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No one was more grateful than Jon Stokoe, editor of the Whitby Gazette, when publisher Johnston Press issued new iPads.
On 15 February, his @jonstokoe Twitter account read: “First Tweet on my JP iPad goes to the gaffer @ashleyhi. #thankyou #snazzykit.”
Ashley Highfield, or @ashleyhi, the former Microsoft and BBC internet chief who is now chief executive of Johnston Press, quickly responded: “@jonstokoe the first of many, I’m sure!”
Three weeks after this bright exchange, the company proposed Stokoe’s redundancy, along with plans to sell the Gazette’s 1854 office, transferring control to the editor of the Scarborough News.
The plan looked odd coming the very day after the Gazette recorded a 2.1% sales rise – making it one of the UK’s best performing weeklies.
Regional media website Holdthefrontpage broke the news on 6 March; it was soon picked up by Roy Greenslade on MediaGuardian; and then Press Gazette launched a campaign, its online petition soon gathering 1,000 signatures.
TV personalities James May and Jeremy Clarkson, who met Stokoe when filming in Whitby, and north-east business “dragon” Duncan Bannatyne were among those said to have signed up.
In fairness, Johnston Press is under extraordinary pressure to cut costs; merging editors and closing offices have become regular activities across the regional press. But in the tightly-knit town of Whitby, in the face of impressive sales figures, this has deeply offended locals.
On 13 March, BBC TV’s Look North led on the story: “Front page news … the town that’s campaigning to save the editor of its local paper.”
Vicky Dixon, of Whitby Seafish, told the BBC: “For people to show how much loyalty and trust they have in an editor speaks volumes at how [they] are angry and they want him to be the editor.”
And Ian Robson, co-owner of the Magpie Cafe, said: “I’ve withdrawn our weekly recipe and I’m not going to submit it again until we get clarification on the situation with a Whitby-based editor.”
Mike Morgan, who spent nine years reporting for the Whitby Gazette in his youth and still lives in the picturesque seaport, explained locals’ fury to me.
“The Gazette building is an iconic part of the town,” said Mike, “and the paper is renowned for publishing not only local stories but also reports about and contributions from visitors.
“In the 1980s, I discovered that Lewis Carroll’s first ever published works were two poems in the Whitby Gazette – Coronach and the Lady of the Ladle – verified by the Lewis Carroll Society.
“For centuries, there’s been fierce enmity between Whitby and Scarborough, originally fishing and shipping rivalries, now focused against Scarborough council which local folk feel is always ‘doing Whitby down’.”
Mike, now working for the Evening Gazette in Teesside, added: “To sell this historic building, plus the loss of hard-working, successful staff, is a kick in the teeth for locals. They’re convinced that Scarborough and its editor taking over their treasured Gazette means they’re being diddled out of their own newspaper.”
With the “consultation period” running until the end of March, Johnston Press has made no comment on the controversy.
Meanwhile, Stokoe is on “gardening leave” and cannot speak on the issue, although on 7 March he tweeted: “So many calls, texts and messages. Thank you each and every one of you, I am completely overwhelmed and humbled.”
Unlike his previous tweet, this one has gone unanswered by @ashleyhi.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010