“Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.” —Cyril Connolly
When Keith Perch took over the editorship of the Cardiff based South Wales Echo in 1993 the paper did not know what was about to hit it. Almost immediately on arrival he fired 40 people and replaced them. He says: “The trouble with the profession is you spend a third of the time trying to find good people.”
The then 37-year-old went on to spent quarter of a million pounds on new technology placing the Echo at the forefront of newspaper publishing with full electronic page makeup and saving £1 million a year in production costs. From the time printing starts, an issue could now be on the streets in under half an hour.
In the first six months Perch turned the broadsheet with falling sales into a tabloid with increasing sales and rather than reducing quality he improved it. He knows the key to success and it earned him a free reign in a company which was supposed to frequently interfere in editorial decisions. But as he explains he was their “experiment” and he appeared to be leading the way for the entire Thomson group.
Perch was born in Epsom in 1957. His father was in the Royal Air Force and his mother did secretarial work. He has a sister and three brothers who are not journalists. After gaining a degree in philosophy and classics he got started in reporting in 1978 by writing a ten page letter to the editor of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. After a two day interview he was accepted.
His career has involved Perch in most of the positions on a daily newspaper. It took him from Grimsby to the Derby Evening Telegraph and then on to the Birmingham Post Mail where he was made head of special investigations. He was expected to produce three stories a year. “It was a ludicrous job,” he says, “I got so bored waiting for the phone to ring that I had to do more.” After six months he returned to Derby to become news editor and after 18 months he was assistant editor of Hull’s Daily Mail.
Perch left the Mail to set up Select, a free, locally published magazine packed with posh, expensive advertising aimed at the middle class market. Three editions still ran in 1994. He used the profits to set up a newspaper but it was a flop.
After selling the Hull, Harrogate and Scarborough editions Perch returned to Derby to become deputy editor for a year. He then spent six months as editor at UK News, the main rival of the Press Association. On the day of his Norman Lamont resignation scoop he received a phone call offering him editorship of the Echo.
Perch says he was well paid, “more than most, certainly not what I’m worth. But I’ve got no gripes.” He drove his company Granada to work from his flat in Cardiff. His wife Jenny and children; Katie, then 7, and Amy, then 5, were still living in Derby. Working 70 hours or more a week and only saw his family on Sundays.
Perch’s favourite films are thrillers and he says he “doesn’t really like music” preferring instead to listen to audio books. But he’d rather be playing soccer. A self-confessed football fanatic, Perch has placed the game before his job and even skipped managerial meetings to watch the match. He is an avid Chelsea fan. Before Perch became editor of the Echo he used to play football at a senior level but subsequently only had time to play in the Sunday leagues in Derby and Thursdays in Cardiff. However he still found time to go on tour with his side to France in November 1993.
In August 1994 he launched the Newport and Cwmbran edition of the Echo. With the Cardiff based Echo’s sales hitting 100,000 copies a day and averaging 84,000 Perch decided that nearby Newport needed an alternative to the South Wales Argus. With declining sales of 38,000 daily less than a third of its market is buying it. By contrast the Echo was on the up, selling 15,000 more copies a day than the Western Mail, Wales’s national daily.
Perch puts his success down to his personal news philosophy. “The problem with newspapers is they’re all doom and gloom,” he says, “If there’s bad news we’ll cover it and we’re ten times as good at it.” However it is not the mainstay of his paper. On the last day of the Jamie Bulger trial the Echo ran the story front page along with everyone else but followed it with a feature on “Super Kids”, children who make the tea for old ladies because he wanted to show that most children are not murderers.
“All the newspapers do nothing but rape and violent crime,” says Perch, “People think ‘they’re not writing about the place I live in’.” He adds, “The difference is we reflect the community.” To improve local coverage he introduced the Saturday supplement Celebrations which featured local events. The Echo reintroduced silver and golden weddings, full obituaries, births and marriages because he says, “If there’s a wedding in the office people are talking about it for weeks.” Perch thinks the main problem with the other evening papers is “they’ve aped the nationals ‘don’t care’ attitude.”
One of Perch’s favourite headlines at the Echo was “Betrayed” on a front page piece about the closure of the last mine in Wales. It sums up what he’s about – telling the news from a local perspective. One thing that did not appear in Perch’s Echo were features on films and stars. Thomson provided a show business features service which their editors must subscribe to but Perch would not use articles on Tom Hanks and his ilk because it is not local news and not the reason people buy the paper.
In 1997 Perch returned to the Derby Evening Telegraph as editor, where he remained until 2001. He has now spent a decade at the helm of the Leicester Mercury.