Last year, the Guardian Media Group announced that the offices of local newspapers around Manchester were to be closed for good.
The closures include the Rochdale Observer, the first paper I ever worked on.Straight out of my training course in Liverpool, I spent just under three years trying to keep my head above water as a junior reporter; sometimes failing spectacularly, other times actually managing to serve the community that read my stories.
For decades, this ring of papers around Manchester has helped produce the profit that kept the loss-making Guardian alive. In the view of an accountant, this was their purpose. But it was not the reason why they existed in the first place.
My ‘patch’ was an area called Littleborough and Wardle, two villages nestled against the Pennines that have long skipped back and forth over an ever-changing border with Yorkshire. I was known and referred to locally as ‘their’ reporter and I learnt my trade writing about their jumble sales, their churches, their community meetings and, especially, their efforts to reopen the canal that flowed through the heart of their little town. My patch was just one of six or seven at the paper, each of which filled their own page on the twice-weekly title. I presented the very public face of a small but intensely independent community. By closing down the Rochdale office, the whole town will quickly become a single ‘patch’, with Littleborough and Wardle relegated to a mere part of it. Their residents will no longer have their own voice, no longer will their local newspaper provide them with the kind of news they always wanted – news about them and their community. It will just be about Rochdale, a town as culturally and physically distant from Littleborough as cities like Manchester or Liverpool.
Ironically, it was to Manchester that GMG decided they were centralising all editorial production for these papers. Rochdalians already resented the neighbour in whose shadow they resided, it had taken their shops, their youngsters, their businesses and now it had taken their paper as well. Thousands of people instantly became disenfranchised by the loss of ‘their’ reporter and ‘their’ section in the local rag. And when people become disenfranchised by a newspaper, they stop buying it. And when people stop buying a newspaper, the owners of that newspaper withdraws still further. So it came as no surprise to hear that GMG had washed its hands of the newspaper group it had systematically milked dry and then finally gutted. It was sold to Trinity Mirror for a song.
In 2002, when we discovered that one of our fellow junior reporters was being paid less than the cleaner who cleaned the office, we walked out on strike. I was one of the many young reporters on the picket line in 2002 when GMG management axe-man Mark Dodson came out to talk to us. The specifics of the chat escape me, but it boiled down to an argument of ‘if you won’t do the job for that amount, there are hundreds who will’. Which neatly sums up the attitude of many newspaper owners – your skills as writers, investigators and community reporters are nothing special, they could be done by anybody and we only tolerate editorial because it fits in the space around the money-making adverts.
Eventually, I left the newsroom altogether, taking a job in local authority public relations. Just like many, many former journalists.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those ex-hacks who flew the coop years ago and now gazes back on his career with coloured lenses in his glasses and wants it preserved in the face of change. I know full well that local news has to adapt, I know that newspapers are finding life tough and I’m fully aware that I often hated it at the time. We weren’t particularly bold as a paper, the assumptions that formed its news sense were old and tired, the coverage was parochial to the point of self-obsession. Yet nothing that has or will replace it will match the way that the local paper served that community.
I received the news about Rochdale on my Blackberry, on a bus filled with people reading a free paper or surfing the web on their phones, on my way to my job in local government PR – times change, of course newspapers have to change with them.
But not like this. This isn’t change. It’s butchery.