Camden New Journal's 'benevolent dictator' Eric Gordon leaves 'small is beautiful' legacy after death at 89

Eric Gordon, the founder, editor and – in his own words – “benevolent dictator” of the Camden New Journal and Islington Tribune, died last week aged 89.

Gordon continued writing weekly columns until his death, even calling about a parking ticket story from his hospital bed in his final week.

Now there is a “drive and desire” within the paper to set up a new management structure, the vision for which Gordon outlined just months before his death.

Writing for the Camden New Journal’s 2,000th issue in November, Gordon revealed he was exploring the idea of an outside body of trustees to represent the community and “act as a kind of ‘parental’ body aimed at keeping an eye, as it were, on the newspaper to ensure that it followed, as faithfully as possible, the aims and principles that led to its birth in 1982″.

“It’s a radical step, still to be tested. It would mean that the community, as a whole, would play a part in the life of the newspaper, in a way it has never done before,” he wrote

“It would not, and should not, infringe on the basics of press freedom, but simply have a voice to make sure we remain independent and adherents to the principles of those idealists so long ago.”

Deputy editor Richard Osley told Press Gazette that Gordon’s vision would also see a management board in place for staff to share their views and ideas about how the paper should be run, and to hold regular meetings with readers ensuring it is accountable and does not stray from its editorial principles.

“That was his hope for the paper,” Osley said. “Unfortunately it hasn’t been put in place. That’s our job now.”

Osley said the intention was to ensure the paper could not be bought by one person who could change its focus towards making a profit. Gordon’s aim was only to cover costs enough to allow for the publication of a campaigning, open-to-all newspaper.

Osley said he believed Gordon’s work had showed “small is beautiful sometimes”.

Around a dozen CNJ staff, including Osley, have been at the paper for 20 years. He said this meant there was a “real drive and desire within the paper to have those locks so that it’s carried on in his spirit”.

Camden New Journal founder/editor Eric Gordon on the Save the Whittington Hospital battle bus. Picture: Camden New Journal

The CNJ, which currently has about eight staff reporters and four sub-editors, was set up with a co-operative model of collective decision making and shared profits in mind.

However in an interview with Press Gazette in 2005, Gordon admitted the running of the paper had subsequently become a “benevolent dictatorship”. He said otherwise “I realised we would become extinct”. As Osley put it: “There had to be a reality check between what Eric wanted and the reality of it,” adding his boss was a “pragmatic” man.

Gordon launched CNJ sister titles the Islington Tribune in 2003 and West End Extra in 2005. He told Press Gazette then: “We’ve really reached a peak in Camden and in true capitalist fashion we have to expand and diversify.”

He also wrote last year about why his papers were different to others in the regional press: “Principally, we do not exist simply in terms of production for profit. We are not privately owned. We have no shareholders or proprietor who, effectively, dictate what happens with the newspaper.

“That, essentially, along with our commitment to do our best to truthfully report events locally and always willing to hold the local authority or other powers to account, is the reason why we believe we have been accepted by the community.

“In the face of the health and economic crisis, owners of other local weeklies have slashed staff, closed titles, anything to protect their profit base. We have avoided all that carnage.”

Gordon and a number of other staff of the original Camden Journal bought the paper for £1 following a 16-month strike that started when nine journalists were unceremoniously dismissed just before Christmas 1980.

Osley recalled how Gordon liked to remind his staff of the sacrifices made by the journalists of that time by holding forth in the newsroom at least once a year.

“If you were grumpy about the state of the office… Eric – still, in his 80s – would draw us in and give us an hour long [talk] reciting the history of the paper, the history of the strike and then you felt, well, okay, maybe it’s not so bad that this page is taking a long time to load up.”

Gordon’s titles are all free and fully reliant on advertising and sponsorship revenue. The CNJ has a weekly distribution of about 50,000, with door-to-door deliveries and pick-up bins around Camden borough.

Osley said Gordon was “ahead of his time”. “People used to be quite snobby about free newspapers. If it’s free, then it can’t be very good.

“He proved the opposite and the idea was always that you shouldn’t have to pay for a newspaper because it makes everyone feel involved and they come with the stories and the paper would get better and people would feel represented. It was quite an important point to him.”

Camden New Journal founder/editor Eric Gordon in the former Camden Journal offices before the strike that led to the new paper. Picture: Camden New Journal

Remembering his boss of 20 years, Osley said he was “such a surprise – there’s no point second guessing him”. He said Gordon could make a huge fuss over a nib and share his hatred of anonymous-sounding spokesperson quotes, but would stay “so calm” in the fact of legal letters.

“He did not want to give up being a journalist. He knew he had to do the finance stuff, but his passion was just telling people’s stories.”

Osley added: “I think the main thing is that he was still there in his 80s and he was so interested in every bit of the paper, every bit every story that we’re doing, every person we’re talking to… that unpredictability I guess was what made him just amazing to work for.”

Picture: Camden New Journal

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