Wot no scandal - how newspapers used to be

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No gossip, no celebrities and absoluely no Westminster politics, the Yorkshire Post’s forerunner was a very different kind of paper. Grace Hammond reports.

The news contained within the pages of the very first edition of the Leeds Intelligencer was, how can we put it, old.

There was no alternative. The stories, brought from London on bad roads, had sometimes happened weeks earlier, but to founder Griffith Wright it was unimportant. They were new to his Yorkshire readers and that was all that mattered.

His first front page stories were all from abroad - one from Poland, three from Germany and two from France - and so were many inside. Back then news almost exclusively dominated and those earlier editions of the paper, which would eventually become the Yorkshire Post, were devoid of opinion pieces, editorials and lifestyle features.

As for Yorkshire news there was none, save for a brief wedding announcement. It might seemed like an odd formula, but it worked. Wright was a young man who worked in the printing business, but he sensed there was an opportunity to branch out.

Local news, from the prices at the cloth halls in Kirkgate to decisions passed by the town hall, tended to be communicated face to face in a place still small enough for people to know each other. Besides he had no reporters to send out newsgathering - it was 80 years before on-the -spot reporters came on the scene, so Wright reckoned he had to offer something different if he was going to persuade people to fork out for his paper, which initially came out each Tuesday.

Leeds interest in the machinations of Westminster was limited - it hadn’t had an MP since 1658 and would not get one until 1852 - so by a process of elimination he decided to fill his pages with foreign news.

Not only would it appeal to the educated minority who could afford a newspaper and have the disposable income to buy the goods advertised in it, but crucially in an age when the printed word was regarded with wariness in some quarters, tales of what was going on abroad were unlikely to upset anyone locally.

The fact Wright got an edition published at all was something of a minor miracle. The emerging newspaper industry had not been looked on kindly by the government, which was busy trying to tax them out of existence, but he successfully side-stepped a mire of bureaucracy and early sales showed there was a public appetite for news.

Wright had a clear vision for his newspaper, but he wasn’t afraid to make changes. Initially he had been convinced his readers would prefer good news over the bad or the scandalous, but by the second year he had realised the local courts were a great resource of far racier material.

Take this story from September 23, 1755. “Last Thursday night, as a young fellow and a common prostitute were going into a hayloft one of them tumbled over a body, thought to have been a road worker.” The report went into great detail about the events of that night, far more in fact than some stories of international importance. A snippet from June 10, 1762, for example, read: “War will be declared today at 12 o’clock, in this town against Spain in the usual form.”

Successive generations of the Wrights took over the business and as the city grew the paper faced a rival in the Leeds Mercury, which had initially folded in 1755 before being revived over a decade later.

When Wright’s grandson sold the business in 1818, the dynasty was over and for a while the newspaper’s future looked uncertain. As the Mercury went daily in 1861 and became the flagship paper of the Liberals, the Intelligencer floundered until it was bought by a group of Conservative supporting businessmen.

It was they who renamed it the Yorkshire Post in 1866 and it was they who ensured that the legacy of Griffith Wright lived on.

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