Greenwich borough is all set to get a new weekly newspaper after Greenwich Council agreed to sign an advertising deal with the publisher of the weekly Southwark News.
Councils must, by law, publish certain public notices – such as for planning and highways matters – in at least one local newspaper.
Until 2016, Greenwich had used this as a pretext for publishing its own weekly paper, Greenwich Time. It closed last summer after an out-of-court settlement following a government crackdown on “council Pravdas”.
Since then, Greenwich has been publishing some of its notices in the Penge-based Mercury newspaper, a free offshoot of the South London Press series; while placing its vanity stuff… sorry, vital public information in a dull fortnightly called Greenwich Info.
But now Greenwich, after a lengthy tender process, has opted to take its ad money to a new entrant to the area, Southwark Newspaper Ltd. The contract could be worth up to £1.2m over three years. (For its part, the council claims the equivalent cost of Greenwich Time would only be £738,000, but this doesn’t take into account the cost of in-house advertising, while local organisations were strongly encouraged to place ads in GT rather than other publications.)
The firm is best known for Southwark News, the only independent paid-for newspaper in the capital, which contains Southwark Council’s public notices. It’s a very good paper and has an excellent reputation. There’s also a free spin-off, Southwark Weekender, which focuses on events in the borough.
It also publishes Lambeth Weekender, which features Lambeth Council’s notices as well as a rotating opinion column between the three parties represented at the town hall – Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens.
Greenwich’s choice to give the contract to Southwark Newspaper Ltd was ratified by a scrutiny panel last week after the borough’s Conservatives “called in” the decision. (I asked the Tories why, but they never got back to me. You’ll have to ask them yourself.)
Is the Greenwich Weekender coming?
Whether this means we’re in line for Greenwich Weekender isn’t clear. Hopefully, the council will keep its mitts off. Whether it has “Royal” in the title might be a clue. Greenwich wants its ads “published… in the context of engaging local editorial content which helps to positively inform local residents about the measures that their neighbours and local service providers are undertaking to make the borough a great place to live, work, learn and visit”. No moaning about dirty streets or pollution or Plumstead High Street falling to bits, y’hear? LOOK AT THE TALL SHIPS!
In practice, sticking council ads in a pan-south London “what’s on”-style publication with a couple of pages of council editorial will tick that box nicely. This is pretty much how Lambeth Weekender started.
Since the council’s latest Big Idea is creating a “cultural quarter” in Berkeley Homes’s Royal Arsenal development in Woolwich, this could actually work well for all sides. We get an interesting local weekly, the council gets its ads and some puff pieces, a south London business gets money and can employ more people.
Don’t expect to get a copy through your letterbox, though – no bidder was willing to fulfil the council’s demand that 95% of households got a paper, which was the alleged distribution of Greenwich Time. Now fewer than one in three households will get a paper, although 8,500 will be made available at 80 pick-up points across the borough. Hopefully this will include dump bins in public places rather than the usual council network.
Fingers crossed that the Southwark team can pull it off. While money from public notices represents a subsidy that can be open to abuse (and has been for many, many years), it is good to see the cash going to a reputable independent publisher, based reasonably near the borough, rather than the media groups that have steadily starved the existing local titles. So good luck to them.
There is one fly in the ointment – since Greenwich made its initial decision, Lambeth has decided to switch its public notice contract away from Lambeth Weekender and back to the South London Press, swallowing concerns about ads for sexual services in the SLP. Whether that loss of income upsets the plan remains to be seen.
The distant Mercury
This is bad news for the Mercury, once the area’s main local paper, but long reduced to being a free offshoot of the South London Press. Despite the efforts of the paper’s one remaining reporter/editor, resources have been slashed to the bone and beyond in recent years.
The paper was recently sold to its management and was given a revamp, with the council ad contract seen as a lifeline.
Indeed, a second bidder had been rejected by the council after due diligence found it presented an “unacceptable risk to the council”.
It is not known who the second bidder was. It may not even have been the Mercury/SLP.
An amateurish effort at a local paper – Greenwich Gazette – briefly appeared and then disappeared during the council tender process (but not before lifting copy from this website about Blackheath fireworks). The Gazette did not carry any details of any publisher, but it appears to have been linked to a design and PR business based in west Greenwich for which only limited financial information is available.
Hopefully not having to worry about council ad money will make the Mercury a bit more fearless. Even if few people ever see a copy because the distribution is terrible.
The stumbling Shopper – and a BBC bailout
Tough times continue at the News Shopper too, which is now produced from Sutton and is effectively the same newspaper as the South London Guardian/Surrey Comet series, making it some kind of quasi-regional freesheet. Recent editions available in Greenwich have featured news from Biggin Hill, Crayford and even Enfield.
Cutbacks have also led to cock-ups like this – the Surrey Comet (which covers Kingston) effectively getting a News Shopper letters page.
Publisher Newsquest has been bleeding its titles dry across the UK – recently slashing jobs at a production hub in south Wales after collecting £340,000 in Welsh government subsidies.
There’s more bailout money for the asset-strippers on offer from the BBC, and we’ll soon see the results of that in south-east London. The Beeb is setting up a Local Democracy Reporters Scheme, which will see reporters based at local news organisations start to cover local council meetings, like the old days. Except the BBC will be funding them, and the results will be available to the news barons who cut council coverage in the first place, like Newsquest.
One reporter will cover Greenwich, Bexley and Bromley; another has the enormous task of covering Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth. I can’t see it working very well. If you’ve read this far and you’re interested, here’s why the Local Democracy Reporter Scheme, as it stands, is a terrible idea.
Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, has only weeks left to live – but the council’s communications empire is actually expanding by taking on work for another London borough.
GT will close in its current format next month after an out-of-court settlement with the Government, which has outlawed “town hall Pravdas”.
But, weeks before the end, Greenwich Time’s advertising team has started selling ad space in Hackney Council’s fortnightly paper, Hackney Today.
The names of GT’s highly-regarded ad team, Nicola McGuire and Gaynor Granger, appear as advertising contacts in recent editions of the east London council’s paper.
Independent local paper Hackney Citizen reports that this is a “temporary arrangement” while Hackney looks for a new ad sales person for its fortnightly paper, with Greenwich receiving a cut of the revenue.
Greenwich’s insistence on publishing Greenwich Time weekly saw it become an early target for former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles’ war on such papers, which can now only be published four times a year. The only other council weekly in England, Tower Hamlets’ East End Life, closed this week.
Hackney is one of a band of councils who continue to defy the law by publishing fortnightly, and have been threatened with action by chancellor George Osborne, who recently allowed local newspaper premises to allow for business rate relief in an attempt to boost the sector.
It’s not thought any premises in Greenwich borough will qualify (neither Lewisham nor Bexley have any local newspaper premises either) and with Greenwich Council still active in seeking advertising for council publications – and strongly encouraging partner organisations not to place ads with rivals – any new entrant will still find life difficult.
As for Greenwich Time, it remains stubbornly wedded to the agenda of council reputation management over information, with the current edition even ignoring the sinkhole that appeared in Charlton last week, along with printing an out-of-date “what’s on” guide. With some residents not getting the paper until Friday, five days after publication, much of what’s inside is old news by the time it limps onto doormats.
The council leadership is keeping its cards close to its chest on plans for the future. For all the Tories’ bluster over council papers, it took several years to kill off weekly town hall papers and it will no doubt be looking to push the out of court settlement to the letter.
The settlement says the council can publish “regular and frequent communications to those residents who choose to receive such information by whatever medium they they decide (eg, paper or electronic) providing it does not have the appearance of a newspaper, newsletter or similar publication”.
Neighbouring Lewisham has published a weekly email for some years (you can subscribe here and have a chance of winning a trip to Diggerland, the inspiration for the Lewisham Gateway scheme) supported by quarterly magazine Lewisham Life. A tie-up with Greenwich Leisure Limited, the not-for-profit group that runs leisure centres and libraries, has also long been mooted.
Another option is a tie-up with an existing local paper. The Mercury’s publishers have long been keen on recapturing the council’s advertising budget, lost many years ago.
The Mercury was recently bought from octogenarian local news baron Ray Tindle by its South London Press management, quietly reversing his eccentric policy of publishing “hyperlocal” editions for certain areas of Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs and more recently giving the ailing paper a much-needed redesign.
The Greenwich edition of the Streatham-based paper now carries the words “Royal Borough of Greenwich” above the masthead, while it also recently featured a worthy “get fit and stay healthy with Royal Greenwich” supplement – also inflicted on Lewisham readers – no doubt intended as a demonstration of what it could do. This week’s edition features a similar supplement, “Let’s do business in Royal Greenwich”.
Whether this will lead to a tie-up between the council and the Mercury remains to be seen. Greenwich residents will find out by the end of June. But for now, Greenwich Time’s ad sales department doesn’t seem to be going away.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Greater London – and half-a-century since shotgun marriages between metropolitan boroughs, urban districts and county boroughs formed today’s 32 London boroughs.
Even naming the boroughs proved problematic – the organisation sitting at Woolwich Town Hall could have been called the London Borough of Charlton as a compromise between the two squabbling sides, while Lewisham was nearly called “Ravensbourne”.
A few years back, Rob Powell from Greenwich.co.uk uploaded a scan of the Mercury supplement introducing the “new” Greenwich Council. I thought I’d head back down to the Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal to see what else was going on at the time.
The headline above shows how the Mercury’s rival, the Woolwich-based Kentish Independent, headlined its coverage of the final meeting of Woolwich Council, which stretched out to Plumstead, Shooters Hill, Abbey Wood, Eltham and Lee. The good burghers of Woolwich were sat in the same town hall that the current Greenwich Council sits in today. Meanwhile, the Mercury noted a “gift night spectacular”.
Back in the KI, the Gallery column noted all was gloom at the old Greenwich Town Hall on Royal Hill…
…although none of it was showing when the old Greenwich Council bowed out, the Mercury noted.
A mile or two away on New Cross Road, the old Deptford Council – which also took in New Cross and Brockley – was also turning out the lights, sent down to Catford to merge with Lewisham.
“Mercury Man” was sorry to see the old borough go, mourning “an ability to present a public image which would make a publicity man suicidal”.
Looking back at these misty-eyed reminiscences, it’s striking how closely the local press watched the local councils then. But there’s still a level of deference. The Kentish Independent still got excited over the new mayor of the London Borough of Greenwich. 50 years on, is anyone really that bothered now?
In the Mercury, the new Greenwich borough opened with a Labour rebellion over a “lodger tax” for council tenants. This was something the old Woolwich Council had done for years, yet had been resisted by Greenwich. In the end, a compromise saw the area covered by the old Greenwich borough let off the extra charges until 1966.
Then another Woolwich habit got up Greenwich noses, as the new council managed to annoy traders on Royal Hill by cancelling their contracts in favour of shopping at the Co-op instead.
One of the last decisions of the old Woolwich Council was a big headache for the new authority. In 1961, it’d decided to invest in an experimental automatic car park. The Autostacker was a spectacular failure. The last Woolwich Council meeting approved plans to knock it down.
The new Greenwich Council had to deal with the fallout (before finally sending the bulldozers in).
What else was going on at the time? One Mercury front page from early 1965 bemoaned a labour shortage across south-east London – there were simply too many jobs and not enough people. Even its recruitment ads boasted of jobs for everybody. But in the Kentish Independent, the year opened with bad news for Plumstead’s Beasley Brewery – closing after a century of slaking SE18 thirsts.
Signs of things to come on Plumstead Marshes were also apparent in the KI, as the new Greenwich Council sought to assert itself over plans for a new town on surplus Royal Arsenal land, which stretched onto Belvedere Marshes in the new borough of Bexley (and the old Kent district of Erith). The split was one of the issues that hobbled the new town – and it still does, half a century on.
The recent death of Winston Churchill had sent the country into mourning – but would a motorway bridge at Woolwich have been a fitting tribute?
Nevertheless, one part of the Ringways scheme – the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach – was causing aggravation in Blackheath and Kidbrooke.
On Blackheath’s Old Dover Road, traders awaiting new accommodation couldn’t wait to be rid of the old Greenwich Council as their colleagues in Woolwich had a more “go-ahead approach”.
London was changing in the 1960s. In the Mercury – whose coverage at the time stretched from Bermondsey and Camberwell to Abbey Wood – headlines discussed racism, with one reporting a magazine article which compared Lewisham to Alabama.
At the same time, this was what was in the Kentish Independent, reporting from what was then still Kent…
Within two decades, councillors from the new borough of Greenwich would have set up their own paper to challenge racism – but that’s a different story.
The old metropolitan boroughs had lasted 65 years – the new London boroughs have now notched up 50. Will the current boroughs outlast their predecessors, or are we due for another round of mergers and squabbles?
The days of Ken Livingstone wanting to take an axe to the current structure are gone. But we’re in an age of devolution – Greenwich joined boroughs north of the river to discuss this a few weeks back – and austerity, where sharing services is looked upon kindly.
So today’s councils may well be toasting today’s anniversary with some trepidation. The London Superborough of Greenwich & Lewisham, anyone?
Greenwich Council refused an approach from the owner of the Mercury and South London Press newspapers to take over its controversial weekly freesheet Greenwich Time, it’s emerged – and is being accused of misleading its own councillors about the offer.
The offer, made three years ago, is at the centre of a row between the publisher and the council over figures used by Greenwich leader Denise Hyland to justify continuing with the newspaper, one of only two in the country that are published weekly.
It comes as Greenwich Council is defending the paper against new laws brought in by the coalition government, with communities secretary Eric Pickles calling it “propaganda on the rates”.
Before GT went weekly, it had a long-standing distribution arrangement with the Mercury, which is London’s oldest local paper and is run as a sister paper to its Tindle Newspapers stablemate, the South London Press.
Greenwich claims it saves money by publishing GT weekly as it can place public notices – for planning, road closures, and the like – there without having to pay a third party for advertising.
But a letter from SLP managing director Peter Edwards to Hyland, sent earlier this month, claims the council presented “inaccurate data” when justifying this in a council debate in June, which saw councillors vote down an anti-GT motion from the Conservatives.
Greenwich claimed advertising in the Mercury would cost it £1.37m per year – but Edwards says he told council officers in a presentation that the council would only pay 55% of that sum, while the Mercury would also increase its distribution to 90% of the borough.
“We would also establish a channel on the Mercury website to carry notices, online videos and interviews, plus video streaming of open council meetings, all of this within the price quoted,” he added.
“In short, we would ensure every Greenwich resident had full and unfettered access to council messages.
“I am certain that if your meeting on 25th June were in full possession of all the facts it may have reached a different conclusion.”
In response, Hyland claims councillors already had “access to the full range of information you have provided”. But this information was only shared with cabinet members at the time, and not with the full council. While the council admitted in July 2011 that talks had been held with publishers, the details were not shared beyond the cabinet.
She added that the SLP/Mercury package would have “cost the council more for less” and would have still resulted “in an increase in expenditure”.
In addition, Hyland said the SLP’s offer would not have matched GT’s distribution, and could leave the council open to “a potential reputational risk as our adverts may appear alongside those for adult service providers and chat lines”.
(The sex trade ads are an Achilles heel for the SLP when it comes to dealing with local councils – some years ago, Lambeth withdrew its ads from the SLP in protest. After a spell running a GT-style fortnightly, Lambeth Life, Lambeth took its ads to an independent, Southwark Newspaper, which now produces a weekly Lambeth Weekender featuring four pages of council news plus public notices.)
After the Mercury/SLP offer was rebuffed in 2011, Tindle Newspapers took on a different strategy to push the Mercury, de-emphasising free deliveries in Greenwich borough in favour of creating paid-for micro-editions on sale in newsagents in west Greenwich, Charlton and Blackheath – the first paid-for papers to serve the areas for three decades.
More recently, Greenwich Council has come out fighting to defend Greenwich Time, which the Government believes it has now outlawed.
“I do not understand on what basis the Secretary of State considers that the council’s publicity is not even-handed or objective,” chief executive Mary Ney, whose job is supposed to be politically-neutral, wrote on 29 April in response to a warning from Pickles that he was considering action.
“This is a serious allegation and I am entitled to understand on what basis it is being made.”
Greenwich Council’s full response, obtained by this website under the Freedom of Information Act, lays into critics of Greenwich Time, essentially implying they do not represent the views of the people of the borough as “half are active in local politics”. “The objectiveness of their submissions has to be questioned,” it adds.
If Greenwich Time is axed, it claims, it will be “on the decision of a single minister, based upon the representations of 8 people out of a borough population of 264,000”.
It also claims that Greenwich Time supports the local newspaper industry as it is printed at Trinity Mirror’s presses in Watford, that Greenwich borough has “a strong local newspaper market”, and that it has “given extensive coverage to the Mayor of London”, and lists the (rare) occasions that opposition councillors are featured in it.
But it misses out the fact that its “rigorous sign-off process” includes the sign-off from the council leader, as admitted by Mary Ney last year, while the council’s sums still don’t take into account the time council staff spend on Greenwich Time.
The council’s response also included a dossier of notes of support from various figures, including a bizarre letter from someone at the Greenwich Islamic Centre in Plumstead which hopes the Government will change its mind so “the residents of the borough can enjoy their favourite weekly newspaper”.
Another respondent claims “it is a very balanced publication which does not demonstrate political bias in any way”, while the council response quotes another individual as claiming it runs “fact-based community editorial”.
One response backing GT comes from Steve Nelson of the South East London Chamber of Commerce, who’s regularly invited to the council’s mayor-making jollies at the Royal Naval College and is a trustee of council charity Greenwich Starting Blocks, which features regularly in the paper.
Looking through the responses, with names redacted, it seems that those who appear in Greenwich Time support it, and those who don’t are against it.
Which, in a nutshell, is the problem with Greenwich Time. Just as the Evening Standard has ceased to be a reliable news source because it contains little criticism of mayor Boris Johnson, Greenwich Time is similarly unreliable because it contains little criticism of Greenwich Council. And only one of those two titles is paid for by council taxpayers.
Whatever the failings of this area’s local media, the fact that we’re paying for a weekly paper which delivers just one side of the story is a big problem. And after six years of it, it’s far from certain that a weekly propaganda rag is even an effective communication strategy for the council anyway – how many go straight in the recycling? Simply barking out instructions on a dead bit of tree simply doesn’t cut it these days.
If Greenwich Time goes, the council’s communications and engagement policy will have to be rethought. And a deal with someone will have to be done, be it with the Mercury/SLP or a competitor, for those public notices.
Like alcoholics contemplating a future off the booze, a future without Greenwich Time is one the council leadership simply doesn’t want to contemplate.
Will Eric Pickles take the bottle off them? We’ll have to wait and see.
A bit of rant here. It’s important, though, so please hear me out.
Blogs like this should supplement local newspapers. You can’t compete all the time with them, and it’s clear that in this area that they do some things (crime, angry people) better than others (council issues, transport). But when local newspapers are run irresponsibly, or cut back to such an extent they can’t cover the local area properly, it creates an awkward vacuum.
Such a situation has occurred in Greenwich – allowing room for the local council to fill the gap with a propaganda rag, for example.
Readers with long and charitable memories will remember a post at the end of last year entitled Please, show the Mercury some love for Christmas, detailing the decline of what was once south-east London’s premier newspaper under the ownership of local media magnate Sir Ray Tindle.
Despite some excellent reporters, Tindle’s company is allowing the Mercury to wither away under staff cutbacks. He poses as a champion of local media – and the trade press get taken in by it. “If you had a paper for every street, it would sell,” he told journalism.co.uk, and Media Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade lapped it up obligingly.
“The average person isn’t interested in the wider area but they are very interested in their immediate locality,” Tindle opined. Which went down great with credulous trade hacks, but on the ground, the reality is very different. In SE London, a single edition of the Mercury covers three boroughs – Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley – usually with a custom front page and the odd individual inside page to disguise the fact that a “local” newspaper is trying to serve 600,000 people.
Indeed, across town, Tindle has launched a Mercury-style newspaper called the Lambeth Post – billed as a “community” newspaper despite the fact its editorial area stretches from Streatham to Waterloo – some community – and that no extra staff have been taken on to fill its pages (it cannabalises the paid-for South London Press).
It seems that the Mercury’s sister papers in north London are suffering in a similar fashion.
From Tuesday 19 April for two weeks staff at North London and Herts Newspapers are on strike over Sir Ray Tindle’s refusal to replace members of staff leaving the former award-winning newspapers to dwindle and die.
This all flies in the face of Tindle’s claim to be the, “Saviour of local newspapers”. He recently said, “Despite the doom-mongers regional newspapers are alive and well…” Not in north London as they suffer death by a thousand cutbacks.
More than a third of editorial has left without being replaced and key positions are not being filled. Now, just three reporters are churning out a total of nine newspapers every week. Over the last few weeks management has also slashed the Sports section by half while the future of the entire Arts & Leisure section is under threat.
As a consequence of its refusal to replace staff a vastly inferior product is being delivered to our readers. Reporters do not have time to leave their desks meaning they are missing important stories, are unable to cover a range of council meetings, attend community events, court cases and inquiries and do not have the time or resources to hold public figures to account leading to the worst kind of churnalism.
The company says our centre is losing money but last year our employer, Tindle Newspapers, made over £3 million pounds profit.
If you care about local journalism in London, and don’t want it to be left to the likes of me and to council PR departments, these people deserve your support. The north London strikers have contact details should you wish to drop Tindle and his MD a line.
Incidentally, staff at the News Shopper’s sister paper, South London Guardian – and other papers in the Newsquest London group – are starting a work-to-rule tomorrow to protest against the plummeting quality of their papers.
(A small declaration of interest: I hold an NUJ membership card.)
“We are tightening up the rules on council publicity, so that taxpayers’ money cannot be wasted on town hall Pravdas – the likes of Labour’s Greenwich Time and East End Life – which have been unfairly putting the squeeze on independent local papers.” – Eric Pickles, Conservative Home, 24 February.
Greenwich Time is dismal propaganda – in that, the communities secretary is right. But its existence has as much to do with market failure as the desire of Greenwich Council to control the news agenda. The owners of the two freesheets which claim to serve the borough are doing a good enough job of strangling their titles without any help from anyone else.
Exhibit A – this week’s Greenwich Time, and this week’s Greenwich edition of the News Shopper.
On your left, a cheery photo of Plumstead boy Tinie Tempah doing good at the Brit Awards alongside (potentially) good news about a local rail project. On your right, a grisly story (bought from elsewhere) about a murder in Charlton that happened nine months ago but has only just gone to trial. I expect the News Shopper isn’t hoping for an interview with the poor victim’s family once the trial is over.
Which is the most appealling front page, the good news or the gruesome crime porn?
It’s worth pointing out that the lead stories on pages 2, 3 and 7 of the News Shopper are also about murders or murder inquiries, in Downham, Sydenham and Catford, none of which are in the borough of Greenwich, but appear in a paper with “Greenwich Borough News Shopper” on its masthead. Clearly if it bleeds in Lewisham or Greenwich, it leads. There’s a letter inside from Lewisham’s deputy mayor complaining about Nationwide’s branch closures – but only referring to those in Lewisham and Catford. It’s easy to see why Greenwich’s leadership might want to redress the balance a little, both in terms of positive reporting and in coverage relevant to their borough.
But what about Greenwich borough’s other newspaper, the Mercury?
Exhibit B: The Greenwich edition of the Mercury.
The front of the Mercury – an ad for a BMW dealer. Not as appealing as a beaming Tinie Tempah.
Those who haven’t tossed the paper in the bin, though, will get what’s probably the week’s most important story in Greenwich borough, the GPs who will be taking over the area’s £500m health budget under government reforms. The story is also in Greenwich Time, but isn’t in the News Shopper at all.
But the wraparound ad makes the paper look cheap and nasty – even though the reporting in it far, far outstrips its rivals. Media commentators like Roy Greenslade fawn all over Mercury owner Sir Ray Tindle for his supposed commitment to local journalism, but he’s done nothing of the sort in south London, where the Mercury publishes what’s effectively a single edition across three boroughs, save for differing front pages (hence no mention of the Lewisham cuts row in the Greenwich edition) and the odd inner page. In reality he’s killing the Mercury by allowing it to look so cheap and crap, and by running it on a shoestring.
As for distribution, I haven’t had a regular delivery of the Mercury or the News Shopper in about eight or nine years. I picked up the Mercury while in Blackheath Village Library (a Lewisham borough library with a pile of Greenwich borough papers, so no news of that library’s closure…) yesterday. There was a great untouched pile of News Shoppers in the lobby of a mate’s block of flats last night, so I nabbed one.
Meanwhile, I get Greenwich Time most weeks (in fact, me and my upstairs neighbour get three copies between the two of us – lucky us).
So, propaganda aside… can you really blame Greenwich Council for having its own weekly paper, if this is the state of the printed media in its borough?
Now, before the next post, a Christmas appeal.
The Mercury was once the defining local newspaper for southeast London. (The Greenwich Phantom mentions its origins today.) But after being abused by uncaring owners, it now cowers, shivering, under an advertisement for a bookmakers. Can you find it in your heart to love this proper local newspaper this Christmas?
Despite the lack of love, there’s still a big heart beating for anyone who gives it some time. The quality of its reporting far outstrips that of its suburban rival, the News Shopper, and it usually puts something worthwhile on the front page. This week it leads with the threat to Maryon Wilson Park animal centre (as first reported on The Charlton Champion), for example. The secret of its success? It has a reporter dedicated to Greenwich borough, Mandy Little, who knows the patch like the back of her hand, and gets out of the office. It makes a hell of a lot of difference.
But who gets to see her reporting?
The story’s buried beneath an ad for a recently-opened Deptford High Street bookmakers – when sadly, the invasion of that area by bookmakers has made news in itself earlier this year. The Mercury itself used to be based in Deptford High Street, before past owner Trinity Mirror – which claims to do “great things locally” – sold up and moved the paper’s editorial to the South London Press base in Streatham, a shift across London almost as jarring as Charlton Athletic’s ill-fated move to Selhurst Park.
The paper’s distribution is terrible, too – I’ve not had a regular copy for many years, and I swiped the pictured copy from a mate. Its website is a joke – only usually updated once a week, it’s hardly a go-to place for local news. Nor is it a particularly good ad for the print paper.
Owner Sir Ray Tindle, is famously determined that the web will “not usurp the printed weekly paper” – but the Mercury is so poorly distributed, and gets seen by so few eyes, that it’s in danger of fading away. These days, it shouldn’t make a difference whether journalism is seen online or on the web, but Sir Ray has surrendered the web to us hyperlocal upstarts and the dire News Shopper, leaving the dear-old Mercury to play catch-up.
It’s not as if Sir Ray isn’t a hyperlocal pioneer himself – he’s recently launched six small-scale local papers in north London. Yet the Mercury limps on, covering the 600,000+ people of Greenwich, Bexley and Lewisham boroughs with what’s effectively a single edition (save for front pages and the odd inside page)..
The people the Mercury claims to serve deserve better. The Mercury’s journalists deserve better, too. So, Sir Ray, please, show it in your heart to give the Mercury some love for Christmas. Give it a proper website. Distribute it properly, or use dump bins. Put some cash in so it doesn’t have to hide under ads for bookies. Split Greenwich from Lewisham, and then maybe split Greenwich from Woolwich from Eltham. If Winchmore Hill can have its own paper, why can’t Greenwich or Charlton? The potential closure of council propaganda rag Greenwich Time could present an opportunity. Because you could have a gem here, Sir Ray. And you should treat it that way.
So show the Mercury some love this Christmas. You won’t regret it, I’m sure.
PS. The News Shopper excelled itself this week by running a story on its website about Thames Water planning water main works in Greenwich. The story didn’t say which streets, and I knew TW dug up Greenwich a few years ago, so I got in touch with the utility to ask where. Thames Water kindly sent me a map – the works are in Plumstead, not Greenwich, proving the dangers of lazily cribbing stories from duff press releases…