Grey Cardigan: Extract from the March column

IT WOULD seem appropriate to start this piece with a cliché: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

 

(Let’s not argue about ’till’. That’s how Joni Mitchell wrote it.)

 

The ongoing demise of local newspapers is manifesting itself in some strange ways. On his Holdthefrontpage blog, former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson casts a critical eye over the York Press and gives it a severe kicking. And rightly so. I saw a copy a few weeks ago and it’s a poor effort.

 

But at least we know why. The Newsquest bean-counters have butchered staffing levels and editorial costs and even forced the editor, a proper old school hack, to compete for his own job against the managing director. The managing director ‘won’.

 

It’s no surprise that standards are slipping across the board as newsrooms struggle to man the diary and fill what little space they have, but there seems to be an opinion that anyone who points this out is being disloyal. Dyson’s blog attracted a number of dissenting voices, a couple of whom couldn’t resist pointing to the woeful circulation performance of his previous title – a complete irrelevance in this argument.

 

Let’s be honest. There are still plenty of excellent local newspapers out there. I praised the Craven Herald in this column only a couple of months ago. But there are also some complete dogs, and we all know it. Brow-beaten editors not knowing where to turn next; demoralised staff going through the motions; badly planned pages, sloppy subbing (if there’s any at all) and lazy, humdrum headings. The worst kind of local paper, and doomed to eventual failure.

 

And we’ve all done it, including me. With the deadline approaching there’s a shitty, back-of-book page that’s two-thirds full of classified ads that have been so badly planned that you’re left with an impossible editorial shape. There’s nothing in the basket apart from a picture of a man pointing at a dog turd (well, actually, pointing at where a dog turd might once have been) and 300 words put together two weeks ago by a work experience kid to whom English was obviously a second language. Bollocks. In it goes, space filled, page away. The guilt only arrives at about 3am the next morning, by which time it’s too late.

 

Bizarrely, the local ‘rag’ is now being celebrated in some parts, albeit in an extremely patronising tone. The Times recently ran a piece with the sub-head ‘The decline of regional newspapers threatens a unique reporting tradition’and then allowed somebody called Jack Malvern to spend 2,000 words rubbishing much of what we do. I don’t think Jack Malvern has ever worked on a regional, so he had to rely on his experience of sifting agency stories during ‘occasional’shifts as a copytaster. And we all know that, with respect, agency copy often bears little resemblance to the original story that appeared in our pages.

 

But he can also call on his colleagues, many of whom will have got their start on a regional, for more ammo: ‘The older generation are well served by local newspapers,’he writes, ‘in part because they make up a substantial proportion of the readership. Michael Shaw, comment editor of the Times Educational Supplement, had to cover his share of 50th wedding anniversaries for the Bristol Evening Post. ‘Get a group of local reporters in a room and it’s always a matter of time before they start moaning about 50th wedding anniversaries,’ he says. ‘When you ask couples, ‘What’s the secret of a good marriage?’ they always say ‘Give and take’. My colleague Will Stewart, formerly of the Yorkshire Post, got a better answer, though. The woman replied: ‘Well, ‘e never ‘it me’.”

 

Oh what jolly japes. Let’s take the piss out of the provincials.

 

And it’s not only Londoncentric tossers on The Times who are condescendingly patting us on our heads. A new sub-culture of websites has sprung up, highlighting our more mundane content. It’s difficult to get cross about these, because they all make a fair point, but go to http://www.thenethereregions.co.uk, Angry People in Local Newspapers (http://apiln.blogspot.com/) or http://glumcouncillors.tumblr.com and you’ll see what I mean.

 

Of course, in this brave new world of citizen journalism, all this humdrum crap will disappear to be replaced by scintillating, modern content. Err… not quite.

 

When the Guardian proudly launched its Guardian Local web initiative last month, the first site proudly featured … ‘a pot holed scarred road which may be the worst in Leeds”.

 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

You can contact me, should you be minded, at thegreycardigan@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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