Bucking the trend: the independent local mag winning friends and advertisers in Shrewsbury

Current research into the burgeoning ‘hyperlocal’ news scene tends to focus on websites. Indeed, definitions of what is meant by hyperlocal usually include reference to it as a digital, online medium:

“Online news or content services pertaining to a town, village, single postcode or other small, geographically defined community.” (Nesta, 2015)

Here’s  another: “Hyperlocal media operations are geographically-based, community-oriented, original-news-reporting organisations indigenous to the web and intended to fill perceived gaps in coverage of an issue or region and to promote civic engagement.” (Metzgar et al, 2011)

But in some places there has been a quiet ‘back to basics’ revolution, with new print products launched which celebrate community.

Most are one part of a package, also including digital offerings. But some are eschewing digital and focussing solely on producing a traditional print magazine, with positive results.

One of these is the Belle Vue Magazine in Shrewsbury, which in a short time has grown a devoted following and managed to achieve the holy grail of a ‘sort of’ sustainability.

Is the success of this little magazine a small sign that proclamations about the death of print might be premature? Does print still have a value to some communities?

After all, we still have nearly a quarter of the adult population without a smartphone (78% smartphone users, Ofcom Market Report 2018) and one in 15 people don’t have access to the internet (87% internet take up, Ofcom Market Report 2018). That suggests a healthy audience relatively untouched by digital news, and a significant number of those are among the eldest and most vulnerable sections of our community.

The man behind Belle Vue Magazine is journalist and columnist Phil Gillam, a lifelong Salopian and one of the town’s champions.

The magazine – strapline: “Made just for you: the little mag to keep and cherish” – is his brainchild and labour of love.

Phil took redundancy in 2014, after 37 years with the Shropshire Star, the Express & Star, and associated titles. The period leading up to his departure was a torrid time for most regional publications, and this was no different; falling ad revenues, increasing pressure on reporting staff and the ever present threat of more job losses. For many journalists leaving the business at this time, there was a sense of relief – and also the opportunity to try other things.

But Phil had carved out a career and reputation based on his talent for sharing stories about the people, places and events of his beloved Shrewsbury, and was reluctant to give this up overnight.

While writing fiction set in the county town was one way to keep his love affair alive, and he maintains a weekly column in the Shrewsbury Chronicle, Phil realised he finally had the time and space to fulfil a long-held desire.

“Since I was a little boy I’ve always felt there was something special about Belle Vue and Coleham. When you cross the little footbridge from town, over the river into Belle Vue, you enter what appears to be a self contained village.

“It’s a Victorian built area close to the riverside – it’s very mixed, with some very posh homes and proper working class areas, but together it makes up a distinct community.

“It has its own independent shops, a school, churches, an annual arts festival and scarecrow celebration, arts groups, a poetry competition, lots of pubs and clubs…  so much that is special to this area. I always felt a dedicated newspaper or magazine just about Belle Vue and Coleham would be well received.”

Phil used his writing and editing skills to create a cover and template, found a printer and distributor (and some trusting initial advertisers) and decided to go for it.

Edition One of the Belle Vue Magazine went through letterboxes, with additional copies available in local businesses and meeting places, including the doctors’ surgeries, hairdressers, newsagents and cafes – a total print run of 3,500.

Phil is now on to Edition 14, with no signs of stopping any time soon.

“Producing the magazine takes up around 25 hours a week, and I’m not paying myself, so obviously it’s an indulgence,” laughs Phil. Income from advertising covers costs with a little bit over: “I’d say I make enough to pay for a holiday a year – but if I was expecting a proper income or relying on this to pay bills, then it would not be possible in its current format, which is very editorial heavy. It all comes down to my motivation and the positive feedback I get, and I really enjoy doing it.”

The magazine won a mayor’s community award last year for its role as a community champion. It has a long lead-in time and a three month gap between issues, so Phil makes no attempt to keep up with breaking news. Instead the focus is on personality profiles, nostalgia and old photos, news about the local school and churches, shops and businesses, and event previews.

“It’s really thrilling to hear that people are collecting the magazine, and are keeping copies on their bookshelves. I think people like it because it runs contrary to the obsession with new technology – it’s a slow, easy read. There is a whole layer of community life that is often overlooked which I try to write about.”

Phil currently balances creating the magazine with working as an information officer for the Alzheimer’s Society and other writing projects.

Last year he was also voted onto Shrewsbury Town Council, and will be the town’s mayor next year.

Don’t bother to look online for a copy – you won’t find one, and Phil has no plans yet to incorporate digital. He does though use Twitter @bellevuemagz and Facebook to promote the edition, and will happily send anyone who wants one a copy. Contact Phil via Twitter.

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