THE WESTERN Gazette has merged its West Dorset edition with its Sherborne edition.
The move has been badly received by readers such as Bill Gray, 60, of Bridport, who said: “It’s rubbish, that paper.”
In the 1990s, the Gazette was one of the biggest weekly newspapers in the country, with a dozen or so different editions.
But its sales have been steadily declining, and its shrinkage this spring is the latest in a series of changes ripping through the West Dorset media landscape.
The West Dorset – Sherborne merger comes three weeks after the Bridport News and Lyme Regis News moved their publication day to Wednesday and increased their pagination to 80 pages. The News titles have launched new features and initiatives, as have the competing View From free weeklies. (The View From titles also come out on Wednesday; the Gazette is published on Thursday).
The Gazette still has four reporters covering West and North Dorset, and it dedicates space to Dorset court reporting.
Gazette staff – speaking unofficially – say the merger is meant to give a better service to readers across West Dorset by providing a spread of news relevant to the whole district. Sherborne, Bridport, and Beaminster are all covered by West Dorset District Council, and all fall within the Bishopric of Sherborne. Indeed, viewed historically, Sherborne is the ancient capital of Wessex.
But, around Bridport, potential buyers were not keen to keep paying 60p for the newly merged paper. Comments included:
“It’s a waste of time.”
“They’ve killed it.”
“I’m not interested in the Western Gazette – I don’t know why anybody would buy it.”
“I suppose it depends on how much coverage poor old West Dorset gets.”
“If I was in the shop and I saw that [SHERBORNE in bold letters on the masthead, WEST DORSET smaller and fainter underneath] I’d think it’s not the local one and I wouldn’t buy it.”
“It’s rubbish, that paper, there’s nothing in there of any interest to anybody in Bridport, what there is has already been in the Bridport News.”
“If they managed to come up with a fantastic story about Bridport that nobody else had got, then I might buy the paper, but otherwise no, it’s boring.”
The average weekly sale of the Western Gazette’s West Dorset edition was 2,663 in 2009, according to official ABC figures. Sherborne’s tally was 2,841.
The vox pops above suggest the Gazette will struggle this year to do better in West Dorset.
The Gazette was asked last week for its own official comments, but no response has been received.
Editor’s Note: I had hoped to find more enthusiasm for the Western Gazette. In recent months it has published good stories on subjects like the South West Quadrant, planning applications in West Bay Road, Cattistock playground and Dorchester town centre. I’m interested in Sherborne news and I know there is traffic from West Dorset to Sherborne for pubs (eg The Digby Tap), shops (eg Booklore, Buzz, Fired Earth, the Pear Tree Delicatessen, the Toy Barn, etc) and grand structures like the Abbey and the two castles. But everyone I spoke to was scornful of the merged edition.
The Western Gazette is published by Northcliffe, best known as the regional arm of the company which publishes The Daily Mail. It’s possible Northcliffe sees more of a future in the west and south of Dorset for its websites www.dorchesterpeople.co.uk and www.weymouthpeople.co.uk Dorchester in particular is regarded as prime territory for rounding up Daily Mail readers.
Last year Northcliffe also considered launching a bridportpeople site. In total (I was told by a Northcliffe manager) the company has registered 3,000 domain names nationwide, covering towns with a population of more than 10,000 people.
Meanwhile, View From Publishing is experimenting with an online newspaper called the Dorset Weekender, while the Bridport News, Lyme Regis News and Dorset Echo – all owned by Newsquest – are conducting surveys to see how people interact with their websites.