What is the future of Walsall news?



I’ve been thinking on this for a long time now, but the current wholesale laying waste of local papers in towns not that far from Walsall and an excellent post on professional journo-turned-press-officer Dan Slee’s excellent blog as well as recent chatter on twitter has prompted me to revisit what is once more a hot topic.

Of course in Walsall we know all about this experience – after all, Trinity Mirror tossed Walsall’s once-great organ the Walsall Observer away like so much screwed-up chip paper back in 2009 – and they are at it again.

The ‘Obbo’ was not, of course, at the time of its being axed, more than a shadow of its former self, and had been in decline for decades – ever since it had passed out of the hands of local publishers West Midlands Press during the 80s, it had been run down by successive publishers from outside Walsall.  Since then, it had suffered the death of a thousand cuts, and been reduced to the point where many people simply didn’t notice when it had gone.  They changed their tune afterwards, but by then it was too late.

It’s the sad truth that Walsall no longer has a truly ‘local’ weekly newspaper.  We have the Walsall Chronicle, a good paper for a freesheet, but that’s put together in Wolverhampton, and printed in Shropshire, largely from recycled Express & Star stories, and there hasn’t been a Walsall office for either paper for the past couple of years due to cost-cutting at the Star.  Then there’s the Walsall Advertiser – well that’s not a true Walsallpaper either, it’s part of a series published in Tamworth, and is also not what it once was.

There’s some small justice, in a way, that the Advertiser itself is now in decline, despite my very genuine sympathy for the plight of hard-pressed local journalists, as the demise of local papers in Walsall was started by its arrival in the early 80s, being the town’s first freesheet, encouraged by local estate agents who didn’t want to pay the Observer’s advertising rates.  That was the first nail in Walsall’s local news coffin, resulting in many redundancies at West Midlands Press and the eventual death of that company. And after all, what stake or interest do readers have in newspapers which they don’t have to pay for, and can simply discard without any apparent loss to them?

So where are we now? Well, there are still supposedly ‘local’ weekly newspapers on sale in the borough, but none of them have any major stake in Walsall as companies, and it hardly seems likely that this situation will change in the immediate future unless one or more of them gets cut for economic reasons.  Not impossible, but it would be a great shame to see them go even though they are not locally published.  I really would not wish to see Walsall without even a semi-local newspaper, it would be a disaster for local people and harmful for local democracy, leaving many without a strong voice to hold politicians and others to account in the public eye.

The top and bottom of it, however, is that the freesheet model of newspaper publication is becoming increasingly non-viable at a time when advertising revenue is at an all-time low, and those papers which may no longer be subsidised by the bigger fish who publish them are at the mercy of the bean-counters in companies which are only interested in profit and don’t care about local communities and the effect that losing their local paper – which is at the heart of any town’s identity – will have.

It seems highly unlikely that anyone is going to launch a new paid-for weekly newspaper in Walsall, certainly in the present economic climate, sadly.  And there is no guaranteed future for the free weeklies.  So what if any is the alternative?

What of the much-touted hyperlocal news revolution? Well so far there’s no sign of local websites taking over from the dead-wood press, as it seems there’s little money in it as yet, despite notable efforts in the area to try and do something about that.  There are a few hyperlocal news sites run by ‘citizen journalists’ in certain quarters of the borough, doing their bit for their communities in various degrees to give people a real voice and cover very local issues that the papers ignore or don’t cover in any depth, and there is also one important news aggregator, but that’s all.  Let’s face it, we small fry do our best on the hyperlocal news front, and often in other areas such as local history or politics, and some of the work we do has been hailed as outstanding, but we are not in the same league as a real, professionally-run  newspaper.  We just don’t have the funding, resources, time or staff.

So in Walsall as a borough, while good work is being done on a small scale, there is presently nothing truly local online that shows any promise of being able to take on the likes of, for example, the much-missed Walsall Observer’s mantle.

Is such a web-based publication even possible? I asked the question on twitter recently: “Noting the death of many local newspapers, who would welcome the return of the Walsall Observer as a hyperlocal website? (Hypothetically).”  The responses were positive, and in the affirmative, but small in number.  There was an understandable concern that such a ‘virtual newspaper’, if it were to come into being, should be high in quality, it was thought that it would have to be as good as the ‘Obbo’ was in its heyday, and be published weekly.  Maybe that would be possible to a degree, on a smaller scale, but it would likely not be commercially viable in the short term, as the circulation would be lower online and how would you fund a sizeable staff of ‘real’ journalists and other staff on the modest advertising revenue available?

Now, I quite understand why so many professional journalists get a bit edgy when the subject of newspaper closures comes up and hyperlocal news and citizen journalism is hailed as the future of X town or Y village. It’s their livelihood, and they can see it disappearing in front of them – plus all this online stuff can be a bit off-putting if you’re a traditional local hack.  But maybe it’s time they started to think outside of the box and consider getting together with the best bloggers instead of looking down their noses at them.  Why not set up an online ‘newspaper’ for Walsall – calling it the Walsall Observer if the name could be obtained, or something else if not – as a borough-wide co-operative of pro journalists working with citizen journalists?  Good standards of journalism combined with a real stake in local places and communities could result in a return to something resembling the good old days of local news in Walsall, albeit in a different form.

It might not be much of a moneyspinner, to start with – and it would have to be a labour of love otherwise it would not work – but it could be the way of the future.

Unless something like this can come to pass, it seems to me that there may be a bleak future for local news in Walsall.

Stuart Williams

Editor, The Bloxwich Telegraph

17th November 2011

PS As there seems to be interest in commenting, I’ve switched comments back on for this post, and will do so for future editorials.  Your considered opinions are welcome!

6 thoughts on “What is the future of Walsall news?”

  1. Can a town the size of Walsall sustain an on-line newspaper. Short answer, yes. But an attempt at such requires two things. First and foremost, a good, marketing and sales manager who will generate income. Without cash coming in it will wither and die. Second, an editor who knows the difference between ‘fair comment’ and ‘justification’ and the need for word counts. More, who understands his target audience, that it is diverse and expects a variety of stories which reflect their interests. In short, it has to be professional.
    Of course it will rely on amateur contributors who won’t get paid but they doesn’t you produce an amateur product. The advocates of hyperlocal blogs are, in some cases, very good writers but they are not journalists.
    The difference between an amateur writer and a journalist is shown when an editor says ‘Cover this coroners’ case where some bloke died of a drugs overdose in the local court building, and don’t forget to get quotes from the family.’ Can you see a car insurance salesman who likes writing on the side approaching a grieving father? I can’t. Even professionals hate that job but they do it because they have the skills.
    In the case of an on-line paper, an editor with drive and ambition can impart those skills.
    True, some amateurs have gone on to become professional bloggers but realistically you can count their numbers on your fingers.
    To the argument that local bloggers can fill the gap left by disappearance or decline of local newspapers, well what happens when they retire or, like me, get bored with it? Your audience is left with no independent source of information.
    And blogs are a godsend to press officers and communications gurus because they know they can run rings round local bloggers. Press officers get worried when ‘chain-smoking hacks’ got out of the pub and sit down at their desks because they know it’s a totally different ballgame.
    Some may argue that I’m making unfair comparisons; well let me put this to you. If you want to cover garden fetes run by your mates then blog away but if your horizons are wider, if you want to break stories such as the Peter Francis’ case, where millions of pounds were diverted and wasted, then get someone who will at least try to run your on-line newspaper in a professional way. And no, I’m not applying for the job.

  2. We just don’t have the funding, resources, time or staff.

    I suspect this is the same for the newspapers. Circulations are falling, so I suspect the last think anyone would do is invest time and money on a local paper with limited circulation. sadly, I don’t think enough people are interested.

    The YamYam is probably the closest we have…

  3. Dear Mushroom: Good, thoughtful comment from someone who clearly knows both sides, thanks. You make a lot of good points and it would certainly be a difficult project, but not I feel impossible. As you say, to have any credibility as an alternative to a real newspaper, there would have to be a professional core at least. Could it work on an amateur basis as a high-level news blog? Yes, but that would be a different animal.

  4. Dear Stymaster, Thanks for the comment. It’s a difficult problem, certainly. Much as I admire The Yam Yam, which does what it does very well, it’s a different beast not generating new news of itself and would be even more limited if, say, the local papers (notably the Express & Star) disappeared and/or cut their websites. Food for thought either way, cheers.

  5. Not all that far from Walsall is Birmingham City University (BCU). It has an MA course in Online Journalism. You might want to contact Paul Bradshaw (@paulbradshaw on Twitter) who leads the course.

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