When I started Brownhills Blog, I had a respectful, fairly noble, rose-tinted view of the local printed media. I love reading local newspapers – if I’m out and about, away from home in an alien town with time on my hands, I always go to the trouble of buying and reading the local paper for the town I’m in. I like to think that one can tell a lot about a place from the state of the local Fourth Estate, and so it is with our area. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a bit of a state, if not exactly lying in it. My rose tinted spectacles are now removed, and I feel less than generous to our professional news-mongers.
It came to my attention this evening that Mark, the creator and all round clever bloke behind local news aggregator the YamYam, has been roughed over in a couple of blog posts by none less than the political editor of the Birmingham Post and Mail, Jonathan Walker. It all started on the 4th June 2009, with a sniffy, slightly condescending article detailing what the YamYam was all about, with a little grudging appreciation thrown in. That didn’t really garner much attention that I can see, so on the 4th August, Mr. Walker decided to go for an all-out mauling. Jonathan has generously given Mark the right of reply, but it’s a bit hollow after such an excoriation. All because Mark has the audacity to scan articles that aren’t available in online versions, and post them publicly for all to read. Apparently, this constitutes ‘…theft, in the same way as downloading a pirated copy of a film or CD is theft.’ I’ve got one thing to say to the gentleman: that’s bollocks, and you know it.
I have scanned articles from the Express & Star in support of posts on this blog more than a few times. Why? Well, I can’t expect everyone reading this raggedy rant-fest to be au fait with the entire content of a newspaper that they may or may not buy. Often, I take a story or local issue to a wider audience. Sometimes, I draw links between pieces others may have forgotten about. Other times, I flag up little things that generally pass as filler. Like the YamYam, where an online version is available, I’ll always link to it, but the Express & Star in particular rarely gets any Walsall focused stories online, which leaves a bit of a hole when you want to discuss the front-page article about, say, Brownhills. Since printed news is a perishable commodity, I actually believe that any blogger or aggregator – like Mark or myself – who takes up precious bandwidth holding copies of such attributed articles is doing both the community, and the paper in question, a favour. I also question if it can be called theft when most scanned articles don’t go up until we have time to process them – usually after the copy of the paper they were in has expired!
Take, for example, the recent instance where the YamYam archived an Express & Star piece recording a slightly intemperate grumble from a local councillor; with his views unexpectedly on wider availability, and archived for posterity, he was suddenly moved to qualify his original position. It’s somewhat noticeable that the member in question didn’t see fit to answer the point in the offline media instead, and certainly wouldn’t have qualified his position at all were it not for the YamYam’s actions. There are stories I’d like to write about on a local level, where I’ve read past articles that raised issues, only to find them unarchived online and effectively lost to anyone without the time to search backissues, even if I could remember when the article was published. Is that really what the editor wants – news dead after the day of issue? I so don’t enjoy rooting through the recycling bin just to get original articles online in a way that can be referenced…
It’s not as if the lack of probity Jonathan whinges about are even upheld by the august organ he magnanimously defends; they’re not above raiding local blogs, YouTube, wikipedia and twitter for sources of cheap stories, in my case to quite irritating effect. Most of the protagonists of the West Midlands hyperlocal web scene have some tale of woe to tell about the behaviour of their local inkies, so for a leading light within one of the major players to be so horrendously outraged smacks of double standards.
This brings me to my final point – the owners of the Birmingham Post and Mail find themselves and their market to be almost moribund, to the extent that they’re closing a number of longstanding titles – including The Walsall Observer. Whilst there is still a market for the traditional printed media, one of the things that is making their current commercial life so terribly challenging is that most of them – especially the locals like the ones Mr. Walker edits – fail to grasp what the web is all about, and how punters find news content online. Consequently, they’re getting their online backside kicked by the likes of the BBC. Without exception, the websites of all the local papers are bloated, turgid and over-wrought browser blasters, with such jarring, jumbled visual content that they look like angry fruit salads. Without RSS, the Express & Star’s electronic edifice in particular would be unusable. Commentator and all-round wit Dinkey summed it all up beautifully in his comment on this Birmingham Post article about their malaise. The YamYam, this blog and others like it do your sites a service in that we pre-filter your content, enabling viewers to find what interests them without having to work through a migraine inducing fug of lurid adverts and irrelevant content. I’d hazard that we’re probably even generating traffic for you.
The now infamous attack on Dennis Healey by Sir Geoffrey Howe was described by Dennis himself as being akin to being savaged by a dead sheep; the YamYam has just been savaged by a dead duck in the form of old media. Instead of railing against the darkness, Mr. Walker, why not switch the light on and embrace the social media?