A reporter is supposed to do just that ‘report’ it’s not their job to express an opinion… in an age when it seems people want to be writers not reporters what is the future of a truly independent local press? Stuart Baillie, who founded this website three years ago, has his concerns.
A very happy new year to you all!
In 2021 I will clock up 40 years in the newspaper business, from cub reporter to editor, publisher and then founder of this website it has been a rich and interesting career.
Back in the day we studied law, public administration and of course if our shorthand was anything less than 100 words per minute no one wanted us (my best, a long time ago, was 140 wpm). It all meant that we understood what we could and could not publish, we understood in detail how local government works and we could take accurate notes in any meetings we attended.
We were proud of what we did, those of us of a certain age, for whom balance, accuracy and an understanding of the community we serve was so important.
I fear for the future of the local press though. That’s not a new sensation, it’s a fear I have had for a few years now.
My first job was on a newspaper called The Galloway Gazette, the editor was also the owner – the third generation of his family to own the title – and he was a hard taskmaster. But he had an investment in the community his newspaper served; if the community was successful then his business was successful and the jobs of the people he employed were secure, simple as that. While he was often critical of the decisions made by local councils his criticism and comment was based on a desire to do the best for the area his ‘paper served.
A successful and independent local media is important, it’s crucial to local democracy, it’s the only way local people can know what their elected representatives are doing in their name and with their money.
Independent is the key word here because it doesn’t mean you have the independence to take one side! True independence is when both sides of any issue are properly represented, the job of a reporter is just as it says, to report. The job of a reporter is not to have an opinion, it is to treat both sides equally and fairly and to always give each side in any issue a chance to make their case, they might choose not to but they must be given the chance.
I hope that Peter Chowney would agree that when he was leader of the council we had a good working relationship…
Over the years it has become easier to be a publisher. Technology means we can create newspapers from our spare bedroom, the glut of people who want to contribute – usually their opinion rather than to be dispassionate reporters – has grown and most of them are prepared to give away their work for free, and now we have online publications claiming to be serious news organs coming out our ears!
Creating a news website is about giving readers quality, fact-checked, information. It is not, as I saw recently, cutting and pasting someone else’s social media comments and presenting it as fact without having done any checking that the facts contained within that comment are accurate. When I see that kind of thing my heart sinks and I despair for the future even more.
As our local papers were bought up by national groups they lost their localness. I remember when I was features editor and my job was to create features about local people and local businesses that could be used in a range of supplements we produced. Yes those supplements were vehicles to sell advertising into but the fact the editorial was highly localised made them readable for local people and therefore more appealing to local advertisers. Shortly after I moved on that job was made redundant and centralised so a new features editor produced one piece of copy that would be used everywhere from Dumfries to Perth, the location of the subject was never mentioned in the copy but it was obvious to see that it wasn’t anyone local – people weren’t fooled and sales of local newspapers plummeted as they became ever less relevant.
STOP PRESS…. I hear that JPI Media, owner of the Hastings and St Leonards Observer, has been sold to another national group called National World. I’d like to think that will see an improvement in standards and ‘localness’ but experience of watching these ownership changes leads me to believe further cuts will be the order of the day…
So why am I telling you all this? Hastings In Focus so far has been a genuine labour of love. In recent months I have questioned whether or not I should, or even want, to continue doing what I’m doing and then I got an email yesterday that said: “…you appear to be the only independent voice in the town these days,” and that made it all worthwhile.
Hastings In Focus is a one man band so can’t do everything. For example I’ve steered away from all but the biggest Covid-19 stories because other people are providing that information better than I ever could, so why replicate something badly?
For me though the fun is about trying to hold our borough council to account and that’s like using your hands to fish for eels. I hope that Peter Chowney would agree that when he was leader of the council we had a good working relationship – I’m sure he found my questions irritating but he’d answer them. I could email him a query during an evening and have a reply by the next morning.
That’s all changed since Peter stood down as leader, now getting information out of Hastings Borough Council is like getting blood out of a stone and the stock reply is that they can’t provide an answer to a particular question for legal reasons. Usually questions about how they are spending YOUR money.
So in 2021 I’m going back to my roots and we will be reporting on as many meetings of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) committees and full councils as we can and we will continue to ask the questions it might be uncomfortable for them to answer – but they are accountable to you after all and they must never be allowed to forget that.
It’s going to be an interesting year because 2021 will be election year for both East Sussex County Council and HBC. Our focus will be more on the borough elections because the full impact of borough council decisions fall squarely on our readers. The Green Party says it will contest every ward and that will provide an interesting new dynamic.
Hastings In Focus will take an in depth look at some of the key wards and examine some of the key issues in those wards as well as asking the candidates for individual interviews so that you, the voter, knows who you are voting for and what they believe, ensuring that you have the comfort of knowing the person you vote for has your – and the borough’s – best interests at heart.
I have a refreshed enthusiasm going in to the new year and I’m looking forward to reporting on all the great things that happen in this town of ours because as always we want our focus to be, as far as possible, on the positives and where we can’t find a positive, then we want to explain an issue in a way that our readers can understand, allowing them to make an informed decision on where they stand on issues as diverse as what should happen to the old bathing pool site to which is their favourite Hastings landmark?
All the best for 2021.