Journalism in SE London is slowly dying: Why you should support the News Shopper strike

News Shopper reporters on strike

Everybody out: News Shopper NUJ members are on strike for two days

Imagine this: the government has decided to close down a vital public service in SE London, moving its remains to Sutton.

Valued workers will be fired, teams will be split up and told to work from home – depriving them of the opportunity to share ideas about providing a better service. An organisation already distant from the clients it depends on will retreat even further into itself, and its service will lose value by the week, growing more and more irrelevant.

There’d be outrage. Even the Labour party might briefly stir itself into complaining. There’d be a big campaign to save it – and the demand that it should be the well-paid heads at the top rolling, rather than the modestly-compensated toilers at the bottom.

Well, it’s happening. Except it’s not the government doing the closing, it’s this bunch of clowns in the video below. And their target is the News Shopper, whose journalists are on strike today and tomorrow.

This is the senior management team at Gannett, led by chief executive Roy Orbison Gracia Matore, performing a children’s song from a children’s film in a video shown to their staff in the US earlier this year.

Gannett’s a highly-profitable media conglomerate best known for owning USA Today. Its UK subsidiary, Newsquest, owns a string of local and regional titles, including the Brighton Argus and the Glasgow-based Herald.

It also owns the News Shopper and the South London Guardian series, which between them cover most of SE and SW London and the northern parts of Kent and Surrey.

Newsquest made £64 million in profit last year, which clearly isn’t enough – so it’s been decided that the Shopper and South London Guardian should effectively combine – they already share an editor – into one team based at the Guardian’s office in Sutton, with many staff either sacked or told to work from home. The current Shopper HQ in Petts Wood would close.

Petts Wood is distant enough as it is, but that’s always been the Shopper’s weak spot. Launched in Orpington 50 years ago as London’s first free newspaper, it’s always been a slightly eccentric title. A 1976 front page lectured readers on how hard work was vital to secure the nation’s future.

It expanded into Lewisham and Greenwich in 1988, but looked out of place for many years – a suburban news agenda doesn’t quite get the nuances of the city. Hardened readers of this website will remember when it gave a pen as a prize to a homophobic letter writer, and dished out inaccurate reporting of the 2011 riots (the latter a symptom of the cutbacks in the local press).

News Shopper strikers at The Valley

Greg Stubley, a freelancer working at Charlton Athletic, joins Shopper staffer Paul Green (right) at The Valley

But in recent years, it’s sharpened up its act in these parts – thanks in no small part to the work of beat reporter and deputy news editor Mark Chandler. Recent stories include revealing a councillors’ jolly to Spain and tracking the continued downfall of former council leader Chris Roberts’ allies – the Shopper played a big part in bringing Roberts’ bullying to a wider audience.

The website still veers wildly between clickbait and serious issues – and it showed a strange glee when reporting on a man having a crap at a bus stop – but on the whole the printed paper’s led with some strong stories of late. It’s even possible to pick one up these days, as branded dispensers have appeared in some shops.

For a paper that’s produced miles away, it’s doing a decent job on the resources it has. Heaven knows what will happen if more staff are cut and the thing moves to Sutton.

Imagine being a young reporter, stuck on crap money living in a houseshare – probably miles away – trying to work from home, without colleagues to share information and tips with.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have actually got out to report on a story, but you now have to camp out in a library to write it up because you’re miles from home or the office, the deadline’s coming up and the library’s about to close. (Oh, and the story’s about library cuts.)

Or being stuck in Sutton, expected to work on copy about places you know nothing about because you’re expected to now know New Cross as well as New Malden. You’re not going to do your best work, are you?

But still, everything is awesome, isn’t it? If I had a car, I’d drive down to Petts Wood and give the picket line a honk of my horn. Instead, this post will have to do. Good luck to the News Shopper strikers.

mercury_greenwich640

It’s not just the Shopper. Not by a long way. Cuts have been the big story in the local press for years, with reporters stuck in offices rather than getting out and about. By losing a day’s pay to take placards around the Shopper’s enormous editorial area, the paper’s reporters have probably seen more of it than they have done in years.

The loss of the Shopper’s Petts Wood HQ would mean that none of the major news groups would have a presence in south-east London any more. The only weekly newspaper left in the wider area would be the Southwark News, which – guess what? – is independently-owned.

Otherwise, the big news groups have upped sticks and gone – Trinity Mirror moved the Mercury from Deptford to Streatham a decade ago, a decision that current owner Tindle Newspapers has stuck with. Archant moved the Kentish Times from Sidcup to Ilford a few years back.

There are now only three journalists who cover issues in Greenwich borough full-time – none of them cover the patch exclusively anymore. Mark Chandler and Jaimie Micklethwaite juggle Greenwich and Lewisham for the Shopper, while Mandy Little covers Greenwich for the Mercury as well as putting together seven different versions of the paper. (Its sister paper, the South London Press, now just has one staff reporter covering Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth.)

Cuts and clickbait might sum up the Shopper’s difficulties, but the Mercury’s in an even worse state because octogenarian owner Ray Tindle doesn’t believe in the internet. He’s even got a terrible TV ad to extol how great the papers of 1956 were. It pretty much sums up the worldview of a man who set up his newspaper group with his demob money, and hasn’t moved on since.

The Mercury was once the undisputed king of this area’s local papers – a campaigning weekly with reach and clout. It’s where I did my first newspaper work experience in 1991.

But firstly under Trinity Mirror, and latterly under Tindle, it’s shed staff and circulation, and is now locked in a death pact with its one-time rival the South London Press. And because Tindle – a kind of Christina Foyle of the local newspaper industry – doesn’t believe in the internet, it can’t even run a page of kitten photos on its token website to raise any interest.

Two years ago, the journalism trade press lauded Tindle’s decision to split the Greenwich editions of the Mercury and sell them through the news trade. So as well as the (free) Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley Mercury titles, there would now be paid-for 30p editions for Charlton, Blackheath and “Greenwich Town”. The likes of Press Gazette sat on the great man’s knee as he opined on how important paid-for newspapers were.

Straight outta Streatham: The now-defunct Charlton Mercury

Straight outta Streatham: The now-defunct Charlton Mercury

Of course, this was barmy, as Greenwich hasn’t had a paid-for title since the Kentish Independent closed in 1984. Even more barmy was that Tindle was putting no new resources into these titles, so a skeleton staff had to source stories to fill pages in three extra papers, and they’d be padded out with irrelevant coverage of events in Sydenham or Erith, at the far edges of the Mercury’s patch. Nor did he pay for any promotion of these titles.

The other suicidal thing about this strategy is that neighbouring communities in London aren’t discrete – they blend into one another. I don’t often visit my local newsagent in Charlton, but I’m more likely to visit one in Blackheath as I pass it more often. So I’d have to go out of my way to spend 30p on a title for Charlton that perhaps had three dedicated pages of news for my area.

Splitting titles up also means that you have to justify having a Charlton paper by having a Charlton story on its front page. So a major story could happen two miles away in Woolwich, but the Charlton paper would have something inconsequential as its front page splash. That’s madness.

To nobody’s surprise, a couple of months back, the Charlton Mercury closed along with its two paid-for sisters, unnoticed by Tindle’s fans in the trade press. I’d be stunned if more than 100 Charlton Mercurys were sold each week. I’d be surprised if it did even half that sum.

But was Tindle going to concentrate on making the Greenwich Mercury great again? No. Instead, the Mercury was to be sliced up again, without any investment in staff.

Now there are free editions for Greenwich, Lewisham and Bexley boroughs, plus local editions (free this time) for Abbey Wood & Thamesmead, Woolwich, Plumstead and Catford, all coming from the understaffed SLP office in Streatham (which is also putting out a series of local SLPs for areas such as Deptford, Peckham and Brixton, plus Tindle’s new plaything, a series of tatty-looking titles for central and west London, the London Weekly News). The Catford edition is especially puzzling, as most of the news stories (and advertising) are about Greenwich borough.

A pile of Mercurys abandoned in Sainsbury's Local, Charlton Church Lane

A pile of Mercurys abandoned in Sainsbury’s Local, Charlton Church Lane

As for Charlton, Blackheath and “Greenwich Town”, we’ve got a generic Mercury back again, barely delivered through any doors and occasionally found abandoned in piles in supermarkets. I recently tried to buy one in a newsagent only to find there was no cover price or bar code. Me and the newsagent settled on 30p. With miserly promotion like this, the Mercury’s future has to be looking bleak.

It’s not just greedy, stupid newspaper owners killing the local press – in Greenwich, the council is contributing by placing Greenwich Time up against them, undercutting the Mercury and Shopper’s ad rates.

Of course, Newsquest’s cuts make it easier for Greenwich to justify carrying on with its vanity weekly – the government’s legal action against the council on this is set to drag on for some months yet. And sadly for the Shopper strikers, their own union has undermined them by backing council Pravdas. Greenwich Time is an anomaly that affects just a sixth of the News Shopper’s distribution area, but it’s certainly not helping matters.

I don’t know what the solution is – heck, I can’t even get a decent job in the industry myself at the moment – other than to keep buying Euromillions tickets so I can buy the Mercury off Tindle, move it back to SE London and save the bloody thing from its slow death.

But news is important. Here’s the founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, on why it matters to his business.

Having a great news organization has a positive effect on BuzzFeed’s entire culture and makes the whole organization better. Even our team members who work on entertainment content or on the business side are proud to work at a company that is breaking big, important stories. It is inspiring to be part of an organization with reporters doing work that helps shut down ISIS oil smuggling across the Turkish border, exposes sex abuse at an elite private high school, or shines a light on battered women who are wrongly imprisoned. That kind of work pushes all of us to do our very best work and aim high, and we plan to keep pushing.

Or, to put it more parochially, the News Shopper can do all the “you’ll be amazed by these 21 arse-cracks we found in the Wetherspoon in Petts Wood” clickbait pieces it likes – but unless you’re balancing it out with the kind of serious reporting that takes time, effort and risk (exposing wrongdoing, not drunks having a dump at a bus stop), you’ll just end up with a hollow product.

Sadly, Newsquest doesn’t seem to be seeing it this way. Maybe – like some commercially-run hyperlocal websites that concentrate on lifestyle above news – it just thinks someone else will do it. But who?

It’s worth noting that the papers that are doing well are independents such as the Southwark News. The Camden New Journal even put out a special issue the day after the general election. And even our own Greenwich Visitor punches well above its weight for a monthly produced by a tiny team.

Perhaps local communities should be empowered to be able to buy local newspapers (like they can bid to buy threatened pubs and other local assets). Perhaps then community-run papers should be able to get charity status. Would this work here in south-east London? I don’t know. But even asking these questions is a start.

The next time something in your community is threatened, you’ll want some support and publicity. And local papers still carry clout. So give the News Shopper strikers your support. Complain to Newsquest. Tell your MP to do the same. Ask your local Labour councillor if they’ll support union members.

The News Shopper may not be the perfect paper we all want to see. But it – and the Mercury – are the best we’ve got. And we’ll miss them when they’re gone.

7 comments

  1. elthamwatcher

    Daryl: I seemed to have made this coimment before. SEnine magazine provides a full-time news coverage of Eltham, Avery Hill, New Eltham and Moittingham. We’ve broken some decent stories over the years and have a packed edition of news coming out next weekend. That’s the hazard of trying to pretend you cover the whole borough when you don’t know what happens over Shooters Hill. Sure, having started in local papers in 1977, it’s terrible to see the decline in the genre which has helped to promote the odious authoritarianism of the council’s media lackeys.

  2. Chris

    Great piece. Thanks very much. If it weren’t for your blogs and various local activists I would know very little about what goes on in the area I live in.
    Sadly, it is a case of ‘use it or lose it’ and I just don’t see quality local papers on sale — in fact I don’t really see local papers on sale. This is not to denigrate the efforts of those who work at the publications. who do a remarkable job bearing in mind the limitations imposed upon them by management.

  3. Darryl

    “Elthamwatcher” – well done for making it about me! Not sure where you get the idea this website claims to cover the whole borough, perhaps I need to put the tag line “News, views and issues around Greenwich, Charlton, Blackheath and Woolwich, south-east London” in enormous text so it can be read from Eltham.

  4. elthamwatcher

    ‘cos you make comments like ‘there are now only three journalists who cover issues in Greenwich borough full-time’

  5. Peter Cordwell

    I zig-zagged my way to Petts Wood on the 273 yesterday to support the strikers, a predictably nice bunch of people who for some years have been doing the decent job Darryl has described. The Shopper has ventured into campaigning journalism with some skill and no little courage in recent years, largely through chief reporter Mark Chandler’s desktop, and Darryl’s right that it’s this kind of neighbourhood watch reporting that’s most important and would be greatly missed. The Shopper team inevitably included the juniors that Newsquest and most other local newspaper groups choose to use because of the pitiful pay – you couldn’t call it a salary – they get. Sad to see them having to strike so early in their careers, especially as the Newsquest management will inevitably take notes of names involved. Brave, eh?
    I’ll email Heidi Alexander to see if she can get involved but I don’t think politicians, local or national, will see it as much of an issue or get the points well made by Darryl. We all know the country’s in the grip of a dreadful political inertia at the moment and that Tory austerity would only add this issue to its list of sneers. Nevertheless, we never give up and it’s great to think that some vibrant kind of independent rag might suddenly emerge (I’d certainly help voluntarily). I’ve got a multi-millionaire contact/friend (through a friend’s friend) who seems to like my company (treating my wife and I to a nice meal on our first anniversary next month). You know me, I’d be in there like a flash for financial support for a paper. Trouble is, he retains this aversion to the poor dating back to his own childhood. Not easy, all this, is it?

  6. clogsilk

    in terms of full time equivalents there are fewer than 3, since those at the Shopper have to cover Lewisham as well and I think Mandy at the Mercury also covers Bexley? So I make that 1.5 FTE posts covering Greenwich borough as a whole. Pretty atrocious when you think that somewhere like Huddersfield with a far smaller population has a daily paper!

  7. The Hebridean

    We all need the independent voice at national and local level. If we lose it we are left with sheets that are nothing but adverts and council propaganda sheets. Long live the guardians of freedom.

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