The rise and fall of Sheffield's newspapers
'When I last went into The Star six years ago, I was struck by how quiet it was'
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By Dan Hayes
Sheffield's first proper newspaper appeared in 1787. Joseph Gales — a printmaker from Eckington in Derbyshire — had moved to the city in 1784 and was interested in political causes such as workers’ rights and the abolition of slavery. It was while he was living in Sheffield that Gales met Thomas Paine, the political philosopher who a decade beforehand had inspired the American Revolution. Paine encouraged Gales to found a radical newspaper.
The Sheffield Register was first published from an office on Hartshead in the city centre, just yards from where the Sheffield Daily Telegraph would be headquartered decades later. Publishing a newspaper which was in any way critical of the authorities at that time took courage. In the early 1790s Gales was charged with conspiracy against the government. He was later forced to flee to America with his wife and children as a fugitive.
Gales left his fledgling newspaper in the care of a young Scottish poet he had just taken on as clerk. Thinking it prudent to change the name of the publication after Gales’ troubles, James Montgomery renamed the Register the Sheffield Iris and moderated its editorial line. Despite this, he still found himself jailed twice for sedition over pieces he had published about the French Revolution and the forced dispersal of a Sheffield political protest.
Despite these early difficulties, newspapers proliferated. The Iris quickly got a Tory rival, the Mercury, before the Sheffield Independent, another liberal paper, arrived in 1819. Bought by the Leader family in 1829, The Independent would be associated with them for the rest of the century. The original owner’s son Robert Leader would serve as proprietor, editor and chief writer from 1833 until 1875. The British Newspaper Archive notes he was “an expert shorthand writer and reporter of local events.”
The first daily newspaper in the city was the Sheffield Daily Telegraph. First published on June 8, 1855, the new title was also one of the first dailies in the country. Stamp duty and taxes on newsprint had just been lowered significantly, instantly making newspapers a much more lucrative proposition. The years that followed saw significant growth in the industry. The Sheffield Independent became a daily paper in 1861 before the Sheffield Evening Telegraph — later to become The Star — appeared in 1887.
In the early days of the Telegraph, competition from the Independent was so fierce that owners came and went. But in the early 1860s the paper would be bought by two men who would both define its political outlook and bring it huge success. London barrister Frederick Clifford and Hull-born chemist and Tory activist William Christopher Leng took control of the Telegraph on the last day of 1863. On January 1, 1864, the paper’s editorial set out Clifford and Leng’s new vision.
So far as in us lies, we mean to make the Sheffield Daily Telegraph inferior to none in England, in vigour of the management, and the literary ability employed upon it.
Leng ran the paper on a day-to-day basis, leading a campaign for a municipal water supply after the Bradfield dam disaster of 1864. Later he conducted controversial investigations into the so-called Sheffield Outrages, an alleged campaign of domestic terrorism and murder by militant trade unionists. The 1924 book The Making of Sheffield by J.H.Stainton, says Leng was both a “giant in journalism” and a “brilliant writer.”
His sarcasm was described as a two-edged sword, cutting whichever way it flashed; he seldom praised, so that every word of commendation he gave was treasured — by his staff at all events, by whom he was greatly beloved.
According to legendary Observer editor J. L. Garvin, under Leng’s stewardship, the Daily Telegraph became “the cleverest Conservative organ in the country.” He would be associated with the paper until his death in 1902, living in a large detached property on Collegiate Crescent called Oaklands. When he died he had amassed a fortune of £163,897, more than £20m in today’s money.
The dominance of the Telegraph and Star at that time was evident in their grand headquarters. Telegraph House — an imposing Grade II listed building which still stands on High Street — was built between 1913 and 1916. The company later built an even larger building on nearby York Street where The Star would be based. They finally left in 2017, while Telegraph House now stands empty. The Star’s former offices have been turned into student flats.
When the owners of the Telegraph and Star bought the rival Sheffield Independent in 1938, the deal would see the sister titles lock up the city's printed media for the next 80 years. The arrival of the consumer society and the company’s dominance of a growing local advertising market meant it had a license to print money.
Clare Jenkins started as an arts and entertainment reporter at The Star in 1980, but quickly moved to the Telegraph’s features desk. She remembers there being seven or eight features writers on the Telegraph alone, out of a staff of around 25. But she says the Telegraph was tiny compared to The Star. They had more than a hundred editorial staff including news editors, sub editors, theatre reviewers, business editors, political editors, education reporters and features writers.
During Clare’s time both The Star and Morning Telegraph were broadsheet dailies, printing several editions a day. And The Star had district offices in Rotherham, Chesterfield, Barnsley and Doncaster, each with a team of reporters of their own.
“There was just all this activity,” says Clare. “The noise was deafening from the clanging of typewriters but there was always someone coming in or going out as well. You’d turn up in the morning and the news editor would say ‘don’t take your coat off.’ Mavis the tea lady would also be coming round — she didn’t take any shit from anybody.”
She adds: “When I last went into The Star about six years ago, I was struck by how quiet it was.” After the Telegraph closed as a daily in 1986 (it would reopen as a weekly three years later) Clare forged a successful career in radio journalism before teaching at Sheffield Hallam University. “I always said to my students that journalism is a passport into people’s lives,” she says. “It is sad to see what has happened to it because the need is still there. Fact checking and subbing and all the different processes that a story goes through to make sure it is as good as it can be are still needed.”
Bob Westerdale arrived in Sheffield eight years after Clare in 1988, at a time when people still wore moustaches unironically. Originally from Stretford in Greater Manchester, Bob had moved to The Star from the Lancashire Evening Post.
“I’d never seen so many people in my life,” he says, recalling entering The Star’s York Street newsroom for the first time. “It was astonishing. The newsdesk alone had four journalists, a secretary and two ‘gophers’ — young ladies who would run off and do things for you. Newspapers were swimming in money in those days.”
Even foreign travel wasn’t out of the question. After a hitman fled to the US following a failed hit on a Millhouses jewellery dealer, Bob hot-footed it after him, reporting on the extradition case from Bridgeport, Connecticut. He would also travel to Bucharest to cover the tragic tale of the so-called ‘sewer children’ in post-Communist Romania and as sports editor went to Omsk in Siberia to cover the Sheffield Steelers.
Bob hopes there is a future for historic newspapers like The Star, as he still cares deeply about the industry which he has worked in for more than 40 years. But he fears that the horse has bolted. “Local newspapers have been sustainable until the digital age,” he says. “The mistake that they made was not to get some sort of payment for it to begin with. They are trying to scramble round now but it’s a stable door job — it’s 10-20 years too late.”
Between 1990 and 2010, as the internet destroyed local newspapers’ virtual monopoly on Sheffield’s advertising market, The Star’s newsroom shrank from around 80 journalists to just 30. And it didn’t stop there. The industry’s cost-cutting drive reached its apotheosis in 2020 when JPI Media — the company that owns The Star alongside newspapers like the Yorkshire Post and the Scotsman — tried to cover the whole of South Yorkshire, North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire from a single hub in Sheffield.
It went about as well as you can imagine. ‘Live news’ — breaking crime and traffic stories — were prioritised above everything else. I was on a so-called ‘specialist team’, but exactly what that meant was never fully explained or understood by the staff. In reality I ended up churning out barely rewritten press releases and ‘PAPs’ — photo articles which trick readers into clicking multiple times on the same story.
Last New Year’s Eve, a year already heavy with upheaval and uncertainty had one more surprise in store for staff at The Star. The company they worked for — JPI Media — was sold to veteran newspaper proprietor David Montgomery for just £10m. I remember the shock I felt when I saw that number. A major newspaper group — which owned some of the best known titles in regional news — selling for so little showed how completely the industry had collapsed. Just 14 years previously, Johnston Press (the previous incarnation of JPI Media) bought the Scotsman group alone for £160m. Former Scotsman editor-in-chief Andrew Neil called the company’s fall from grace “one of the most egregious examples of value destruction in newspaper history.”
When I left the paper two months ago, The Star was being produced by around 15 staff, 10 of whom were reporters. They still manage to publish some great stories despite operating with a skeleton team. But the decline of the Sheffield Telegraph has been ever starker. To say the newspaper built into a publishing powerhouse by W.C. Leng in the nineteenth century is a shadow of its former self would be something of an understatement. Just over a century ago, it was so wealthy it built Telegraph House — a cathedral to journalism in the middle of Sheffield. Now most of The Telegraph is made up of stories from The Star, and the newspaper has just two staff, one of whom is an apprentice.
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