Going local


This has been a bad year to be in the blue-fox business, according to the Jakobstads Tidning, which is my proof that there is no such thing as a boring local paper providing it comes from a district far enough away. Jakobstad does not sound terribly interesting: it is a small town in Finland, in the coastal plain where they have spoken Swedish for thousands of years. If you had to live there, you would probably chew through your own leg to get free (or so I feel, having once lived in a small town in Sweden and chewed through a marriage to escape from it). But when you don't feel trapped in them, these places are deeply charming, and now that their newspapers are on-line it's possible to dip into the lives of innumerable strangers.

Most of the newspapers that make a splash on-line are large and want to think themselves important. The Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times are the sort of thing that we are meant to be reading on-line; and to some extent this is true. I only ever read the Sunday Times on screen, for example, because I know it will contain at most three things I want to read, and these are much easier to scan for on-line than on paper. Besides, it's tidier: all my electrons are automatically recycled when I'm through with them. I don't have to store them in a bin for a week till the council comes to collect them.

The admirable site of the American Journalism Review, at, lists 4,925 papers on-line, and hardly any of them matter in the wider world. That's their charm. The diversity of the world is maintained less by ignorance than by self-centredness, which keeps things in their proper perspective; and there is nothing like the daily doings of a small-town newspaper to give a vivid sense of how very foreign foreign countries are. Often, these surprises are completely pleasurable. In Bozeman, Montana, the local paper solemnly reported the theft of six empty paint cans from a back porch. In Stockholm, Svenska Dagbladet once had as the lead story, in its web edition at any rate, the news that the mushroom crop was going to be phenomenal that autumn. It's nice to know that nothing more important was happening in the world that day.

But this is the great truth about journalism. Nothing more important is happening for most people than that the mushrooms are going to be abundant and tasty. It's at least as interesting as the result of any football match and a lot more important to readers, in the sense that they can act on the information and go out and pick mushrooms, which seems saner than getting noisily drunk.

Staying in Finland, I have just found a leader discussing the new bylaws on public order in Helsinki. These forbid both noisy prostitution and beating your carpets on the balcony except at prescribed times. Silent or nearly silent prostitution remains legal in public and it is presumably illegal to beat your wife on the balcony at any time of day. The justification for both these prohibitions is that the respectable citizens of Helsinki have the right to silence. No British newspaper would bring you news like that. They're all much too serious. But it's only in the small, gritty detail of municipal regulations that we can actually catch a glimpse of how the rest of the world really lives.

Often the web seems to be a homogenising medium almost as terrible as television. There seems to be no one there who does not want to be American and famous. So it's wonderful to discover all these quiet professionals toiling away to show us that the world is stranger than we can imagine. It won't stop, either, because on-line databases are the perfect medium for classified advertising, and the smarter papers know that they must either lead their readers on-line or be left, forlorn, behind. So just for once globalisation will sustain a diversity of perspectives and make it possible for anyone to look through different telescopes.

That's how I found the reason for the glumness among fur farmers in Ostrobothnia: the collapse of the Russian economy has removed the market for their foxes. Now here is a wonderful perspective. A former superpower, still armed with nukes, sinks into bankruptcy and despair. It's one of the greatest and most important things to happen this century. But it's also a line of farmers' faces at an auction ring 600 miles away, falling silent because not even the Russian mafia can afford fur coats this year.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo

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Apprenticeships remain a university alternative in name only for too many young people

New research shows that those who do the best apprenticeships will earn higher salaries than graduates, but government targets undermine the quality of such schemes.

Rare is the week that passes by without George Osborne donning a hi-vis jacket and lauding the worth of apprenticeships. The Conservatives have made creating 3m apprenticeships a governing mission. Labour, both under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, are scarcely less enthusiastic about their value.

The best apprenticeships live up to the hype. Those with a level five apprenticeship (there are eight levels) will earn £50,000 more in their lifetime than someone with a degree from a non-Russell Group university, as new research by the Sutton Trust reveals.

But too many apprenticeships are lousy. In 2014/15, just 3 per cent of apprenticeships were level four or above. Over the last two years, there have only been an estimated 30,000 apprenticeships of at least level four standard. So while David Cameron comes up with ever grander targets for the amount of apprenticeships he wants to create, he neglects what really matters: the quality of the apprenticeships. And that's why most people who can are still better off going to university: over a lifetime the average graduate premium is £200,000.

Proudly flaunting lofty targets for apprenticeships might be good politics, but it isn’t good policy. “The growth in apprenticeships has been a numbers game with successive governments, with an emphasis on increasing quantity, not quality,” says Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust.

60 per cent of apprenticeships today are at level two – considered to be no better than GCSE standard. These might help people get a job in the short-term, but it will do nothing to help them progress in the long-term. Too often an apprenticeship is seen as an end in itself, when it should be made easier to progress from lower to higher apprenticeships. The Sutton Trust is right to advocate that every apprentice can progress to an A-Level standard apprenticeship without having to start a new course.

Apprenticeships are trumpeted as an alternative to going to university. Yet the rush to expand apprenticeships has come to resemble the push to send half the population to university, focused more on giving ever-greater numbers a qualification then in ensuring its worth. For too many young people, apprenticeships remain an alternative to university in name only.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.