Anatomy of a ‘Lewisham’ newspaper: the ghost is given up

I’d like to start this blog with a caveat. I don’t want to give individual local journalists a hard time. Most are highly competent, talented, bright, rounded, curious human beings. Given a bit of space and time, they would do great work. Many, in spite of all the obstacles and constraints, still manage to produce brilliant articles, compelling investigations and great features.

I suspect this would be true of the few people who still report at the News Shopper, the main newspaper serving our area, distributed (if that’s the right description for the ever-smaller pile plonked in Lewisham Shopping Centre Sainsbury’s) every Wednesday.

But I picked up a copy of the Lewisham and Catford edition of News Shopper today, and something had to be said. After all, this remains the main printed source of news serving our local community (beyond the council-produced quarterly Lewisham Life).

Here’s an abridged run-through of the paper, starting with the cover wrap, as it’s known in the trade: an advert wrapping itself around the main paper that’s sold (in theory) at a premium. Some traditionalists don’t like cover wraps but I think they are fair game these days. In these straitened times, newspapers have got to (at least try to) make ends meet.

Alongside the Millwall ad, there’s space for a “puff”, where an editor would traditionally direct readers to the strongest, most compelling feature of the newspaper within. And this week that is, erm, “Camera Club”, or readers’ pictures, strikingly illustrated by the indistinct outline of a cargo ship at night (obviously taken at that shipping port for which Lewisham and Catford are so famed) on one flank and a picture of two poorly framed, unidentifiable birds on the other. Quick, let’s turn to page 8!

Which is where we find an advert for the new Australian DIY import, Bunnings. Whoops, not for the last time…

Persist to page 10, and, phew, here is the Camera Club after all, full of readers’ pictures. The birds are still not identified, apart from being “Valentine lovebirds”. Yes, that would be Valentine’s Day a month ago. Putting the news into News Shopper…

As for that container ship? No trace. Must have disappeared into the night…

The all-important front page

Let’s return to the actual front page. Andrew Marr, in his book on journalism, My Trade, wrote: “You have to get the front page right. Broadsheet or tabloid, this is how editors tend to be judged. It is where your worst mistakes are most publicly on display, and where creative headlines or pictures can make a difference, at the margin, to sales.”

This is, to state the obvious, where you would traditionally find the most interesting – or impactful – story of the issue.

So, what’s the biggest story affecting Lewisham, this wonderful, sprawling, diverse borough, where so many interesting things happen every day? What does the headline tell us?

No, I’m not sure either. What happened to that old-fashioned trick of a headline summing up the story, unless you have a fantastic quote (which this is not), or another very good reason not to?

Read a bit more closely, and you will glean an undeniably sad tale of a young man who died of brain tumour… more than two years ago.

The news-y bit, you learn, is that his loved ones were invited to Westminster to “submit their evidence on a web forum facilitated by the charity Brain Tumour Research.”

Hold me back, as one of my old colleagues used to say. Scoop!

And what of that 94-word quote from the chief executive of the Brain Tumour Research lumped at the end? Reads a bit like a press release, doesn’t it? Funny that…

So there we have it: a cover story, entirely based on a press release. Again – and I mean this genuinely – this is no criticism of the journalist, whose writing rate is utterly prodigious, and who does contribute plenty of newsworthy stories. Or even the editor, who every week races to make who knows how many localised editions. (The 853 blog, which consistently does produce local news worth reading, has more on the nuts and bolts of the Sutton-based operation run by Newsquest here).

But has it really come to this? This isn’t a front page. It’s a ghost being given up.

Bear with me a moment as we trudge on to page 4, to the next exciting news item.

And here you have it, folks:

News Shopper has continued its fine start to 2018 with more and more people visiting our website.

Ah at last. Some real news. All culminating in the suggestion to call “Jennie” who “will be happy to discuss your digital media options”.

Again, no one should criticise a commercial newspaper operation for trying to make an honest buck. But this is shameless self-promotion masquerading as editorial – and it happens all the time. A two-deck headline the full width of the page, news fonts, and a byline. Really?

Grit your teeth, plough on and you actually do come to some half decent local news, flickering into life on pages six and seven. A nursery forced to close; a bad school gets better; and commuters tell of their Southeastern commuter train hell. Any one of which might have been a good contender for the front page – but what do I know?

By page nine, the newspaper has forgotten that it’s the “Lewisham and Catford” edition. “Tens of thousands of Bromley children don’t go to the dentist” you find out, to the interest of almost no-one in the borough of Lewisham (although it is tailored to Lewisham online, which gives some idea of where the editorial priorities lie).

Next a readers’ letters page, including a note from somebody who comes from an unfamiliar place called “Shaftesbury Estate”. (It’s in Wandsworth). Local issues, yes – but not for Lewisham and Catford. There’s an ‘editor’s view’ column about near misses and road safety, with no mention of any near misses or road safety issues in our area. But then there wouldn’t be, as the same column has to run in Dartford and Gravesend too and who knows where else…

On page 13, the paper briefly remembers its audience. Lewisham! Catford! Of course. Quick, here’s a story on the new local Parkrun. Let’s find out from the organiser when’s it going to start…

David? David? Hello?

I’ll finish my analysis with this little gem, tucked away on page 26, featuring several towns far, far away.

Check out the picture of a place unnamed in the caption. “Four towns in the south-east have been named” wrote the sub-editor, whose will to live is clearly ebbing dangerously under the weight of producing so many pages with so few staff.

Could they have not found a better archive image of Gravesend, Swanley, or Erith?

But hang on. Surely they haven’t raided Google Street View? Surely…

Oh.

So there you have it: a week in Lewisham and Catford (but mostly not), according to News (in a loose sense of the word) Shopper.

Read it and weep.

POSTSCRIPT: Whatever your political persuasion, the government’s decision to set up the Cairncross review into the newspaper industry and its sustainability should be a Good Thing for journalism, accountability and local democracy. But if there’s a message from this blog – apart from how under-resourced and, well, rubbish, our main local newspaper is – it should be this. Get some of the poor buggers who are at the coalface involved. I am not the first to say this. It’s already been said here. And here. But surely their take on what it’s like to produce a local newspaper (a point included in the terms of reference) on current resources is an important one to hear from the people who know best? That is, if things are to change – as they really, really must.

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Author: lewishamlately

I'm Jolyon and I started Lewisham Lately after fretting about the lack of news coverage for the borough. I have lived in south-east London for the majority of my adult life, including Camberwell, Peckham followed by the leafier realms of Hither Green from 2009. Now on the fringe of Lee Green and Lewisham Central. Feedback, story ideas, corrections, disagreements are all more than welcome. Please do keep it civil, though - the world's an angry enough place as it is.

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