Editing a website of clucking columnists is like herding hens. . .

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WHEN I opened the front door the White Van Man on my doorstep was stabbing furiously at the scratched and worn screen of what might once have been a functioning digital appliance with what looked like a plastic knitting needle.

“Need you to sign for it,” he said, nodding in the direction of a parcel emblazoned with ‘Lakeland’ front and back which I felt sure would contain the chromed Toilet Roll Tower With Space For Spares which Mrs B had ordered for our new wet room. “But it’s not lighting up.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, dispossessing him of the grubby little machine and scrawling something indecipherable across its screen. “I only ever scribble ‘fixed’ or ‘fucked’ on these things, depending on the mood I’m in. “Never had any comeback.”

He winked encouragingly and gave me a broad smile, delighted perhaps that I shared his digital disdain but more probably at my vulgar use of White Van Man language.

“You’d never have said anything like that in your old newspaper column,” he said. “What happened to that column, by the way? I used to read it every week.”

Which started me thinking: a whole new generation of readers, encouragingly, is now finding my work on the web instead of where it once appeared, usually on Page 11 of the Newcastle Journal. All of the other weekly writers appear there, too: Keith Hann, Bernard Trafford and (occasionally) Tom Gutteridge and Kate Fox and a host of new writers happy to call themselves, collectively, Voice of the North (VotN).

It also reminded me that many people still don’t know why we did it. Simple, really:the Journal’s owners, Trinity Mirror, were so out of pocket a year or so back that they were reduced to paying their London-based chief executive a miserly £1.8M p.a. and their north east- based columnists . . . nothing! Nada. Nowt.

So we quit and, encouraged by our columnist colleague and TV agony aunt Denise Robertson, set up this website “to speak up for the north”, thereby contradicting an increasingly-held belief that the UK begins and ends in London.

D-RobertsonDenise (left) achieved her wish to see the website launched, wrote some memorable and well-read columns for us but sadly passed away within weeks of start-up. She would have been proud at what we’ve since become, as readership climbs daily and new writers join our band.

‘Northern’ doesn’t mean we’re blinkered by our base, however: we have writers in Africa, North America and the Antipodes as well as homeland columnists across the UK and it falls to me, a former editor of major newspapers in London, Sydney and New York, to perform my most difficult editing role to date. Editing www.voiceofthenorth.net is like herding hens across a hayfield.

For a start, our columnists are always busy with adjacent careers: Bernard Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School headmaster; Tom the independent TV producer (who writes from Hollywood, making things even more difficult); Keith the world’s driest, wryest and wittiest PR consultant; Kate the poet/stand-up artist combining writing for a radio show with studying Nietzsche for her PhD; Peter the playwright who runs Iron Press; Carol the Kiwi teacher, currently packing up her NZ home to head back and care for her parents on Tyneside. And there are many more in the pipeline, believe me.

So how is editing VotN akin to herding hens or counting frogs in a box? Try this for starters. .

Our daily readership (‘click count’ is how the techies describe you all) is growing fast, so are the responses to our published articles. When it comes to writers’ contributions, however, it’s either drought or deluge.

This week it’s drought. So, given I don’t have any economic sanction on my unpaid providers (you think we do this for money?), I email a round robin plea:

“Do any of you regulars have a really meaty, headline-able column ready to go? Last two days have set new records and both of the last two columns were written by VoTN newcomers. Let’s maintain the momentum!”

This is where it develops into a purely farcical exchange of excuses which are faintly reminiscent of the faked ‘parent’ notes we sent to teachers at opne time or another.

B. TRAFFORD: Sorry! Working for a living! – Bernard

P. MORTIMER: Sorry, been busy. Will have a crack . . .

K. HANN: Nothing prepared. Too busy trying to earn a living. Also not feeling particularly well.

ME: Get well soon. How about ‘Am I Dying from Overwork or Am I Just Depressed?’

K. HANN (missing my point entirely): Well I can’t speak for you but I am hellishly busy and also suffering from chronic indigestion and insomnia. The latter is often associated with depression. But not, so far as I know, the former. Looking forward to getting up to Godzone for a half term break at the weekend.

P. MORTIMER (also missing my point): Maybe both. But hey – it’s just life! – Pete

ME (to all): Actually, my exasperated-sounding “Am I dying from overwork or am I just depressed?” was intended as a headline suggestion to provoke a Keith Hann column but, as both he and Peter Mortimer kindly wrote to reassure me, it obviously fell wide of the mark! Pull yourselves together and send me copy!

At this point I lose all patience with Year 10 Boys and turn my attention to indignant responses from VotN’s harem of women writers. . .

C.TYNE JOHNSTON (from NZ): Oh dear, got your email in the midst of my packing, renovating the house, landscaping the garden, selling off my belongings, working full-time and fighting an infestation of fleas that my darling pooch refuses to give up (no matter how much apple cider vinegar I spray on her!) Oh, and I cultivated my own virus, too, which knocked me for six for a few days. I DID however think through my next piece of writing. It’s brewing right now. – Carol

J. KAINES (a ‘virgin writer’ who has not yet graced the website): I’m not ignoring anyone. Just a bit bogged down. I apologise for having written absolutely nothing. I, too, am brewing – JackieKate Fox

K.FOX: Once I’m writing less about Nietzsche (PhD) or foamy banana shower gel (comedy show) I’ll get on board (occasionally). Best to all fellow Northern Voices – Kate (right)

No sweet relief there, then. Getting desperate. I email a headline tease to Tom. . .

ME: ‘Why the Whole World Should Move to California!’ (with pictures, please)

No reply. I try a similar trick with Bernard.

ME: ‘ “There’s a bomb in your school!” The words a headmaster fears more than a visit from Ofcom’

B. TRAFFORD (stonily): Will seek inspiration. Nothing so far.

Bernard has plainly not seen the funny side of my jape. He takes headmastering very seriously. He is not amused. Only one thing for it: I’ll try one of the ‘new boys’. Neil Fowler is a good friend, ex-editor of newspapers simply everywhere and a former head of the Society of Editors. I email my plea, confident that he, above all, will understand.

N. FOWLER (after three days delay): Apologies for tardiness in responding. I am keen to start writing but don’t want to do so until we have found a home to purchase in Northumberland, which is proving more of a struggle than we first anticipated. I have some ideas –but please let me arrive in Godzone first!

I have struck out. I thumb dispiritedly through my contacts book in search of a glimmer of hope. And yes, there IS one: Julian Cole, another of the digital newspaper revolution’s merry band of redundant writers, is a former Features Editor at The Press in York and writes great stuff in his blog Man On Ledge.

But I just can’t bring myself to email yet another begging letter. I persuade myself that Julian won’t be able to do it: his cat will be pregnant, a close relative might be at death’s door or he’ll have sprained his typing finger.

Nothing for it but to write my own . . . maybe there’s a column in this tale of woe? So here goes:

WHEN I opened the front door the White Van Man on my doorstep . . .

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