In the wake of the continuing closure of local papers, this time in Cannock and South Staffordshire, there’s a very interesting article written by good friend of the Brownhills Blog, Stuart Williams, over at he is revitalised Bloxwich Telegraph. I suggest anyone interested in the future of the local press and online media scene should read it.
I find this interesting for a number of reasons – it’s a quite pessimistic, downbeat piece, and I agree with quite a lot of what it says, yet I have a problem with it on a number of levels. Stuart has an attachment to the old inky press, as I do, although he was more personally involved. As I’ve said before, I loved the Walsall Observer, and as a child, I pored over it, lying in front of the fire, lost in it’s stiff, formalised world. From this worthy – but often, rather dull, if I’m honest – local newspaper I learned about Walsall, it’s history, politics and events. For a few years, it was a window on the world and I adored it. It was a prime influence on proto-Bob. However, times change.
Stuart laments an era of the press when local news hounds rocked up at everything from church fetes, road accidents and criminal trials, reporting them back to a waiting town, eager for news of it’s community. These stereotypical, chain-smoking hacks knew their patch, understood their market. They were the heart and soul of local news. What happened to them?
Stuart blames the free sheet revolution, and I think what he sees as the devaluation of the art form. I disagree. We all killed the Observer. These papers died, or lie mortally wounded now for a number of reasons which Stuart, I suspect unknowingly, demonstrates. As we moved beyond the 1980’s, a revolution in all media took place. Newspapers were becoming more and more expensive to produce. Reporters were not cheap, and the market shrunk. The public’s horizons widened. More TV channels, other free titles, and a more aggressive stance by the Express & Star and Evening Mail all put pressure on Walsall’s traditional weekly. Then, came the internet. At the same time, the community papers like the Walsall Observer suddenly looked old. Very old indeed. They were flat, two dimensional, and slow. Their news was secondhand. To a community with the internet, social media and mobile phones, the news they presented seemed weeks out of date – and feedback was impossible in real time.
To a public that now gets a huge percentage of it’s news online or through other media streams like TV and radio, there is little place for the local paper. It’s an anachronism, a relic of the past. Like the rural pub, church and phone box, nobody wants to pay for it and a decreasing number use it, but when it dies, there’s a hue and cry, because we imagine it will always be there. We want it for reassurance, like Major’s warm beer and cycling old maids. It’s a falsehood.
Stuart talks disparagingly of the ‘hyperlocal scene’ – bloggers and writers like himself and this rambling organ, and then declines to name any of the huge variety of citizen journalists covering Walsall, all roped together by The YamYam, the brilliant and innovative aggregator he also chooses not to name. Comments are closed on his article, yet he asks for feedback. That looks awfully like the attitude of the old guard to me. Feedback on it’s own terms, and isolationism in the extreme. I don’t think it’s actually like that at all. From Stuart, often a highly respected vanguard of the modern, this surprises me.
I know how hard it is to run a local blog. I’m no writer, and understand little of what I do here, but I know that it’s difficult maintaining the quality and quantity of material – particularly in the face of the competing, excellent work by Stuart himself, or the likes of Jayne Howarth at Pelsall’s ‘Common People’, the biting excoriations of the Plastic Hippo, the deft professionalism of Ross over at The Lichfield Blog, or the community spirit engendered by Wednesfield’s award-winning WV11 or Connect Cannock. Stuart may feel uncomfortable, but there is a media revolution underway, and he’s part of it, whether he likes it or not.
I have never sought to make money out of The Brownhills Blog, and never will. Some local news sites – including The YamYam – carry advertising and have explored financial models with limited success, Stuart is quite right in this respect – but the motivation of most of the people engaged in this isn’t money. It’s community and a sense of pride. Hyperlocal is an interesting term, and one I’ve always hated. Long after the hype, the local will remain, and there will be people like us plugging away for the love of what we do. Why? Because it’s bloody good fun, that’s why. It’s now us, rather than the chain-smoking hack, that rocks up at the fetes and traffic accidents. And we do social media better. Just look at the risible ‘Walsall People’ to see just how much the traditional papers don’t understand social media and the internet. It’s grim.
The Walsall Observer – just like most of the inky press – is moribund because it could no longer connect with it’s target audience. What it offered was no longer useful or marketable, just like the free sheets closed by Trinity Mirror. I’m sad to see them go, and I mourn their loss, but change is occurring. At the moment, it’s incremental, creeping, almost imperceptible. Mainstream media is bending our way, and online news hounds like me are actually being engaged at last by the more traditional media. I’m sure we can learn from each other. I regret awfully the loss of jobs, but the revolution sacrifices it’s children, and that will never change. Hopefully, more expansive horizons await.
Should the name of our once great local paper be used again? No, not really, in my opinion. One can assemble a new news service out of anything you want, but it won’t be the same, and won’t evoke it either. What we do have here is a vibrant, engaging, challenging online scene – one of the founders of which is Stuart himself, whose work across a number of auspices – The Bloxidge Tallygraph, The Borough Blog and so on – inspired and continue to do so, as well produced, professional labours of love and community spirit, of the kind the Walsall Observer could never do.
We need to look forward, not backward. There’s a quiet revolution going on. Join it, or be swept away.