In the middle of England, rarely featuring in any best-of or worst-of lists, sits my home town of Kidderminster.
With a burgeoning population, around 59,000 at the last count, it sits midway between the country’s second biggest city, Birmingham, and one of its smallest, Worcester.
It’s a rugged little town, with a sprawling retail centre bounded by a ring-road and canals.
Kidderminster is also home to The Shuttle, a print and online weekly that’s been in existence since 1870.
It’s a publication with a loyal readership spanning generations. Today’s weekly print version drops through thousands of letterboxes every Thursday (though precise figures are hard to come by.) Its masthead now proclaims a print and online weekly readership of 58,952 people.
The increasingly small Shuttle team, based eight miles away in a Newsquest hub in Stourbridge, do a remarkably good job filling the paper ever week as well as providing daily online coverage. Unlike many smaller publications that have suffered shrinking newsrooms, the paper is still packed with news and events, sport and previews.
Last year it saw off an incursion into Kidderminster from the Wolverhampton-based Express & Star. The daily evening paper, now boasting the highest regional circulation in England, had spotted an opportunity to increase its presence in Wyre Forest. It created a new weekly Kidderminster edition which was delivered free to about 20,000 households, also on Thursdays. But this attempt at direct competition faltered after three years; it was failing to make commercial sense.
In November last year, the Express & Star’s small town office closed, and its single dedicated reporter was axed.
So, given this failure by a commercial news operation, why did I bother giving time voluntarily to set up an ‘alternative’ news source for Kidderminster and neighbouring towns and villages, when there’s a perfectly good traditional paper already in existence?
It’s a good question.
My first motivation was as a resident of the town with a passion for journalism. I can see with my own eyes that there is much about this community that goes unreported, both good and ill. This motivation is shared with the editors of dozens of other hyperlocal blogs and websites around the country, similarly concerned about how their communities are depicted to the wider world.
A 2016 study by media researchers found the depletion of local newspapers triggered a “democratic deficit” leading to reduced community engagement and loss of trust in public bodies.
“We can all have our own social media account, but when [local papers] are depleted or in some cases simply don’t exist, people lose a communal voice. They feel angry, not listened to and more likely to believe malicious rumour,” said Dr Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College London, which published the report.
Secondly, it’s clear that the small reporting team at The Shuttle can’t possibly be everywhere and cover everything. That is the reality for shrinking newsrooms – fewer eyes and ears equals fewer opportunities to dig out news. As a Trinity Mirror executive put it in a memo to journalists ahead of staff cuts two years ago:
“The days are long gone when we could afford to be a paper of record and dutifully report everything that happened on our patch”.
That admission was described by media commentator Roy Greenslade as “the death knell for journalism”, marking the end of an era when newspapers claimed to know everything that was going on in a community.
In my town, it is inevitable that much of what constitutes ‘news’ goes under the radar. To be honest, ’twas ever thus – no matter how many reporters there are, some things will still stay hidden.
It was also always true that the people with the loudest voices, and the businesses and organisations that could afford to pay wordsmiths to craft press-ready media releases, always got more column inches.
But never has so much gone unreported, nor has there been so much reliance on the same few voices and sources of news.
It’s rare for a reporter to attend a district council meeting, or a community event, in person.
It’s rarer still for a reporter to be spotted around town, enjoying the luxury of simply ‘walking the beat’ to see what catches their eye.
The advent of the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter scheme is unlikely to change things much locally. The Worcester News has snaffled the county’s sole postholder, and its appointee has not yet ventured this far out of Worcester, where his focus has been on reporting about the county council, NHS trusts and Worcester City Council.
To my knowledge, no working journalists covering the patch now live here (apart from me) – and with no offices based here, there’s inevitably a decline in local knowledge and vision.
What this all means is that stories from my little corner of England go unchecked and issues are missed.
It also means that a huge space has opened up which canny local council comms teams, ambitious local businesses, streetwise police officers and even fire service teams have gradually learned to exploit.
They now recognise they can bypass the local media entirely and share information with the community direct, using their owned channels but also by piggy-backing onto popular Facebook groups around the district.
A closed Facebook group, Kidderminster Matters (there are two versions, but the bigger of the two) has more than 15,000 followers. Similar popular sites in Stourport and Bewdley, Wolverley and Cookley, all attract engaged followers who join in the gossip and share news and information. It’s here where local people are now turning when something dramatic happens in town – anything from a lost cat, to speeding police cars, to a grassland fire, to reports of troublesome fireworks.
The police force locally have not just established their own Facebook page; officers are also actively encouraged to share images and crime updates on Facebook and Twitter, to join in online conversations and, where necessary, correct misinformation.
If there’s an appeal for witnesses, or a hunt for a suspect, these are more likely to appear first on the police’s own channels and on the Facebook groups than on the local newspaper site.
To any supporter of independent journalism, I hope this suggests how vital it is to have an arbitrating voice; one that is not giving a single viewpoint but is providing a check and balance to these official voices; one that can cast a sceptical eye over official versions of events for fairness and accuracy. This is especially true, I think, in a community where the local councils are dominated by a single party (there’s a Conservative county and district council, a Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, and a Conservative MP), and where messages of dissent can easily be drowned out.
I’ve created a business card to give out to anyone likely to be interested in my news site. On the bottom of it I’ve added a quote:
“You can never have all the facts from one source…and without all the facts you cannot make a proper judgement.”
That, to me, encapsulates why I think an alternative media is needed in my community.
(NOTE: THIS BLOG WAS UPDATED, 9:8:18)