THE phone call early on the morning of Sunday, August 31, 1997, came as a bolt out of the blue.

It was from Peter Barron, then deputy editor of The Northern Echo. “Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed have been killed in a car crash,” he said.

Like millions of others around the world, I imagine, it took a while for the words to sink in. “Dead? Are you sure? How do you know?” I probably asked.

Of course, it was true and our instincts told us we had to drop any plans we might have had for a summer Sunday and head into the Echo office as soon as possible to start telling the story to our readers.

It was to become one of the biggest events and stories of my career in journalism and, short of two world wars, probably one of the most notable events in the illustrious history of the acclaimed newspaper I had the privilege to edit.

I joined The Northern Echo as editor in January 1997 but had not yet relocated my family to the North-East from Bolton, where I had previously been editor of the Bolton Evening News.

In the few minutes of the phone call with Pete, we agreed that the Echo needed to publish a separate supplement the following morning recording all the details of Diana’s death, her life, her family, her connections with the North-East, her visits to the region, her impact on communities and so on...

We would need to book extra press time to print the paper, beef up our distribution and delivery – all manner of things.

One aspect we didn’t need to discuss was how we might muster the editorial team we needed to produce such a supplement. As is the case with doctors, nurses and emergency support crews and services at times of major disaster, journalists don’t need to be told to report for duty when the biggest stories need to be told.

By the time I had travelled the hundred miles or so from Lancashire to Darlington on eerily quiet roads early that warm summer morning, the Echo newsroom was a hive of activity, with more staff than one would expect to find on a normal midweek shift tasked with individual work that would assemble into a Monday morning newspaper that would compare favourably with any other on the newsstands that day.

When big stories such as Diana’s death break – 9/11, Lockerbie and other terrorist atrocities, the Iraq War, the Dunblane school massacre, the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise to name but a few – newsrooms become calm, thoughtful and studious places where reporters, feature writers, photographers and page editors work methodically to do the job for which their talents and skills have prepared them. They are not the frantic places of panic often depicted in the movies.

And The Northern Echo had experienced, professional people in abundance. The abiding memories of my all-too-brief time as the paper’s editor are of the workrate and creativity of the 50-plus editorial staff, ably assisted by highly competent and committed teams in advertising, newspaper sales, promotions and production.

But the people who produced the Echo were only part of the incredible story that has now seen it prosper as “the great daily of the north” for 150 years. The other part of the team comprises readers, advertisers and communities in our diverse heartland encompassing Durham City, the county’s former coal mining towns and villages, the rural Durham and Yorkshire Dales and the fairly affluent market towns of North Yorkshire.

The Northern Echo has always served a diverse readership, requiring deft presentation of content that reflects the many contrasting demographics, lifestyles, priorities and interests of its readers, a task it has accomplished deftly for a century and a half.

In the days that followed Diana’s death, The Northern Echo launched an appeal to raise funds to complete the building of the Butterwick Children’s Hospice in her memory. The proposed children’s extension was stalled a few courses of brickwork above the foundations and money had run out.

Within days, the community of Echo readers, advertisers and supporting charitable organisations raised more than £700,000, guaranteeing not only the completion of building work but also to provide funding for its round-the-clock staffing of clinicians, nurses and ancillary teams for several years to come. Such was the power of the Echo and its supporters.

The greatest honour of my career and, I believe, for the newspaper came in the week following Diana’s death when I was invited, as editor, to attend the Princess’s funeral at Westminster Abbey the following Saturday as “representative of the people of the North-East”.

It was humbling to be asked to represent the region of my birth and upbringing at such an occasion but also the invitation confirmed the esteem in which the office of the editor of The Northern Echo was held within the highest echelons of the land.

While I was fortunate, only eight months into the job, to be the person to whom it fell to represent the paper and the people of the region, the respect of the office of editor had been nourished and secured in the 130 preceding years by a string of pioneering, campaigning and inspirational journalists. It was they, some of whom still work for and contribute to the paper today, to whom the recognition really belonged.

Another major story covered by the paper during my time as editor was the 1997 General Election, which saw Tony Blair, MP for Sedgefield, elected Prime Minister, taking the Labour Party into government for the first time in 18 years with a landslide House of Commons majority of 149 seats.

In the run up to the election and afterwards, Mr Blair and his Cabinet comprising a clutch of Northern MPs always found time to speak to and be interviewed by the Echo. It was an important newspaper, not only in their constituencies and regionally, but nationally. Many is the time a leading politician or businessperson remarked to me that it was very helpful to be able to buy The Northern Echo, every day, at WH Smith at King’s Cross.

Looking back, my two years as editor of the Echo were all too brief. In 1999, I was approached to become editor-in-chief and a director of the North-East-based newspaper company with which I began my career, a tempting opportunity.

But without diminishing in any way the quality local evening and weekly papers over which I presided in subsequent years and the talented people with whom I worked, the pinnacle of my career as a journalist was to be editor of The Northern Echo.

It was indeed a privilege to be the editorial custodian of the paper, and for my portrait to adorn the wall of the editor’s office alongside predecessors who number some of the most celebrated journalists the UK has produced.

Equally, it is a pleasure to be given this opportunity to reflect upon my time in service to the Northern Echo and to wish the paper a distinguished and very happy 150th birthday.