Comet at 50: 'I savoured every day of it'

Former Comet editor John Francis

Former Comet editor John Francis - Credit: Supplied

Former Comet editor John Francis, who edited the paper from 2014 to 2016, tells the story of his career during changing times for print journalism.

It was 40 years ago that I first encountered the Comet, and it was hate at first sight.

I’d arrived in Hitchin as the fresh-faced chief reporter of the Gazette, the long-established broadsheet title of record based in Exchange Yard off Market Place.

Reporters still pounded typewriters, photographers spent hours closeted in darkrooms. Mobile phones, digital cameras, social media and websites were years away, and we thought we were the bee’s knees.

The grand Gazette and its cheeky free stablemate the Express – hands up who remembers Notice Board? – won industry gongs galore but we didn’t have it all our own way.

John and his wife Camilla appeared in the Comet in 1999

John and his wife Camilla appeared in the Comet in 1999 - Credit: John Francis


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There was still an evening paper circulating in the area, based in Luton, but of more pressing concern was the crew based in a scruffy office at the unfashionable end of Bancroft – we looked down our nose at the Comet, but there was no denying that it had a certain staying power.

As the Gazette’s final deadline loomed each week, a reporter would slip away to a secret address where a Comet delivery supervisor made an early copy of the paper available so we could check what they’d come up with and whether a late front page switch was required.

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Every now and then the rival teams might meet up for a beer or two, but most of the time it was daggers drawn and a determination to be top dog that worked to the benefit of the readers and the communities we all aimed to serve.

After a handful of years as chief reporter and then news editor of the Gazette series, I was away, climbing the ladder as deputy editor, editor and finally group editor of neighbouring newspaper companies which were never far enough away to force a move away from my Hitchin home. 

The Comet wasn’t going anywhere, either, so for the next 30 years or so I was a reader and sometime contributor – but only once the Gazette had been gobbled up by the Comet in a bit of hard-nosed horse trading as publishing companies went west and their titles were split between neighbouring rivals.

The Express was consigned to the scrapheap, to join a free Sunday title we’d been running and that long-dead evening paper, but the lucrative North Herts market always proved tempting.

But look at the tombstones – the Herald, the Advertiser, the Mercury, another free Sunday paper all came and went over the years but the Comet, by then cheekily based in the Gazette’s Market Place offices, just kept on keeping on.

Come 2014, and with my mighty empire was crumbling along with huge swathes of the hard-pressed regional press industry, terms were agreed and I strode off into the sunset wondering what might come next – only for Darren Isted to decide to strike out on his own and leave the Comet editor’s chair invitingly empty. Thanks, Darren.

My pitch was simple – more news, more people, more personality. I’d pour all my years of experience and enthusiasm into creating three distinct papers for the core towns of Stevenage, Hitchin and Letchworth packed with local news and views.

Despite my advanced years, they gave me the job and for two years I gave it my all, leading a team putting their hearts into a real labour of love. It was a glorious Indian summer and I savoured every day of it.

I’d be there still, if things had stayed the same – but they never do. I didn’t like fresh changes looming on the horizon, so I made a dignified retreat to make way for the next generation.

Times are tough for local news providers and they don’t look like getting any easier, which is a great shame. A strong regional press is important for all sorts of reasons, but many of those reasons don’t become apparent until a paper is forced to call it a day.

Use it or lose it, people – the Comet has already shown it’s a survivor, but it can only carry on for as long as you want it to.

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