Paul Flowers

Paul Flowers edits the County Down Spectator, the main read in North Down and one of Northern Ireland’s largest weekly newspapers. Here, he talks about the challenge of getting a paper out each week, considers the future facing the local press and recalls the scoop that started his reporting career.

How did you originally get involved in journalism?

I have always enjoyed writing but the real spur was probably a fourth form English teacher who commented that he pictured me as a ruthless businessman 20 years into the future – not an enticing prospect to a somewhat rebellious 16 year old.

Post A-level I attended a dedicated journalism course in Belfast during which I funded extra-curricular activities with a part-time job behind the provision counter of Stewart’s supermarket at Clandeboye Shopping Centre.

As I was leaving there one Saturday evening I witnessed the armed robbery of a security guard and immediately phoned the then editor of the Spectator, Annie Roycroft, who told me to present myself at the Main Street office first thing on Monday and type out my account of the incident. One front page article later and I was hooked, convinced that I had made the right decision to go into journalism.

That article and a subsequent two-week placement meant that, as my course concluded, when a vacancy appeared at the Spectator I was offered the job.

How important is a local weekly paper in a community and how does the Spectator fulfill that role?

A local weekly newspaper plays a vital and not always fully appreciated role in the community it serves. While dismissed by many as the ‘local rag’, weekly newspapers provide an otherwise unavailable source of local news and advance notice of issues, problems and forthcoming events.

We also supply a chronicle of the rich and varied activities of the people who live within our circulation area – from reports of local Women’s Institutes through accounts of sporting exploits to snapshots of social and charity events.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Probably the variety and never knowing from one day to the next what challenges will present themselves. Having an insatiable appetite for news is an advantage as well. There is also great satisfaction in seeing the finished product after all the efforts that have gone into filling 48 broadsheet pages with news, features and sport, and doing our best to present them in the most appealing and readable fashion.

What is the main challenge you face as an editor?

Undoubtedly keeping to deadline. As one of the busiest and physically largest papers in the country it takes a lot of input from a wide variety of sources to fill our pages. Keeping everyone on time is vital; there is no point in having the greatest story of the year if no one gets to read it.

While more modern equipment at our printing facility and improvements in computer technology have made many aspects of producing a newspaper less complicated, this has meant adjusting internal deadlines and allocating more editorial time to production demands rather than simply collating articles and designing pages.

The days of typewriters and physical page make-up seem a lifetime ago.

Describe a typical working week on the paper.

There was a time not that long ago that there was a degree of respite once the paper was out, but not any longer.

Even as the Spectator reaches the shops on a Thursday morning we are already putting the finishing touches to a number of feature pages and starting others.

At the same time I am trying to map out the set piece assignments for reporters such as courts, council meetings, press conferences, etc. Photographers need to be organised as well with Saturdays a particular challenge as a busy day of sporting activities can often overlap with other ‘must-do’ events.

By the time Monday comes we are already sub-editing news and feature articles and trying to get a rough idea of what potentially are lead stories for the main news pages.

The busiest day of the week is Wednesday when everything comes together. It is a hectic day when everything seems to happen at once. It is only on a Wednesday afternoon that I learn the advertising layouts and at that point it is a race against time to pull together articles and images, design and make-up pages and try to get a flow that takes the reader through the paper. Even though the target is to be completely finished by 7pm, the final decisions regarding the front page aren’t taken until mid-afternoon.

Because the presses don’t roll until first thing on Thursday there is an opportunity to incorporate any late breaking major stories which can involve frantic reworking of pages at a time when everyone else is enjoying breakfast.

Does any particular event stand out for you that you were involved in, in your time in the media?

There have been so many events and all have seemed close to highly dramatic at the time but as with all newspapers as soon as one edition is out of the way you are already looking at the next one. Each week does bring its share of tragedies and triumphs and it is difficult to pick out any one event from so many.

What does the future hold for local newspapers?

Many pundits have been sounding the death knell for local newspapers for some time now. First it was free newspapers that were going to do the damage, then more regionalised national papers were going to overrun us and now of course it is the internet that provides the threat.

Reading newspapers is as much a tactile experience as a cerebral one. There is something relaxing to sit down with a newspaper and read its pages at your leisure that just cannot be replicated online.

The main challenge for local newspapers will be to maintain a good relationship with their readers as the make-up of each community continues to change.

What do you do in your free time?

There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of that at the minute but May is always a mad month in terms of functions and ceremonies.

I enjoy reading newspapers and tackling crosswords and I play a few frames of snooker each week. Otherwise it is just enjoying whatever comes along.

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