When the time came to specialise in a particular area of journalism it took me in a direction I would never have expected.
I’d had limited experience of the world of business reporting and certainly not enough to trigger any genuine enthusiasm.
At the Yorkshire Post Hull office in the 1980s I was sent to cover most of the black tie dinners because our Chief Reporter took the view that, as the only single bloke in the office, I would always appreciate a fine – and free – meal.
He wasn’t wrong, but more important than the good food was the opportunity to make useful contacts, to learn the protocols and etiquette and to train in turning dull speeches into sparkling copy. It didn’t make me yearn to be a business reporter but it helped me realise that the corporate world was about more than old men in grey suits, and when a business role was offered a few years later I saw a chance to do the job in a different way.
It wasn’t so much a condition as a request – as Business Editor of the Hull Daily Mail would I be allowed to look behind the scenes, feature the shop floor staff as much as the top brass, find the success stories and the people and products behind them? Mike Wood said I could do what I wanted as long as we turned out a good paper.
That’s exactly what we did and we were rewarded for an immense effort with accolades and trust. Business organisations and local authorities liked what we did and trusted us to tell their big stories.
When I say “we”, I mean the small team of me, finding and writing the stories and features, Sandra Mangan who was a brilliant sub editor, and the various photographers who loved working on The Business because they had so much freedom to be creative and escape the “grip and grin” presentations and handshakes.
Early in my tenure I took the step of revamping the front page completely and challenging the photographers to come up with a killer pic every week to fill the top half, regardless of whether it was linked to the lead on the bottom half, a story on an inside page or just a stand-alone pic. They delivered some fantastic stuff and I really wish I could find an example!
Their work gave us real impact on every front page. The support of businesses led to us being inundated with stories and they also invested in the advertising to support the product – we worked hand in glove with the commercial team. The pink pages were recognised as essential reading among the business community and we would routinely turn out a weekly supplement of 20 pages, with maybe 28 in a busy week.
It would be a mammoth task and a great achievement even now. In the mid-1990s, with no email, limited mobile phone availability and all stories coming in by post, land line, fax or face-to-face meetings it was beyond extraordinary. And when Sandra was shifted to other duties and the task of editing the copy and laying out the pages fell to me, the pressure intensified. It was relieved by better organisation and forward planning, driven by a deep passion for the job.
There was never a shortage of stories from big businesses. Mike Fell, boss of ABP in Hull, held a prominent post in the CBI and there was plenty going on at BP, Northern Foods, Reckitts, Smith & Nephew, Kingston Communications and more. British Aerospace flew a couple of us to the Paris Air Show and in addition to covering their news we came back with the story of a young lad who had developed a passion for catering in his father’s pubs in East Hull and progressed to become one of the top chefs at the Boeing stand. We set it up in advance, went to find him for a chat and a pic and then kept it under wraps until we were on the plane back from Paris. Yes, you pick up some great stories in the pubs of Hull.
We had a regular supply of stories from small businesses through the links which we forged with the Chamber of Commerce, Humberside Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) and Hull City Council.
The TEC shared our own inside story and our messages on how to promote your business, granting us a magazine feature which reached their audience across the Humber region.
We accompanied the Chamber on trade missions to the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and after four days in Reykjavik with the City Council we devoted eight pages in the next edition of The Business to Hull’s commercial links with Iceland.
North Sea Ferries were the most hospitable hosts. Highlights included covering the maiden voyage of the Norsea for the Yorkshire Post in 1987, a cruise when the champagne flowed like water to mark the 30th anniversary of the company in 1995 and a trip on the Humber the following year when the Dutch tourism board took us on one of their tall ships, enabling us to get rare pictures from the river of three of the NSF fleet.
On the day of Princess Diana’s funeral in September 1997 we found ourselves enjoying an extended cruise to mark a maritime festival, sailing to the Erasmus Bridge in the heart of Rotterdam and exploring the city’s delights as crowds gathered for a big match at Feyenoord Stadium between the Netherlands and Belgium.
Our group included a couple from Wakefield who ran a travel business. The woman swore blind she recognised a bloke who was doing a roaring trade in bright orange t-shirts. Yes, he admitted. I’m on Wakefield market every week but there was no way I was going to sell anything with the funeral going on so I managed to lay my hands on some orange shirts and brought them over on the ferry to sell to Dutch football fans.
We were trusted with the biggest, most important stories. One of the hottest at the time was the proposed relocation by Marks & Spencer from Whitefriargate to Priory Park. When the plan was finally ditched, our City Council contacts gave us an early morning tip-off to make sure we could get the story in the first edition.
The Leader of the City Council, Pat Doyle, was never comfortable dealing with the media. He’d been on the wrong end of too much fanciful reporting and speculation. But he trusted us to conduct and publish a big interview, and there was a touch of his rarely-seen dry humour when he said afterwards it was okay, with only one or two errors.
The trust of the business community was never better demonstrated than on the night of the 1997 General Election. I covered it from the function rooms and bars of the Royal Hotel, interviewing a few of the prominent business people who were enjoying a boxing dinner.
None of the fighters in the ring came off worse than the Conservative party and long before the end of the night it be came clear there would be no bell to save them. The business reaction was generally measured and constructive as they looked ahead to life under a Tony Blair government. But one key figure who I knew well launched into a drunken tirade about the new PM so I asked his friends to calm him down. When I tried him again later he’d had more to drink and was even worse, with a purple-faced, four-letter rant about the disaster which he felt awaited the nation.
He didn’t remember and we didn’t print the comments, because the relationship was more important than that particular story.
It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.