Don’t be too hard on the local press

David Hewson, in his 2,000-word treatise on the plight of the local press, argues that laziness is behind the Kentish Express’s failure to cover the Wye Science park story adequately.

While I agree with much of his thesis, I’m going to have to differ from David on several important points when it comes to the Kent Messenger Group in general and the Kentish Express in particular.

All local papers and many national newspapers are in decline. They have been before, but this time it seems different. In years gone by, radio, television and the rise of free newspapers were blamed. On local and regional papers, the declines were often temporary and followed by — during economic upturns — circulation increases, often dramatic ones. Throughout the mid to late 1990s, for example, the Kentish Express was Britain’s fastest growing newspaper in percentage terms.

What has changed this time? In my opinion, the internet is finally starting to fulfill its promise. The rise of the PDA and mobile generation is destroying local newspapers and doing serious damage to nationals. Why read a national newspaper when most of them have good and improving sites? Why buy a local newspaper when I can get, for instance, this site — constantly updated and always on the money — on my Windows Smartphone in next to no time even when I am fighting my way up a snow-covered freeway in Utah?

Even the mainstays of local and regional income are being fatally eroded: why look in the classifieds of the KE when I can find exactly what I want and pay what I want for it on eBay? Last year, we sold our house. One of the agents who valued it said the agency she worked for only advertised in the KE because ‘that’s what the client expects to see’. She said that she could not remember the last time a sale had originated from somebody reading Homefinder. Far more valuable, she said, were the websites primelocation.com and rightmove.co.uk. That is very serious and must strike fear into the heart of every newspaper proprietor because property advertising accounts for between a quarter and a third of the entire revenue of any regional newspaper group. They’ve already lost much of their sits vac advertising, now they are staring into the abyss. If that happens, believe me, papers like the Kentish Express are going to cease to exist.

This explains the budget cuts that the editors of all local newspapers are currently struggling with. It isn’t their fault they have no reporters when the publishing director institutes a ‘no replace’ policy to cover the losses being racked up across what are now being remodelled as ‘media groups’. It isn’t their fault that salaries for young local reporters are somewhere between £10,000 and £15,000 a year and they struggle to attract anybody other than raw trainees.

So what does the editor of the KE do when faced with all this? What does he do when he sees a circulation of 15,000 in Ashford and only 500 in Wye. Naturally, he marshals his limited resources to cover Ashford.

Edwin Boorman
Edwin Boorman: former chairman of the KM Group

That, I hope, explains the KE’s poor performance on the Wye story. I say ‘I hope’ because nobody outside of Express House in Ashford really knows why the KE has been so lamentable while Kent on Sunday has played a blinder. I agree, the KE’s eye is so far off the ball, it appears to be watching a completely different game. It distresses me because I used to edit the KE and I still think of it as my local paper. But I also fear that the Kentish Express and its ilk may be dead ducks.

It’s a crying shame; Edwin Boorman — a thoroughly decent and approachable man who loves this county — used to preside over a newspaper group that was the envy of every other in the country. In 1988 the Kent Messenger itself won the Newspaper of the Year award — that’s the one that all the nationals compete for. Now, even the KM is a shadow of its former self, desperately seeking a role in the wired world and settling, unsatisfactorily, on that old favourite: ‘community news’. To you and me, that’s pictures of other people’s children and a plethora of village correspondents paid 50p a paragraph to fill the other pages at the back.

There are some lights in the darkness. One, Paul Francis the KM Group’s political editor, is a fantastic journalist — twice winner of the Kent Journalist of the Year award and an acknowledged expert on the FOI Act. David’s comment about the KM Group never having filed an FOI request, when Paul has filed hundreds, was ill-informed and grossly unfair. The Canterbury stablemate — the Kentish Gazette — is much better and does make a decent fist of covering the Cathedral City. But even that is in decline and, last I heard, has only four people to cover Canterbury itself.

So, I can only see disaster for local and regional newspapers. Some may hang on for a while but, ultimately, the people who cannot use portable devices or the internet for their news are … to put it brutally … dying out. It spells doom for the nationals, too, and when that happens, I’m going to be looking for another way to finance the mortgage payments.

Any successful authors out there willing to give me a few tips? 😉

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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One Response to Don’t be too hard on the local press

  1. Nick Lillitos says:

    Justin Williams protests too much. He’s not the first and won’t be the last to ‘write off’ the KM and other local papers and the nationals in these days of high tech. We all remember the gloom and doom merchants of the past saying some years we won”t have so many national papers. Well, we’ve got the same number today, and local and regional press are thriving with new ones being added all the time.
    That’s not to say the News Media isn’t facing problems. When the type- writer was redundant they faced problems, when the old presses were replaced they faced problems, but strong leadership and a willingness to welcome the challenges of change by ‘helicopting up’ and looking at the wider picture has always been a hallmark of the fantastic survivial rate of our industry, while other industries have simply sat in the centre of the road and got crushed.
    Technology is not a threat. It’s a fantastic opportunity.
    I’m not sure what Justin’s personal beef is with the KM (do I detect an underlying note of bitterness somewhere?) but having worked on that paper I have seen at first hand the acres of coverage it has given to the Wye story, while being carefull not to allow itself to become a ‘propaganda tool for any party or lobbyist.
    The worst way to handle any paper is to attempt to ‘bully it.’ It’s editor, senior staff and reporters are a thoroughly dedicated team fully committed to the community it serves. And its busy letters page is testimony to that.
    As for the KM board, the new Chairlady fully understands the mantle of goodwill and respect she has inherited, and has a firm foundation to build on to take the group to new levels.
    At a recent talk I was deeply impressed with her vision for KM. They do do not fear technology. On the contrary she’s embracing it with exciting plans that will ‘knit’ KM to take full advantage of it. And when they’re implemented people will find the role of their local newspapers will still be there, alive and playing a healthy role in the community just as strong it did 20 years ago, but creatively reinforced by hi-tech media options and an infrasructure never available before.
    Long after Justin and I have passed away and are completely forgotten, I’m confident the KM will still be very much around — stronger than ever before, and in greater numbers, loyally serving its community in many new shapes and forms.
    Nick Lillitos (retired Associated Press Foreign Correspondent).

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