Stop Press?

Curiously tucked away in ‘News in Brief’ on page 5 of The Berwick Advertiser is the breaking news that our local press is proposing to move to modern offices within the town.

Editor Phil Johnson is clearly excited – and come on, who doesn’t love a new mouse mat? – but tempered his glee at the thought of an office sundry upgrade with an earnest “…there will be no detrimental effect for readers, advertisers or customers wanting to place announcements in our papers.” Just in case anyone had anxieties about their “Wey-hey! Jock is 18! Look, here’s his willy as a baby!” coupon going astray amid the untrammelled chaos caused by cancelling the milk and last-minute hoovering.

Phil, suddenly remembering his priorities, then went on to say: “And there are also exciting plans to invest in an updating of the newspaper and website later this year, to reflect the ever-changing multi-media landscape we are in.”  But ended things there because he had run out of room on his hand.

Content to one side for a minute, where was the fanfare, the personality, the face of our local newspaper? Where was the pride in sharing these latest developments with us, the readership? Simply the way that this report was handled makes us despair for the future of regional press.

Contributor Pippa Johnson has this to say in an open letter to editors of local publications everywhere:

A Letter to An Editor


I am a regular taker of your esteemed organ and so I thought you may be interested in my views on its recent shrinkage. I refer to your circulation, of course, which is by anyone’s admission frighteningly small. Can it ever recover?

It’s my sad prediction that local newspapers cannot survive in their present form and I’m afraid to say that they have printed – and probably misspelled – their own death warrant. Let me take you through my reasoning:

There may be a case for suing the local newspaper under some category of the Trade Description Act.  You’re supposed to be ‘a local newspaper’.

Do you know what? Let’s allow this picture to speak for itself.

You are undoubtedly local – oh, so very, very local ­– and you are made of paper. But in this case, two out of three is not going to make people buy the product.

Where, sir, is the news?

Local newspapers seem to live in terror of the establishment. They refuse to rattle the cages of anyone who might get a little miffed or anyone who regularly provides them with dull, self-serving copy about themselves or their company/school/church/landfill site.

And thereby you miss the entire point of a newspaper –  offering the reader something they don’t already know.

Why should I buy a local paper to read an unedited version of a press release sent out by the council or some weasel-staffed PR company? What happened to the principle of the fourth estate? Your job is to challenge the establishment, not help it do its marketing. Give people something worth reading and they might start buying the paper.

The woeful content of most local papers, including yours, is getting worse. And why is that? Because cutting your reporting staff down to an unworkable minimum and piling on extra duties that would once have been done by more specialised staff will, of course, mean that no one has to the time to do any ‘proper’ reporting – certainly not the kind that takes time and research, and that may not guarantee immediate results. Hence your paper is full of cheque presentations and charity stunts and regurgitated press releases, all churned out by your one or two over-worked reporters, Phil Space and Phillipa Page (with apologies to Private Eye).

And there’s a case in point – the satirical news magazine is recording its highest circulation for 25 years, selling almost 230,000 copies a fortnight. Why? Because it tells you the interesting stuff that everyone else is afraid to print. Back to the principle of the fourth estate.

Now, let’s look at the editorial’s evil twin – the advertising. Two things here. Firstly, taking out an ad in your paper is eye-wateringly expensive compared to many other forms of media and given the very tiny reach you can boast. No wonder advertisers would rather look elsewhere.

But secondly, and somewhat sinisterly, you allow the advertising department to dictate the stories you run. This isn’t confined to shying away from stories that might upset your regular advertisers. Be honest – ever refused to print a decent story because the person involved wouldn’t take out an advert? Yes, sir, you have. You know you have. And that is tantamount to blackmail. Press standards, Lord Leveson?

It used to be, of course, that readers didn’t have much choice, so selling local papers was like shooting fish in a bucket. But now there is choice and even more choice. The internet has scuppered the hold that local (and national) papers have on information. The papers themselves are reluctantly getting on board with the idea of online – according to the Newspaper Society, the UK press now has 1,600 local news websites, as opposed to 1,100 local daily or weekly titles – but these sites are often just a poor reproduction of the printed product.

Many bloggers do a darn sight better job of finding stuff that people really want to read and they often write with a bit more attitude.

Ahem, for example…

The cost of setting up a local news microsite is negligible compared to the unwieldy and non-environmental process of producing a print run.

And look at the quality of the product. Compare the muddy, blurry photos in a local paper compared to the sharper images on a website; see how quickly people online can comment and get involved and how easily they can share stories with others who may be interested. What else can you do with a local paper once it has been skimmed and grumbled over? Line the cat tray.

Coincidentally, as I write someone has tweeted me an article in which the former Washington Post reporter Malcolm Gladwell warns students at Yale to avoid working in newspapers, saying they are ‘dreary, depressed places.’ Better, he says, to work online – even unpaid – when starting a journalism career. There’s evidence in the States that people are even prepared to subscribe to maintain good investigative journalism sites. What does this tell you about what readers really want?

You could do something about it, of course. Start simply – don’t use a press release unless you’ve checked and challenged its contents, and leave the fundraising stunts to the church newsletters. It’s not hard. Look at the printed news publications that are thriving even in this time of cutbacks and crisis. It’s the good journalism, like Private Eye, The Economist, Newsweek and Time (yes, in the UK). You could take on more reporters rather than managers and bean-counters; you could let them spend time uncovering original stories, and that way give readers a paper based on good quality investigative writing. Or ‘news’ as it’s sometimes called.

The thing is, dear editors and managers of local papers, I’m not angry with you, I’m disappointed. Because I love newspapers so much, and I love their potential for changing the status quo and righting wrongs. The world will be a poorer place when they all disappear. And your penny-pinching, low standards, lack of courage and stultified imagination will be to blame.

Red faces all round – or there should be.

An artist’s impression of how an embarrassed editor may look

Time will tell whether a move to different premises will spur The Tweeddale Press into putting up a fight for its survival. It’s one thing having zippy new technologies to play with, but quite another if there’s nobody with an instinct for news to get the most out of them.

And that, sadly, isn’t always something you can learn.

What do you think, is Pippa right in her assessment? Is there a future for local papers?

Either leave a comment below or email us your opinion to Not BAd HQ: chastityflyte@gmail.com.


11 comments on “Stop Press?

  1. Below is a comment left on Twitter by Kirsty Smyth, a junior reporter from The Berwickshire Advertiser/News:

    “I dare say [sic] if the tiser [sic] splashed on the ‘story’ that its office is moving @Chastity_Flyte would quickly write a blog about self-indulgence”

    Thereby spectacularly missing the point. A big story would be BRILLIANT. It would show the team are proud of their paper, wanting not only to involve and engage with their readership, but reassure us that despite Johnston Press’s current difficulties, The Tiser and News are safe.

  2. Quite brilliant piece well done. There are at least two major scandals which need investigative journalism to bring to light now, in our locality and there have been several over the years which have never been looked at.
    Chastity, you are the essence of core backbone public life. I salute you.

  3. So what ARE these scandals that Mike’s referring to? I think we should be told. Come on, NOT BAd, shine the torch of truth under the refrigerator of complacency and let’s see how those cockroaches move. And in support of Kirsty I’d like to add that when I was a very very very junior journalist our boss absolutely forbade us to write about ourselves. “You’re here to write the news, not to be the news, ye swabs!” he would roar from the poop deck. I disagreed with him about almost everything, but on this point I think he was right.

    • Hi Joe

      The mind boggles, does it not? Rest assured, I will be having a wee chat with Mike…

      I think, in this instance, the news was most definitely the news. Cuts are scything through Johnston Press at the same time Tweeddale Press is moving – an unlikely co-incidence. Such a tiny mention of the move in view of the enormity of Johnston’s difficulties is deeply unsettling and will have done nothing to quell the rumours of doom swirling around ‘The Tiser’ and ‘News’.

      A paper needs a voice. Its readers need to be able to pick it up and immediately understand where it is coming from and what it stands for. We may not always agree with it, but this in turn sparks open debate, thereby building a relationship between reader and publication. On the back of that relationship comes brand loyalty, so that when the chips are down – in the face of cutbacks and closures, for example – there are enough people willing to stand up and make a noise on its behalf.

      Many thanks for leaving a comment.

      Chastity x

  4. I’m certain this move is part of the Johnston Press strategy which is also causing the Southern Reporter to find a new home in Selkirk and close its Kelso branch office, and the Shields Gazette and Hartlepool Mail to downsize their South Shields and Hartlepool offices and transfer a lot of production and admin to Sunderland. The perseverance of the banks and investors in keeping Johnston going is impressive, but one does wonder if they shouldn’t just give up and sell the assets – the current survival plan is unsustainable, so expert commentators agree – and surely the Berwick Advertiser would find a buyer.

    Plug: I’m originally from the other end of Northumberland and now live in Oxfordshire (largely a Newsquest rather than a Johnston Press fiefdom) and have written something on the Ponteland Observer (1982-1986) which the Tweeddale Press (when in the hands of the Smails) owned from 1984. First part here: http://stjamesseveningpost.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/ponteland-observed-part-one.html

    • Hi Matthew

      I completely agree and feel it disingenuous of The Tiser to pretend otherwise. As you rightly say, it is surely only a matter of time before investors and banks throw up their hands, rather than continuing to throw good after bad.

      The Berwick Advertiser/News has a loyal readership which would not want to see the loss of their papers. The editor needs to harness this goodwill and use it as a platform to take the papers forward. There is a thirst for a local paper with an edge, a paper that isn’t afraid to rattle cages in order to provide its readership with genuine news. If our local press is to survive these economic conditions, it needs to get off its arse and bring the news to the people, rather than the people bringing the news to it.

      Many thanks for stopping by, Matthew. Great comment. You clearly have a lot of knowledge on the subject and I welcome hearing from you again.

      Chastity x

      • Many thanks for your reply. Sadly the days of editors who ran their papers are gone at Johnston Press, I suspect. Everything is being centralised and local papers made to conform to formulae. The tyranny of the template rules, because it and the thinking behind it can be explained to shareholders more easily than taking them through the minutiae of several local businesses. Still, I thought the new-look Gazette did OK.

      • Hi Matthew

        How ironic that the industry is seeking to homogenise something that is supposed to champion regional individuality and difference. Do you really feel the days of the editor – in the true sense of the word – are over? How do you feel this lack of independence will impact on content and, ultimately, circulation?

        Chastity x

      • Hi Chastity,

        It all depends on the proprietor. Editors of privately-owned local titles will suffer interference from their owners but at least they can put a face to them. With Johnston Press and their kind the pressure from shareholders denied the promised revenue stream strengthens the centre, with centralised advertising sales teams perceived as needing unified product templates to sell to national advertisers. (I believe a veteran Tweeddale Press advertising person left not so long ago because her job was now redundant.) So the editor doesn’t have as much room for manoeuvre, because the group is functioning as a vehicle for national advertising sales.

        As for the failure to draw attention to the move from 90 Marygate, despite the prominence of the building on the southern approach to Berwick, this seems to be a common policy with organisations who are cutting services when their financial future is in doubt. When ITV closed down Border’s studios and merged the news programmes presenters and reporters were forbidden to explain what was going on to viewers. I suspect a similar problem at Johnston Press. In the old days of the independent, Smail-owned Tweeddale Press any change would have been shouted from the rooftops, at least in Colonel Jim Smail’s era.


      • Hi Matthew

        This is a pretty bleak picture you’re painting, but sadly I agree. 90 Marygate is such an iconic building in the town and to leave it with so little fuss is immediately indicative of a distress flare going up. Readers aren’t daft and they resent being treated as if they are.

        I can appreciate that editors’ hands are tied to a certain extent regarding advertising and this (wrongly, always wrongly!) will have the effect of muting any adverse reporting involving an advertiser. However, there must be a balance between advertising and editorial content – an editor should still be able to put his opinion forward clearly and challenge the status quo without running interference. It’s the whole point of the press, after all… or are the days of the fourth estate well and truly over?

        Where shareholders are involved I think it is.

        Chastity x

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