Coronavirus has killed tens of thousands of people and devastated the printed press. But could it kill off the true hyper-local media ? In a new book, The Virus and the Media (available NOW on Amazon), DAVID BANKS – who has gone from editing the Daily Mirror to running his minuscule online Clarion from a small village in Northumberland – has contributed the following chapter. . .
Once upon a time in the land of Hotmetal lived greedy barons who bathed daily in a river of gold, the mighty Newsprint, whose ceaseless flow connected every village, town and city the length and breadth of the kingdom. Those who dared swim the waters of wealth eventually swept down to London, thence to the glittering, racier Fleet. The barons were wealthy and their people healthy. Until one day a great illness struck the land…
THE ‘NEW NORMAL’ offered by the country’s cautious reappearance after months of lockdown and social distancing exposes a media industry ravaged by closures both temporary and permanent, begging the tremulous question, ‘Does the damage done by the Covid-19 pandemic effectively signal the death of local newspapers?’
You’re asking ME? Listen: in or around 1976 I was invited by a former Newcastle Journal colleague to a party at his home in a middle-class west London suburb. Still in our twenties, we had both come up in the world: I was subbing on the Daily Mirror, he was celebrating quitting his job on Daily Express Money to go full-time developing a suburban weekly giveaway he had started from scratch. This was the era of ‘free weeklies’, those advertising blotter pads which represented the first of several challenges that would eventually soak up the regional newspaper owners’ ‘golden rivers’ of classified advertising.
“I have a proposition for you,” whispered my panatela-puffing pal as he corralled me in his study, away from the din of the party. “I want you to join my start-up as editorial director, look after the news while I concentrate on the advertising and business side. What do you say?”
I looked upon him almost pityingly. “Sorry, mate, no can do. I’m mouse-racing at the Mirror now.” Having been promoted to assistant chief sub I had joined the sarcastically-nicknamed junior version of Fleet Street’s rat race. I had a foot on the first rung. So no way, José (not his real name!). It was the last I saw or heard of my old friend for several years until I returned to the UK after a stint at the New York Post and caught sight of a headline in the Express financial pages: ‘Our Man Takes Media Group Public And Makes Millions!’
The moral of the story? Firstly, that I was and remain a hopeless romantic when it comes to journalism; secondly, that there isn’t one scintilla of businessman about me or I’d be a multi-millionaire myself by now. Still, you DID ask, so I will admit my greatest fear: that the written local news media can never be the same again. The coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent lockdown closed many newspapers and devastated the circulations of those which survived. The loss of millions in advertising and counter sales will deny an opportunity for ninety per cent of those newsprint weeklies to return. This virus will kill not only people but threatens the craft of ink-on-paper communication.
From the high life to hyperlocal
But I would say that, wouldn’t I? Leukaemia and a bunch of other bad stuff retired me early from my last ‘proper’ job as editor of the Daily Mirror, but while you can take the boy out of journalism you will never part the newspaper romantic from his first love . A few months after settling in a cosy cottage in north Northumberland amid the farms and hamlets of my boyhood I rose to a new editorial challenge as editor-publisher-reporter at The Clarion, half-a-dozen A4 pages which started life as a village hall What’s-On guide, built a hyperlocal news agenda and respectable readership figures and, as a result, moved online. It grew in the same way as the weekly Warrington Guardian, where I started as an indentured 16-year-old: it carries parish council stories, village hall events, hyperlocal news from nearby farms and villages, all the stuff deemed too trivial for the ‘big boys’ to bother with and which the under-resourced ‘proper’ local paper servicing £100m of debt rather than the needs of its readership no longer elects to publish. But the nitty-gritty of rural life is exactly what local readers want: hyperlocal news they can’t find elsewhere.
An old Mirror colleague and former Daily Express editor, Christopher Ward, loves to illustrate the value of minutely local news by recounting a New York Times business ‘success story’ concerning an entrepreneur who bought a chain of failing local papers in the States. The new boss called all his editors together and read them the riot act. “In future,” he demanded, “no kitten will be born in your town without it being photographed and its birth reported in your newspaper! Get the idea?” Within three years, reported the NYT, the strategy paid off. Sales and advertising revenue doubled, bucking all trends.
Christopher, who lives in Berwick not far from me, believes passionately that hyperlocal is the road to salvation for the weekly press, be it newsprint or digital. “The first news story I ever wrote, for the Driffield Times when I was 15, was a short item headed, “Harpham Church Organ Re-dedicated”. The news editor was thrilled: he knew that the whole congregation – about 200 in those days – would buy the paper. I spent much of my first year at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle taking names of mourners outside crematoriums and cemeteries. People who attended would buy the paper to see their names, those who hadn’t attended bought it to see who had.”, who now lives in Berwick
Hyperlocal content is, I believe, the key. That and as much contact with the readership as possible. I took The Clarion online in 2019 and I promote updated content instantly to almost 1,000 digital subscribers through the mass email app, Mailchimp. Hits on my website www.voiceofthenorth.net soar as soon as the email goes live.
So how successful is The Clarion, Banksy? How much do you make out of it?
Not a penny, m’lud. Nor likely to, although I did once receive a couple of kilos of heritage potatoes from a farmer grateful that I mentioned her spuds. As I said, I’m a reporter-romantic: as a reasonably comfortable retiree I don’t need advertising; what I DO run is stories of interest and of use to the community. I run campaigns and, given that investigative reporting is specialised, requires a lot of time and more legal knowledge than an ex-editor can muster, I shine a powerful but non-judgmental spotlight into the darker corners of local society.
Pro bono, perhaps, but it beats unprofessionalism
The fact that The Clarion neither carries paid-for ads nor demands a cover charge gives it a serious advantage but the greater recruiting sergeant is the waning popularity of the (un)professional competition. The most important of my multi-faceted roles is pressing friends and neighbours into providing tip-offs, photographs and meetings reports, as I was trained to do as a lad in the Sixties. Most of the time-uncritical reporting is done by phone, though I will stir my ancient bones to travel to Berwick magistrates’ court – where, by the way, I have never encountered a local staff reporter – if an upcoming case looks interesting.
But pro bono or not, my Clarion is a blueprint for an entrepreneurial approach to local media life after lockdown. Brian Aitken, former editor of The Journal in Newcastle who now runs his own company, Brian Aitken Associates, is fiercely optimistic when asked whether local and regional journalism will survive: “It has to,” he insists. “In this ‘fake news’ era you need a trusted friend who will listen to you, tell you truthfully what is happening, stick up for you when you need a hand. Someone who will hold officialdom to account and ensure that justice is seen to be done – and it frankly doesn’t matter if that happens in print or on screen. It’s the content that counts.”
Over here,over there?
Still seeking answers, I caught up with Alan Geere, an editor of vast experience and now teaching international journalism to students in Guangzhou, southern China (via Zoom that day, thanks to the lockdown) who told me that the traditional but broken newspaper advertising model, “demands radical thinking, financial muscle and political clout to set a new agenda for the news industry.”
One answer, he suggests, might emanate from activity across the Atlantic. “A group called the Community Info Co-op based in New Jersey believes that a dedicated state tax used to buy books and pay for internet access in state libraries could also work for local news. “They want to create ‘community information districts’ which would use a local tax to support local journalism.”
We have already seen the UK make a start in that direction, argues Brian Aitken. “The BBC’s Shared Data Unit and their funding of 150 ‘local democracy reporters’ on local newspapers is a great model. Surely Google and Facebook, who rely on content from trusted sources, could be persuaded to fund courts coverage, too?” Aitken also suggests those social media giants might fund regional investigations units and neighbourhood news reporters.
Government doesn’t escape his shopping list, either. He suggests a guaranteed annual spend on government ads in regional media while pointing out that if publishers set ad rates for public notices at reasonable levels local councils would, as was once common, advertise statutory notices.
Charging: the elephant in the online newsroom
The elephant in the online newsroom is, of course, to charge or not to charge for access? Neil Fowler, past editor of four regional dailies who recently concluded a two-year research fellowship at Nuffield College, Oxford looking into the state of the UK regional press, is in no doubt. “Some titles already charge readers,” he pointed out. “Others should follow, albeit years too late. Nationals should do the same. Advertising yields will only continue to decline and revenue has to come from somewhere.
“But make online advertising less pervasive,” he argues. “Intrusive advertising on too many regional sites acts as a deterrent to readers. And invest in better quality reporting – readers do know the difference.”
In conclusion, Christopher Ward believes, coronavirus hasn’t been all bad for local papers,. “It has brought communities closer by throwing us together. Many people are experiencing an interest in what is going on around them for the first time in their lives. Neighbours are becoming ’neighbours’ in the old sense of the word – helping out, keeping watch, a sense of communal responsibility.
“When lockdown ends, that interest is not going to go away. I wouldn’t be surprised if your Clarion doubled its readership in the coming months, Banksy.”
David Banks is a former editor of the Daily Mirror and assistant editor of the Sun. He has also edited daily newspapers in New York and Sydney. Now supposedly retired, he writes and edits The Clarion, a community e-paper in north Northumberland which is carried at www.voiceofthenorth.net,a ‘viewspaper’ of columns to which he contributes and edits.