My Big Break: Alasdair Northrop, editor, Scottish Business Insider

ALASDAIR Northrop has been editor of Scottish Business Insider since 2000 and is currently celebrating the business magazine’s 30th anniversary.

Prior to moving to Scotland, he was business editor of the Manchester Evening News for seven years and, before that, was business editor of the Western Daily Press in Bristol. His career started as a sub-reporter on the Marlborough Times in 1978.

When did working in the media first start becoming an ambition?

Very early. I was editor of a magazine for a wildlife club at school when I was eleven. At 17, I became editor of the school magazine at the now defunct Leamington College for Boys in Warwickshire and journalism was definitely going to be the career for me.

There were a number of motivations. At school, it was mostly to make people laugh and we had great fun with cartoons and Private Eye-style silly captions alongside photographs of teachers and pupils. I also enjoyed doing interviews and finding out about people and that has always been the biggest kick for me.

I approached my local newspaper for a job and the editor advised me to get a degree first. However, instead of studying I spent too much time on the school mag so did not do well in my A-levels and ended up at Middlesex Polytechnic, studying English and Philosophy. I loved reading the books but my essays were constantly criticised for their ‘journalistic’ style. That wasn’t a compliment!

What was your first ‘media job’?

I worked unpaid for the Leamington Morning News and Courier for a couple of weeks but they had no job on offer so I got one as a trainee reporter with the Marlborough Times in Wiltshire. I had a great time ‘learning the ropes’ in rural councils and courts and driving the company van to take paper copy to the production centre in Cirencester. However, after a few weeks, the Morning News and Courier offered me a job and I was attracted by the idea of working on a daily, so it was back to Leamington.

Describe, briefly, how your career unfolded between your first media job and where you are now.

I rose from cub reporter to reporter-in-charge (effectively editor) of a weekly newspaper, the Warwick Advertiser. Along the way, I learned to sub, so I not only wrote stories but laid out and subbed the pages. It was a brilliant learning ground. I also spent eight weeks at Cardiff on a journalism course and still remember the catch phrase of the law lecturer: “He sued. He won.” It made me absolutely terrified of publishing anything remotely inaccurate.

I finally left Leamington in 1983 to work as a sub-editor at the Southern Evening Echo in Southampton. I met some great people but got bored just subbing and applied for a job as news editor at the North Western Evening Mail in Barrow-in-Furness. I knew Barrow because my dad came from there and I had spent holidays there as a child.

Once again, there was a great team of people but, shortly after I arrived, the paper was sold by Westminster Press to a new owner who decided to shake things up. Within six months, the editor, Tom Welsh – a lovely man and co-editor of Essential Law for Journalists – promoted me to become his deputy and then he was replaced by the chief sub-editor. A year later, he was replaced by Keith Sutton who had been editor of the short-lived News on Sunday. He was a brilliant editor and we transformed the paper into a lively, modern, fun and sometimes controversial product.

After four years, I moved down to the Western Daily Press in Bristol and joined the News Desk. The editor, Ian Beales, wanted to expand the paper’s business and personal finance coverage and asked me to take on the task. We launched weekly business and personal business supplements on pink paper following the example of the Evening Standard in London and it proved to be a big success.

When the job of business editor of the Manchester Evening News was advertised I decided to apply and got it. The MEN had just launched a daily pink paper business pullout so it was a perfect platform to develop. I launched features like the Top 100 companies and other listings and helped to pull in new advertising. One of my highlights was winning the national Business Journalist of the Year title in the BT Regional Press and Broadcast awards in 1996.

My late mother was Scottish and I have always been proud of my Scottish roots and loved to visit the country, so when the job of editor at Scottish Business Insider came up in 2000 I applied and here I am, still nearly 14 years later. During that time, we have adapted to a fast-changing world and the magazine had evolved.

We have a very small team of people who work hard and put together a product I am very proud of. I have had the privilege of interviewing many of the biggest names in business as well as those who work quietly ‘below the radar’. We provide information which we hope is useful and I like to think we play a role in helping businesses to improve and learn. Our events side has grown hugely over the years and gives us the opportunity to meet many of our readers in the flesh. You just can’t beat that.

This year we celebrate our 30th anniversary and, in a highly competitive world, that is no mean feat.

Any particularly big breaks along the way?

Quite a few. The first was getting a job on the Courier and Morning News which was a great learning ground. The second was being promoted to deputy editor of a daily evening when I was just 28. It was a huge learning curve but it gave me the opportunity to be innovative and making my mark.

But probably the biggest break was moving from news to business journalism at the Western Daily Press, which was, in many ways, in its infancy and offered many exciting opportunities for innovation. Landing a job on the MEN was also a big break and gave me even more scope to develop ideas and work on an iconic title. My final big break was getting my current job. What I particularly love about it is that we set our own agenda and don’t reply on a stream of press releases for our content.

Who would you like to thank more than most?

That’s a hard one because there have been so many. My early mentors Robin Clarke, Nigel Batley and Helen Penrice; Ian Beales for pushing me into business journalism, Tom Welsh, Keith Sutton Mike Unger, Paul Horrocks and Chris Baur (who, together with Denise West, recruited me for Insider) for their wise advice and encouragement.

What do you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

When I started out in journalism I didn’t appreciate the importance of the advertising sales people who enable me to do what I do. It is fine to be high principled and not sell out but I suspect some journalists do not appreciate the hard work that their colleagues do and could do more to help them.

However, that does not mean ‘selling your soul’ and we need to make society appreciate the importance of having independent-thinking and objective journalists.