In praise of regional journalism

Will we miss it when its gone? I think we will.

I've been accused of being a little unfair towards journalists in the past, which is somewhat ironic given that I laughably call myself one -- but let me put it right anyway.

Most journalists I've met, and worked with, and known, are hardworking, diligent, decent folk. They mostly come from good families, and god knows their parents tried -- but for some tragic reason, their offspring at one time or another came to the sad conclusion that they'd be better off writing or broadcasting things for a living.

It's not their fault. You don't choose journalism as a career: it finds you, whether you want it to or not.

You don't really want to be doing what you're doing for a living, but sooner or later, you just seem to have ended up doing it -- and by then, it's too late. You're doomed. It's somewhere warm to go during the day, and people don't bother you too much -- except for when those rude folk from the general public dare to use the telephone to try and contact you -- so it makes for an acceptable lifestyle.

Better than sitting around the park with a three litre bottle of cider, anyway, or whatever it is that we'd be up to otherwise. It could be worse, couldn't it.

I have spent most of my career working in the regional press, which is a curious thing, a world of residents up in arms, old ladies complaining about their boilers and old Jaff from down the dominoes club wondering when his bloody league tables are going to go in the paper.

It's a world where, when they get a letter from the PCC, editors are actually dismayed and worried about the consequences, rather than shrugging it off as a gnat-bite inconvenience. It's a world where, more often than not, people really care about what they write, because they can see the consequences.

You're actually working right next door to the people you're writing about. There isn't that level of detachment; you know that what you say and write can really upset someone, and they're often within walking distance of your office - even if, as is often the case nowadays, your newspaper has been relocated to some faceless industrial estate in the middle of nowhere rather than the middle of town. You can't hide when people come calling with complaints -- and if they're legitimate, you're left feeling ruined about what you've done to them.

I say all this for few reasons.

Firstly, as I say it's to right a perceived wrong, in that I may appear to have seemed to be anti-journalist or anti-newspaper in the things I've said and written, whereas the reality couldn't be further from that. Secondly, these hardworking, underpaid, undervalued hacks at local rags -- and "local rag" really is a term of affection among readers, no matter what wafer-thin-skinned editors might tell you otherwise - are dwindling in their numbers, not because they're actually no longer needed, but to prop up the profits of their huge parent corporations.

Just this week, more job losses appear to be on the way, at Johnston Press in Yorkshire. Other newspaper groups are doing the same -- or will be soon. Journos at the place where I learnt my craft, the South London Guardian, has been out on strike this week, complaining about an entire sports and leisure department being told they're at risk of redundancy.

And even as I was writing this, news came through of more jobs under threat, this time in Newcastle.

Wherever you live, the people who are writing about your local city, town or village are becoming fewer and fewer in number, and the decline is, if anything, accelerating.

Yes yes, blogs and hyperlocal sites will fill some of the void, but not all of it. Now is the time to value those local journalists more than ever, perhaps unfairly bundled in along with the worst extremes of the red-tops.

Will we miss them when we're gone? I think we will. People trust regional papers more than other news sources; they don't approach the local rag with the same jaded cynicism they might reserve for a national. But, whether they think that or not, the memos about "difficult trading conditions" and "tough choices" will be sent out in more and more newsrooms in the coming weeks and months.

Something has been started that isn't going to be stopped, I am afraid. And the impact it has on what news we get about where we live is only just beginning.

The readers aren't stupid; they've noticed the difference already. And it's only going to get worse as time goes on.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.