Thoughts on local news and living in York…

NOT far off 30 years ago, and how can those words be true, we left London to live in York, intending to stay two or three years. It was part of my plan to slightly delayed greatness; or, at least, to climb a little higher up the journalism pole.

We never left and instead succumbed to the lovely trap that is York, often described as a graveyard of ambition. Is that true? I have no idea, but the city did eventually sap my determination to move on up.

As for that journalism pole, it began to lurch. I clung on for many years, before falling off when the money men shook the tree and dislodged the redundant apples. I was a bruised apple for a while, but found my way again; a different way; a more complicated way – but a path is a path and a bruised apple can still roll.

Life in York has much to recommend it and I’ll return to that in a moment. But let’s look at the shaky pole of local journalism. According to a report on the Press Gazette website – itself once a news magazine available on good paper – only 17 per cent of London’s local newspapers are based in the community they serve, and around half have only one reporter for each borough they cover.

The Press Gazette research found also that five newspapers had only one reporter covering several boroughs. My old newspaper, the South East London Mercury, was swallowed whole years ago by the South London Press, once mighty but now less so.

According to the Press Gazette research, the SLP has one reporter covering six boroughs; just think of that – six boroughs, massed together, add up to a large town, even a small city. “Its sister paper the Mercury” – oh, what a poor relation to the old girl I knew – “covers Greenwich and Lewisham with only one reporter.”

Two big boroughs, one no doubt over-pressed reporter. A solo scribe cannot ‘cover’ such a patch in any meaningful manner, which is why, with deadlines snapping at their backs, those who run today’s surviving local newspapers rely too often on press release and official news; the news put about by those who can afford to pay to have it put about.

Without reporters recording, prying and watching out; without reporters scratching away at the curiosity sore, local life goes unreported, unrecorded, unexamined – and in extreme cases, terrible events such as the Grenfell fire happen when, with good grassroots reporting, the early signs of something being wrong may have been spotted.

The Press Gazette report is not entirely gloomy, with Tom Oxtoby, editorial director of City Matters, a new weekly newspaper covering the City of London, saying: “I think there is strength in grass-roots journalism and whilst many larger organisations are swinging the axe and closing titles, there is a case for independent titles like ourselves to fill that void.”

Well, I admire his inky optimism.

In an age when journalists are roundly disparaged by everyone from Donald Trump to ardent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, and many others in between, it is worth recording that journalism can be a tough gig. Worth recording too, as is the habit of this blog, that the sometimes criticised Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, has one of the toughest gigs around, and does the job with unflagging energy.

Here in York, we have my old newspaper and a weekly version of the same. The paper does better than many others around the country, but whether that will be enough to secure a future is anyone’s guess; a decision for the dreaded tree-shakers.

From what I hear, everyone works harder than they ever did to keep that newspaper and website afloat. And, yes, the print edition is reduced from what is was but it is still there, still trying to do the job.

This city also has a good independent website in YorkMix. That, too, strives to survive and to reflect life in this city, and plays a good game with few players.

As for York, life sometimes pushes you in the right direction, even as you try to pull against the geographical elastic and move elsewhere. I tried to leave but now York has me; it’s where our three have grown up, and where we have grown a little older. And I’m not planning on living anywhere else.

The city has changed in nearly 30 years, and it’s a more cosmopolitan place to live, with many more bars, coffee bars and restaurants, and feels less monocultural than it did.

To me this is almost all for the good, although it is a worry that local businesses struggle to survive as all the big names bustle in. But the place has me now, whether it wants me or not.

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