News Shopper slashed again: What’s the future for SE London journalism?

News Shopper, 3 August 2016

Another nail in the coffin for local journalism in south-east London has arrived this week, with the merger of the Greenwich and Lewisham editions of the News Shopper. In truth, it’s not a huge cutback – papers meant for Sydenham to Abbey Wood largely had the same content anyway. And the paper’s distribution is patchy at best.

But the two papers usually had their own front pages, giving publicity to local campaigns that may not resonate in the neighbouring borough. You may not get a printed Shopper through the letterbox any more, but those front pages can still make waves where it matters. Now the papers will share a front page – bad news for campaigns such as those trying to stop Greenwich schools becoming academies or steep cutbacks to Lewisham’s libraries.

This probably means even more crime stories, because everyone (in theory) identifies with those, even though they’re a hugely depressing turn-off if they appear every week.

Until the 1980s, it was common for south London’s local papers to span borough boundaries. The Mercury used to cover Greenwich, Lewisham and the southern part of Southwark (the old Camberwell borough) in one paper. The Kentish Independent covered Greenwich and Bexley before it closed in 1984. The Kentish Times did the same for Bexley and Bromley. The South London Press still stretches from Wandsworth to Lewisham. But back then, the papers were fully-staffed, well-resourced and based in their patches. People even used to go into newsagents to buy them – imagine!

That old economic model has been smashed – partly by shareholder greed, partly by modern technology. Newsrooms have been emptied and moved out of the area – the Shopper comes from Sutton, the Mercury from the SLP’s base in Streatham. Talented young journalists on poor salaries (and priced out of the area) are being made to run ever faster just to keep up to produce stories for papers that are rarely seen or websites that are becoming increasingly unusable.

If this kind of thing interests you, it’s worth reading the thoughts of Gareth Davies, an investigate reporter who recently left the once-proud Croydon Advertiser. Worth also looking at Inside Croydon, the upstart blog which regularly pulls the “Sadvertiser”‘s pants down and is everything I wish 853 was.

This is the point where I should come in and cackle. Look at him with his so-called “blog”! But I can’t. I take great pride in much of what this website and the Charlton Champion has covered over the years. I’ve even given talks about it to fellow journalists. It’s good to be able to tell people about things you think they’ll be interested in.

But outsider blogs like this – and maybe even Inside Croydon – burn out eventually. Even the ones that take the line that everything is brilliant fade away because you can only tell that story once.

Most readers of this website will be aware that the content’s dried up a bit lately. That’s partly because I’m still dealing with complications from breaking my ankle five months ago that make it difficult to get around, and I haven’t had much time to catch up with stories like the Thames Path being closed again.

There’s no incentive for me to get out and do this in my own time – in fact, the reverse is true, particularly when my priorities in life are recovering from my injury and seeking some kind of paid employment. Six months ago, I was screamed at in a pub by a Greenwich Labour figure after I suggested he was in a better position to deal with the problems in his party’s council than I was. What’s the point in carrying on if that happens when you’ve gone out for a quiet drink?

So if the local newspaper model is bust, and lone wolf blogs burn out, where next? Greenwich Council had an opportunity to create a community paper out of Greenwich Time, but blew it by turning it into a propaganda sheet. (Incidentally, it is now planning to try again as a fortnightly, which could land it in more legal disputes.)

There’s the co-op model – the amazing Bristol Cable has over 1,200 members and has made an enormous impact with the kind of investigative journalism that has simply gone out of fashion in local papers. But this takes time and money – are enough people interested?

Or perhaps there’s room to try again with the local printed press – the monthly Greenwich Visitor and SE Nine show there’s still life away from the asset-stripping media giants. But who’s willing to take the financial risk?

The answer, ultimately, lies with you. As Guardian staffers are finding out, news doesn’t grow on trees. Would you be willing to support a local news co-op, or investing in a new paper (even only at the level of buying one each week)? I’d be very interested in your thoughts.

15 comments

  1. The newly relaunched SLP no longer seems to carry the Streatham address – the only references are to the Penge office.

  2. Oh blimey. I’m trying to track what’s happening at the SLP/Mercury since its managers bought it out, but they now seem to have two websites (why?) and I haven’t seen a print edition of the Mercury in ages.

  3. Hi Darryl,

    I am deeply sorry to hear that you are still recovering from your accident. You sound really fed up by the tone of your article. I agree that the News Shopper is a shadow of what it used to be – and have written to that effect on several occasions recently. Their website is overloaded with spurious code and is both a visual and technical mess.

    I think it is down to Bloggers to fill the gap left by local papers – the likes of you, me and Malcolm Knight. I regularly get Emailed comments from people saying that they read blogs rather than local paper websites. I think it is a behavioural / cultural shift. Also the lack of truly local news from the likes of the News Shopper – when they reference “local” stories in places such as Sutton and Merton. I made a conscious decision to have a truly local footprint – a majority of my stories come from an area from Slade Green to Thamesmead along the path of the Thames – in a similar way to your Charlton / Greenwich / Lewisham focus.

    Regards,

    Hugh.

  4. hello. I read with interest, the plight of the local ‘news’ paper “News Shopper”.
    I grew up in Plumstead/Woolwich in the 1960’s/70’s and well remember titles such as the ‘Kentish Independent’ and the ‘Mercury’ (local Woolwich edition). Can someone please explain briefly, what happened to these news papers ? thanks.

  5. I would definitely support a local news co-op, if I could. I imagine even just having some sort of rota for people to go to and report on various council meetings would help. Beyond that, I think some sort of SE London news/hyperlocal aggregator could work really well.

    I really value all the local bloggers, but there seems to be room for something with a slightly broader scope. Take somewhere like Abbey Wood for example – an area affected by two councils and a huge infrastructure project, with multiple angles being covered, and probably a few more stories being missed too. Having lots of stories brought together in one place could really make a difference.

    I would also buy a proper independent local newspaper. I think SE London would massively benefit from one, but I can’t see it happening any time soon.

    It would be great to see councils properly held to account, but there are all the smaller stories too – the events people don’t know about, the changes unchronicled, the people who could be given a voice.

  6. Yes, local web-based forums are taking over – but a reader has to know what to search for: it can be really hard to get a sense of things happening across several boroughs. And yes, this is a cultural change – but it has a silo-effect. Blogs are great for reaction, immediate responses and currency, but they are not as effective as good print newspaper with in-depth coverage when a buyer has bought a copy for other reasons. The SLP used to be essential reading for planning issues and celebrations of local culture, but has become very hit and miss recently – and the recent design makeover is really unimpressive and unattractive: the masthead is particularly weak – and shamefaced really. And yes, I would happily pay a monthly sub for a good blog on local news and current events for South East London.

  7. Hugh – thank you for your kind words. Fed up? Well, maybe… local blogs have their role, but they can’t be everything. Malcolm’s Bexley Is Bonkers site won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s been the only place to read about Bexley shenanigans since the late Linda Piper retired from the News Shopper. And what happens when you and him give up?

    Steve – You raise an interesting point in Abbey Wood. The whole Thamesmead project was meticulously covered by the local press of the 60s, 70s and 80s, but areas are changing at a faster pace now and simply aren’t being covered at all. And yes, smaller events people don’t know about – I only find out about things through Twitter now, and that’s only after wading through lots of crap opinions on things (including mine).

    Lucy – forums also tend to descend into rows, too – and that’s just a dead-end. People tend to be very quick to comment without actually reading things now, particularly on Facebook, which is sucking the life and revenue out of everything placed on it (not just on FB, though – David’s comment in this thread is a good example: I’m not sure he actually read the bits that mentioned the KI’s closure and the Mercury’s continued existence, if he did I apologise).

  8. Hi Darryl,

    I have no intention of giving up – as you may well be aware Arthur Pewty’s Maggot Sandwich just celebrated its tenth birthday. I am here to stay! I get the feeling Malcolm Knight is of a similar opinion.

    Regards,

    Hugh

  9. Sorry you are fed up Darryl. Be assured I and many others locally turn to 853 and Charlton Champion as our independent, qualified sources of news. Sadly – as with many things digital – the business model is the problem.

  10. The co-op model sounds interesting. I’d also be happy to pay a subscription each month whether that be towards something like 853, or actually to 853. I’ve lost count of the number of interesting stories I’ve read about via 853 and the Champion over the years, and I don’t see why people should be expected to do it forever just for the love. Baby needs shoes!

  11. I remember well local press and would still but an unbiased SE London paper. Until then we have you and I hope the let’s healing!

  12. I’m well out of area but I’m happy to pay a substantial subscription to ensure the survival of some for of local journalism in SE London.

    On a related note, I know its not quite the immediacy of a paper, but quite a lot of small magazines are successfully getting issues funded through Kickstarter. Maybe start with a quarterly and see what happens from there? http://mediashift.org/2016/03/how-magazines-hit-the-crowdfunding-jackpot-on-kickstarter/. Stack (http://www.stackmagazines.com/) has supported a fair few Kickstarter / Indiegogo magazines recently too.

    I’d happy to contribute cash or time; although I sincerely doubt anyone would want my words in their periodical.

  13. I can’t believe they’re going to close the Thames Pathway for 18 months! Probably gives them a chance to do something unpalatable around Enderby Wharf.

  14. Hi Darryl – sorry to hear you’re having doubts about the future of this blog.

    It’s an invaluable source of local news and has been great at exposing some of the stuff that goes on with Greenwich council and at least trying to make our local politicians accountable.

    Have you considered Patreon as a funding source? I’d sign up for a regular contribution to keep your blog going and I’m sure others would too

  15. +1 for Patreon. Gt to be worth a try – what’s the worse that can happen.

    Blackheath Bugle and Greenwich Phantom have hung up their keyboards – very sad indeed.

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