Poor journalism and bad English were among the disturbing findings revealed by Adam Landau in his insightful blog post (Who is writing local news? 31 December, 2017). Below is an equally revealing article by someone who has been writing local news for as many years as I have. Journalist Peter Cook, who now covers local history for the Medway Messenger, mourns the savage decline in local newspapers in this article published last October in the paper’s aptly-named Old Codgers column. In extolling the virtues of the print he also reveals fascinating insights of the valuable work done by regional reporters – then and now. Your views are welcome and could find their way into a follow-up article on a subject that should be dear to the hearts of everyone in our trade. So join this important debate now by commenting below or emailing your views to me at R.M.Green@kent.ac.uk
By Peter Cook
Journalism was never my first career choice. I wanted to be a dairy farmer, perhaps with a small fruit enterprise running alongside. But my dad pointed out he couldn’t even afford a cow, let alone a farm, so I signed indentures to become a trainee reporter on a local newspaper. We did a four-year apprenticeship in those days. Only posh and exceptionally brainy people went to university.
Any dreams of an exciting life reporting big time crime, world events or the doings of the rich and famous were quickly smothered under a huge pile of wedding forms to be written up, or flower show results to be bashed out. What finally turned me on to journalism was my first front page lead. It involved a classic local paper story. Every reporter who has worked on a local weekly has done this one.
A patch of waste ground in a residential street had been turned into an unofficial rubbish tip. Old mattresses, bike frames, car tyres, paint tins and bags of refuse had piled up massively over a long period and the neighbours were not happy. It was an eyesore and a health hazard, creating an appalling stench, attracting flies and rats.
There was the usual stand-off. The council said it was not their responsibility because the land was privately owned. The owners could not be found, and when they were, also denied responsibility because, after all, they had not dumped the rubbish.
I wrote my story, complete with quotes from the Council, health authorities and of course residents. It appeared on page one with a photograph of the offending pile, and my name beneath the headline. My first proper by-line! But what won me over to journalism happened the following week, when I piloted my little James Captain motorbike to the street where the rubbish had piled up. Behold – it was gone! There wasn’t a scrap to be seen. The Council had, after all, sent in a squad and taken it all away, fearful of more bad publicity and the potential for an outbreak of disease.
Residents were not exactly dancing in the street, but there were some pretty relieved looks on their faces, and for a brief while I was quite popular in that particular part of town. It made me realise that journalism, even at its most basic level, could actually achieve something. You highlight a problem, shine the spotlight of publicity on it, give voice to the people affected by it, and sometimes, just sometimes, something gets done.
I am banging on about all this because our local newspapers are under threat. In these towns we lost a valuable rival the Medway News, which emerged from the old Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News, a formidable broadsheet that kept the people of Medway informed from 1863 until its demise a few years ago. The News, like the Chatham Observer, later to become the KM, was very much a part of people’s lives. It recorded their marriages, their golden weddings, local sporting events, theatrical performances, achievements of people who live down your street, tragedies – the whole warp and weft of local life.
Local authorities and other public bodies were held to account, criminals exposed, campaigns mounted and charities given that boost which publicity affords. The Kent Messenger Group newspapers have – to their credit – managed to survive, and our sister paper, the Kentish Gazette, based in Canterbury, is celebrating 300 years of publishing – a remarkable achievement.
But all over the country, local newspapers are disappearing. Why? Well because of the internet of course.
Web based news media, it seems, are proving more popular that print-based newspapers. But they are not the same. They do not achieve the same thing. They are abbreviated, as is the attention span of the modern reader. And they are transient. They can never encompass the scale and complexity of a community in the way a good local newspaper can.
It was often said that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper. But that’s not entirely true. Newspapers are archived, and those archives are easily accessible through libraries and study centres. To people like me, who write on historical matters, they are an amazing resource. What happens to web pages when they are finished with? Do they just disappear into the ether? Perhaps some are collected in some sort of “cloud” archive, but I wouldn’t know where to find them. As the advertisers say: “When they’re gone they’re gone”.
It’s often said that newspapers are the first pages of history. I don’t think web pages will ever provide that. So what I am saying is, support your local newspaper, because it will support you, whether it’s by highlighting injustice or just publicising a school event. It provides a record of life today, for generations to come. You can be part of it and it can be part of you. It’s there, it’s tangible.
Websites on the other hand, are ephemeral. Press the power button on your device, and they’re gone.