaporated when we became a freebie. We then distributed copies widely throughout the main college and in its various annexes across the city.
The Reporter survived for twenty years or so, with different supervision and in different shapes and sizes. So there are today roughly 2000 people - many of them still in ‘media’ occupations - whose first experience of news-reporting was on Britain’s smallest newspaper. It’s a pity we never thought of introducing a Richmond Reporter tie and perhaps a little lapel-badge. They would be collectors’ items by now.