I’ve been thinking on this for a long time now, but the current wholesale laying waste of local papers in towns not that far from Walsall and an excellent post on professional journo-turned-press-officer Dan Slee’s excellent blog as well as recent chatter on twitter has prompted me to revisit what is once more a hot topic.
Of course in Walsall we know all about this experience – after all, Trinity Mirror tossed Walsall’s once-great organ the Walsall Observer away like so much screwed-up chip paper back in 2009 – and they are at it again.
The ‘Obbo’ was not, of course, at the time of its being axed, more than a shadow of its former self, and had been in decline for decades – ever since it had passed out of the hands of local publishers West Midlands Press during the 80s, it had been run down by successive publishers from outside Walsall. Since then, it had suffered the death of a thousand cuts, and been reduced to the point where many people simply didn’t notice when it had gone. They changed their tune afterwards, but by then it was too late.
It’s the sad truth that Walsall no longer has a truly ‘local’ weekly newspaper. We have the Walsall Chronicle, a good paper for a freesheet, but that’s put together in Wolverhampton, and printed in Shropshire, largely from recycled Express & Star stories, and there hasn’t been a Walsall office for either paper for the past couple of years due to cost-cutting at the Star. Then there’s the Walsall Advertiser – well that’s not a true Walsallpaper either, it’s part of a series published in Tamworth, and is also not what it once was.
There’s some small justice, in a way, that the Advertiser itself is now in decline, despite my very genuine sympathy for the plight of hard-pressed local journalists, as the demise of local papers in Walsall was started by its arrival in the early 80s, being the town’s first freesheet, encouraged by local estate agents who didn’t want to pay the Observer’s advertising rates. That was the first nail in Walsall’s local news coffin, resulting in many redundancies at West Midlands Press and the eventual death of that company. And after all, what stake or interest do readers have in newspapers which they don’t have to pay for, and can simply discard without any apparent loss to them?
So where are we now? Well, there are still supposedly ‘local’ weekly newspapers on sale in the borough, but none of them have any major stake in Walsall as companies, and it hardly seems likely that this situation will change in the immediate future unless one or more of them gets cut for economic reasons. Not impossible, but it would be a great shame to see them go even though they are not locally published. I really would not wish to see Walsall without even a semi-local newspaper, it would be a disaster for local people and harmful for local democracy, leaving many without a strong voice to hold politicians and others to account in the public eye.
The top and bottom of it, however, is that the freesheet model of newspaper publication is becoming increasingly non-viable at a time when advertising revenue is at an all-time low, and those papers which may no longer be subsidised by the bigger fish who publish them are at the mercy of the bean-counters in companies which are only interested in profit and don’t care about local communities and the effect that losing their local paper – which is at the heart of any town’s identity – will have.
It seems highly unlikely that anyone is going to launch a new paid-for weekly newspaper in Walsall, certainly in the present economic climate, sadly. And there is no guaranteed future for the free weeklies. So what if any is the alternative?
What of the much-touted hyperlocal news revolution? Well so far there’s no sign of local websites taking over from the dead-wood press, as it seems there’s little money in it as yet, despite notable efforts in the area to try and do something about that. There are a few hyperlocal news sites run by ‘citizen journalists’ in certain quarters of the borough, doing their bit for their communities in various degrees to give people a real voice and cover very local issues that the papers ignore or don’t cover in any depth, and there is also one important news aggregator, but that’s all. Let’s face it, we small fry do our best on the hyperlocal news front, and often in other areas such as local history or politics, and some of the work we do has been hailed as outstanding, but we are not in the same league as a real, professionally-run newspaper. We just don’t have the funding, resources, time or staff.
So in Walsall as a borough, while good work is being done on a small scale, there is presently nothing truly local online that shows any promise of being able to take on the likes of, for example, the much-missed Walsall Observer’s mantle.
Is such a web-based publication even possible? I asked the question on twitter recently: “Noting the death of many local newspapers, who would welcome the return of the Walsall Observer as a hyperlocal website? (Hypothetically).” The responses were positive, and in the affirmative, but small in number. There was an understandable concern that such a ‘virtual newspaper’, if it were to come into being, should be high in quality, it was thought that it would have to be as good as the ‘Obbo’ was in its heyday, and be published weekly. Maybe that would be possible to a degree, on a smaller scale, but it would likely not be commercially viable in the short term, as the circulation would be lower online and how would you fund a sizeable staff of ‘real’ journalists and other staff on the modest advertising revenue available?
Now, I quite understand why so many professional journalists get a bit edgy when the subject of newspaper closures comes up and hyperlocal news and citizen journalism is hailed as the future of X town or Y village. It’s their livelihood, and they can see it disappearing in front of them – plus all this online stuff can be a bit off-putting if you’re a traditional local hack. But maybe it’s time they started to think outside of the box and consider getting together with the best bloggers instead of looking down their noses at them. Why not set up an online ‘newspaper’ for Walsall – calling it the Walsall Observer if the name could be obtained, or something else if not – as a borough-wide co-operative of pro journalists working with citizen journalists? Good standards of journalism combined with a real stake in local places and communities could result in a return to something resembling the good old days of local news in Walsall, albeit in a different form.
It might not be much of a moneyspinner, to start with – and it would have to be a labour of love otherwise it would not work – but it could be the way of the future.
Unless something like this can come to pass, it seems to me that there may be a bleak future for local news in Walsall.
Editor, The Bloxwich Telegraph
17th November 2011
PS As there seems to be interest in commenting, I’ve switched comments back on for this post, and will do so for future editorials. Your considered opinions are welcome!