Filed this just before I went away.
I’d just got off the bus on my way home from the ill-fated Ray Lewis press conference at City Hall when I bumped into someone from Hackney Council. “Have you seen this week’s Gazette?” she said. 'They’ve had a go at you on their leader page.' They had, though in a veiled manner which surely rendered the column still more mysterious to their readers. It was all about bloggers and how they’re a bunch of nutters who have no business complaining if, by some miracle, they publish something of interest that a newspaper – such as the Gazette – helps itself to without acknowledging its source.
I was clearly the blogger they had in mind. There’d been a Gazette front page about the row kicked off by local Labour Councillor Luke Akehurst about the ideal independent candidate to stand against David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden by election. Luke, a noted Labour blogger and strong supporter of 42 days pre-charge detention had suggested “a recently retired senior police officer or a survivor or relative of a terrorist attack.” His post had attracted 172 comments and sent ripples through the blogosphere. The Gazette, demonstrating its growing dependency on local bloggers for stories, detected this online disturbance and made the most of it: “Councillor In Terror Bill Outrage!” or something, its headline screamed.
I too had picked up on the debate on my Hackney blog, observing in the process that it made a change for the Gazette to attribute a story lifted from a blog to the blogger in question. You’ll have guessed that there was history behind that snipe. I’d recently carried a guest post from Jules Pipe, Hackney’s directly-elected mayor, defending the controversial regeneration of the Dalston neighbourhood against criticism of it in Socialist Worker by Children’s Laureate and Dalston resident Michael Rosen. The Gazette had reproduced chunks of Rosen’s polemic and Pipe’s riposte. It mentioned that the former had first appeared in Socialist Worker but didn’t trouble with saying where Pipe’s words had originated. It seemed that a far left newspaper was worthy of this courtesy but a Hackney blogger was not. I had remarked on the omission. This, I think, was what piqued the Gazette in the first place
I’ve reacted to its silly leader with some derision, not out of wounded ego – perish the thought – but to draw attention to the dimwittedness of the paper’s attitude. For one thing, Hackney bloggers are part of the Hackney Gazette’s constituency and very likely – as in my case- among its readers. How about treating them with some respect? More importantly, though, the leader showed the paper to be backward-looking and woefully short of imagination.
Like most newspapers of whatever type, local rags are losing readers. The Hackney Gazette can just about claim a circulation of 10,000 copies a week in a borough of over 200,000 people. Like other local titles in London and elsewhere it faces a growing threat from a Council freebie, in its case Hackney Today, which has recently gone fortnightly. The latter is, of course, mostly pro-Hackney Council propaganda but at least it looks nice and doesn’t gorge on grim crime stories or cost you fifty pence. And given that the Gazette no longer covers the routine business of local democracy, it can hardly complain if the Council itself moves to fill the gap.
So why does the Hackney Gazette think it’s clever to treat Hackney bloggers with contempt? Why does it not follow the example of some large, city newspapers in the United States and cultivate friendly links – in print and online - with local blogs and community websites, which can generate readers, stories and information they wouldn’t otherwise have? Why not regard bloggers as potential “citizen journalist” allies in the battle to win readers rather than as cost-free sources of material to be plundered at leisure then insulted if they dare to complain?
I can’t speak for them, but I can quote a recent observation by former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade: “Citizen participation is, of course, the future of journalism, a future that too many paid-for local papers have been rather slow to grasp. Many of them are catching up now. But are they too late?”
I hope they aren’t. Good local media are important to the neighbourhoods they serve and could be great innovators, showing the way forward for journalism. In an age of rapid change in every corner of Britain they have the potential to tell grassroots stories that are not only significant in their own right but may have wider implications that national counterparts are unlikely to find or tell so well. Bloggers and “CJ”s can help them in that task, whether in Hackney, the Outer Hebrides or Crewe. The established local papers have a choice: they can cultivate that help or they can scorn and exploit it. If I were them, I’d take the first option. After all, they need all the help and goodwill they can get.
It's here too.