I think that our local press have been going through a pretty rough time over the last few years. When the credit crunch came lots of advertising revenue went, journalists were made redundant, and people stopped buying papers so often. You ended up with journalists under pressure in an increasingly squeezed market.
One of the things that we lost in our local paper was the photographer, who had produced many great photos of things happening in the community. This mattered, because his photos were something positive and joyous and gave the whole paper a positive feel. Whenever I met this photographer I complained that it usually meant wearing a silly hat, and frequently it did, but he knew his trade, and he knew how to make people look interesting.
Over the last years lots of papers have gone to the wall, others have found new ways of doing things. Not all of this has been good!
Over the last few months I have undertaken an interesting exercise. I needed to see in detail how the press had reported one particular story, so I looked through 15 months worth of papers that I had been keeping stacked up in boxes, to find the thousand or so articles I needed. (this was an awful lot of paper, and it is great to consolidate it down to one very large boxful)
What I had not been looking for was the way in which the papers contribute to building the community, but I found that this was a significant matter.
What we have been finding out over the last few months in our town - Stafford - is that monitoring services depends ultimately on handfuls of people performing a civic function. Attending meetings, reading digesting and thinking about reports, asking difficult questions, and asking them again if they don't get satisfactory answers. It is clear that in many ways we have not been doing this well. Groups get hijacked by people with a particular point of view, groups are badly managed. There are not enough good people coming forward to perform these essential, but hugely unexciting tasks, and there could well be less people willing to do them if people get pilloried for doing them badly.
All of these bodies that are there to look after the governing of our towns, plus all the political parties, are much much weaker than they should be, and the only people who can change this at the end of the day are us.
In Stafford what I found in the papers is that page 1-10 would generally have quite a lot of prominent stories, with pictures, telling us that people had not been listened to, or had not been able to get the bodies to do what they wanted them to do, and then on page 27 you would get a very dull paragraph inviting you to be a member of LINks. If people read these articles at all they would probably feel that it has nothing to do with them. Why would anyone bother?
This is completely in line with any paper I have dealt with over the last 20 years, where you can simply never guarantee that events which rely on people to come to them will receive any degree of prominence.
If we really want to be able to meet the challenges of the next few difficult years then it is clear to me that we have to be able to communicate, and that one of the tools we need for this is a really good community newspaper.
Hyperlocal works well, and that has to be part of the solution, but for a sleepy town like Stafford, where many people only use the web for limited purposes this also has to be made accessible by a a newspaper.
I am talking with a few people at the moment to see what is possible.