Some thoughts on local news
I was flattered the other day to see that Brockley Central had praised this blog as being one of the best providers of local news – which was rather nice as I was having one of those head-up-bum periods where I spent far too much time wondering “what’s the blog for?”, “what am I hoping to achieve?” and “does this just look a bit stupid in the end?”
It followed a call from the editor of the Guardian for public money to be given to the Press Association – the UK’s biggest news agency, which is owned by most of the major newspaper publishers – to fund a revival in local reporting. The first comment someone left at the bottom of the story suggested sites like Brockley Central could be part of the future.
And on Monday came a rare, but welcome thing – an Andrew Gilligan piece I agreed with, rightly tearing into council-run newspapers like Greenwich Time, which he claims costs council taxpayers here half a million pounds a year. How many street sweepers could they employ for that?
Sure, it doesn’t mention how the owners of local papers such as the Mercury have allowed GT to park its tanks on their lawn by cutting their papers back. The Mercury’s past owner, PA shareholder Trinity Mirror, hobbled it some years back by moving the paper from Deptford High Street to the South London Press’s offices in Streatham while its rival, the News Shopper, is based in its Orpington heartland. And naturally, Gilligan’s piece doesn’t mention the Standard’s general ignorance of all matters south-east (which will no doubt become a deafening silence when Gilligan moves to the Telegraph). As Nick says on Brockley Central, there’s clear evidence of market failure – local papers are no longer a product of their community, they’re either owned by big combines and based far away, or run by local councils to dictate to that community. So there’s a gap which needs to be filled.
I think the call for PA to get public funds to cover council meetings and courts is interesting… but I can’t help feeling that it’s another call from the same old busted flushes to get cash to reverse the things they’ve screwed up in the first place. The old Mercury worked brilliantly because it was based in in the communities it covered (Lewisham and Greenwich boroughs – Deptford High Street traditionally was slap-bang on the boundary, and isn’t far off it now), the reporters were local faces, and it had a feel for local issues. It even triumphantly launched a Bexley edition in the 1980s, as its old readers moved out to the suburbs.
Sadly, the people who ran the Mercury in its pomp are now behind Greenwich Time – and probably getting a much better salary for it too, while the paper they used to work for is based miles away, has little nous for local issues, is poorly-distributed, has a ropey website and looks like it’s run on a shoestring. And it has a Bexley edition which now covers absolutely no news in that borough whatsoever. The legacy Trinity Mirror left south-east London is a reason why we should be sceptical of any claim from it for public funds.
And on an issue like Charlton Lido – would a PA reporter from outside be able to pick up that story from a council meeting? Local issues take time to learn and understand. I once spent a day working with a team of journalists at Westminster, and was assigned to cover a select committee about immigration, only to find the story I produced turned on its head by an editor who had the experience to spot a running story I’d not really been aware of. You could stick me in, I don’t know, Wandsworth, but I could only ever scratch the surface of what’s going on over there.
Most local blogs are produced by people with no journalistic training (even if they’re quite media-savvy) and no legal support but end up producing products which are appreciated more by their readers than those made by big firms with hacks who have flogged their guts out to get NCTJ training and the like. It’s a sad indictment on those big firms, the ones who are now crying out for cash. Unfortunately, it’s no good for the local journalists, stuck in the middle, trying to do their jobs on crap salaries, seeing their work undermined by their own bosses and by publicly-funded rivals like Greenwich Time.
So where does this site fit into all this? Well… on its own, it can only play the tiniest of roles. There’s only me, I’m pretty partisan and I can only tell things the way I can see it, by highlighting things that are good/bad/interesting, making a bit of mischief here and there, trying to stick to things nobody else has done, and hoping you pick up the thread and leave interesting comments, because that’s where these things take off. As for journalism as most local hacks would recognise it, there’s been very little of that – blogs tend to offer simple, straightforward opinions while real local journalism involves putting in calls, bothering people and pounding the streets. And unlike Brockley Central, there’s precious little community in Charlton anyway, so the focus is a bit wider and there’s a bit more of a scattergun approach.
In a blog format, just being part of the discussion is more satisfying, I find; although the more I criticise local papers (although to be frank, I’ve not had a regular delivery of either title for many years) and the more frustrated I get with the smothering all-is-good embrace of Greenwich Time (which has vanished from my doormat again), the more I wonder if I should be doing more proper local reporting. And if someone tells me something, I’m more than happy to check it out. But for now, I’m happy to be part of a discussion. That’s all it is at the moment.
But beyond that? If you look at 853, Greenwich Phantom, Plumsteadshire, and Brockley Central regularly, then you probably pick up some idea of what’s going on in this patch of London without having to pick up a local paper (or wonder why it’s not being delivered). I’m sure you don’t get all your news on TV from just one source, and the same works on the web. I think a great part of the future will involve networks of local blogs, co-operating and promoting each other, maybe taking different viewpoints but all with the well-being of their local area in mind. To an extent, this happens anyway – Adam at Tory Troll did some digging around after I made a cheap joke at the expense of Greenwich Labour party and got a proper story out of it.
But what if trained journalists were around to mentor and support those behind local websites? As Nick mentions, how about offering small subsidies to encourage local creative businesses, an idea floated by journalist Martin Bright, which could help encourage local bloggers and others to get involved with their communities?
Like with the Digital Britain report, the thinking still seems to be about trying to save crumbling media combines that long ago neglected their local communities. (Weirdly, on a national level only yesterday the BBC agreed to allow the likes of the Mail and Telegraph – two papers whose editorial lines are vehemently anti-BBC – use its news video for free on their website, presumably so the Mail can concentrate on filling Mail Online with more tits and arse while the BBC does the hard work on its behalf. Yet the Mail owns 20% of an organisation that’s already in place to do this – ITN. But why pay its sister firm some money when the BBC can provide it for free?)
Sooner or later, enough local people will despair of ropey local freesheets edited miles away and crap council propaganda rags, and being patronised and ignored by London-wide media, and will want to club together to get their own networks going. Giving them practical help to do this would be far more valuable to than bailing out businesses which have already failed in their tasks. It’d give local journalism back to local communities, empower people, and ultimately help democracy. After all, what could big media firms and politicians be scared of?