Another nail in the coffin for local journalism in south-east London has arrived this week, with the merger of the Greenwich and Lewisham editions of the News Shopper. In truth, it’s not a huge cutback – papers meant for Sydenham to Abbey Wood largely had the same content anyway. And the paper’s distribution is patchy at best.
But the two papers usually had their own front pages, giving publicity to local campaigns that may not resonate in the neighbouring borough. You may not get a printed Shopper through the letterbox any more, but those front pages can still make waves where it matters. Now the papers will share a front page – bad news for campaigns such as those trying to stop Greenwich schools becoming academies or steep cutbacks to Lewisham’s libraries.
This probably means even more crime stories, because everyone (in theory) identifies with those, even though they’re a hugely depressing turn-off if they appear every week.
Until the 1980s, it was common for south London’s local papers to span borough boundaries. The Mercury used to cover Greenwich, Lewisham and the southern part of Southwark (the old Camberwell borough) in one paper. The Kentish Independent covered Greenwich and Bexley before it closed in 1984. The Kentish Times did the same for Bexley and Bromley. The South London Press still stretches from Wandsworth to Lewisham. But back then, the papers were fully-staffed, well-resourced and based in their patches. People even used to go into newsagents to buy them – imagine!
That old economic model has been smashed – partly by shareholder greed, partly by modern technology. Newsrooms have been emptied and moved out of the area – the Shopper comes from Sutton, the Mercury from the SLP’s base in Streatham. Talented young journalists on poor salaries (and priced out of the area) are being made to run ever faster just to keep up to produce stories for papers that are rarely seen or websites that are becoming increasingly unusable.
If this kind of thing interests you, it’s worth reading the thoughts of Gareth Davies, an investigate reporter who recently left the once-proud Croydon Advertiser. Worth also looking at Inside Croydon, the upstart blog which regularly pulls the “Sadvertiser”‘s pants down and is everything I wish 853 was.
This is the point where I should come in and cackle. Look at him with his so-called “blog”! But I can’t. I take great pride in much of what this website and the Charlton Champion has covered over the years. I’ve even given talks about it to fellow journalists. It’s good to be able to tell people about things you think they’ll be interested in.
But lone wolf blogs like this – and maybe even Inside Croydon – burn out eventually. Even the ones that take the line that everything is brilliant fade away because you can only tell that story once.
Most readers of this website will be aware that the content’s dried up a bit lately. That’s partly because I’m still dealing with complications from breaking my ankle five months ago that make it difficult to get around, and I haven’t had much time to catch up with stories like the Thames Path being closed again.
There’s no incentive for me to get out and do this in my own time – in fact, the reverse is true, particularly when my priorities in life are recovering from my injury and seeking some kind of paid employment. Six months ago, I was screamed at in a pub by a Greenwich Labour figure after I suggested he was in a better position to deal with the problems in his party’s council than I was. What’s the point in carrying on if that happens when you’ve gone out for a quiet drink?
So if the local newspaper model is bust, and lone wolf blogs burn out, where next? Greenwich Council had an opportunity to create a community paper out of Greenwich Time, but blew it by turning it into a propaganda sheet. (Incidentally, it is now planning to try again as a fortnightly, which could land it in more legal disputes.)
There’s the co-op model – the amazing Bristol Cable has over 1,200 members and has made an enormous impact with the kind of investigative journalism that has simply gone out of fashion in local papers. But this takes time and money – are enough people interested?
Or perhaps there’s room to try again with the local printed press – the monthly Greenwich Visitor and SE Nine show there’s still life away from the asset-stripping media giants. But who’s willing to take the financial risk?
The answer, ultimately, lies with you. As Guardian staffers are finding out, news doesn’t grow on trees. Would you be willing to support a local news co-op, or investing in a new paper (even only at the level of buying one each week)? I’d be very interested in your thoughts.