Why is local media having a meltdown?
We don't have to put up with the outbursts of cynical local publishers. We need to talk to each other more. So why are so many indie titles around here having a nervous breakdown in public?
My Dad doesn't get angry. He’a a blue. He’s learned to accept stoicism as his friend. But when I called round last night, he was on one. He was waving a leaflet in my face. “Look at that. One pound bloody thirty for that. Who wants to read that crap? If it’s not crime it’s puzzles. There’s nothing to read in it.”
Turns out he was holding the Echo. It was, indeed, thinner than an After Eight. And not quite as nutritious.
We’ve sort of accepted, with a resigned shrug that, online, the Echo isn’t a newspaper, it’s a content farm. A graveyard of bad grammar, cynical clickbait and not-at-all-local stories about Kate Garraway or something (not very) shocking culled from Mums Net. It’s shit. Move on.
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But the evening, sorry, morning paper, doesn’t have to stoop so low. It could, if it wanted, look past the PR, press releases and low-rent crime stories and treat its readers (yes, even my Dad) as if they were intelligent.
It could set its own agenda, and commission brilliant features. Find its own stories. Allow its writers to show us how they can write. Not pad its pathetically few pages with filler. Today’s paper (November 14) had a paltry 15 local stories in it. How many of them were about crime? Ten. Two-thirds of its already-low reporting. Is that the city you know?
“Liverpool is not a wealthy city and we’re in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, so I would have concerns about [a paid for online] model” editor Maria Breslin said at the Culture Media and Sport select committee hearing in Whitehall last week, begging for a hand out.
Clearly she doesn’t mind making people pay £1.30 for a couple of pages of press releases, shameless rubber-necking and racing tips.
Breslin talked passionately about her ‘boots on the ground’ writers. But their boots are usually under the desk, cut and pasting pictures from Google Street View to highlight a story about a zero-star rated restaurant, when they could be - oh let’s take a wild stab - going there, and talking to people who’ve eaten there, rather than nabbing comments someone’s Tweeted after they read something on Tripadvisor. That’s not journalism. It’s homeopathy.
For the loyal 22,000 or so readers - like my parents - the Echo merely limps on in limbo, not really sure what its role is any more. When I worked for TrinityMirror, 15 years ago, everything was focussed on keeping the beast alive. I edited the website Liverpool.com and once wrote a piece slagging off fashion store Cricket for selling fur. It lit up the comments section.
“How do you get away with writing stuff like that?” Echo features editor Jane Haase asked me at the water cooler. “We could never write anything like that, we’re not allowed to piss off the advertisers.”
We did it because none of the bosses read what we were writing. They were too busy counting the cash from the TJ Hughes adverts, the classifieds and death notices to notice. And then I got made redundant.
But even then there was still a sense of the paper being connected to the beat and hum of the city it served, it felt alive. Just.
Further back, when I was in Half Man Half Biscuit in the 80s, we dreamt of having a good review from Penny Kiley, the Echo’s curmudgeonly but brilliant music writer. When we did - sort of - it felt every bit as validatory as a piece in the NME. Such was the Echo’s clout. Such was the quality, and the passion, of its writers, and the space they were given to actually write.
All empires crumble. In time, the Echo’s will too. It’s inevitable, and it’s already started.
Sure, there are still good writers there. But if there’s a future for local news, they clearly haven’t found out what it is yet. Correction. They think they have. Page views.
So much of local media seems to be in the midst of a nervous breakdown right now. Jittery. Unsure of its place in the world. So in that respect, at least, it’s reflecting the city it serves. There’s the owner of Liverpool Confidential seemingly trying to ruin a (brilliant) Liverpool restaurant because it refuses to pay to be promoted – which it doesn’t need to. This is a man who – when I dared to set up a food magazine – accused me of liking pictures of ‘young boys’ fondling meat by their crotch. (It was a picture of a very grown up butcher slicing a rib of beef on a table).
Then there’s a website called Liverpool Business News, which thinks that any reasoned opinion around development is anti progress, when, just perhaps, it’s ‘pro-debate’. Something of which there’s precious little around here.
A piece I wrote for The Post recently summed it up. I’d asked developers Peel if I could have a mooch around Wirral Waters. You can read it here if you like.
It was, I think, 2,000 honest words. What I saw, what I felt as a local, what I thought it meant for the future. The good, the bad, the bits I wasn’t sure about. Because not being sure about something is OK too. We need more uncertainty, not less around here.
Apparently, this kind of writing still has the power to shock some people. Tony McDonough an ‘award winning’ writer (he tells us that on his Twitter) from Liverpool Business News tweeted: “David Lloyd has strained every sinew in this article to find something to be sour about. It’s his raison d'être.”
Which amused me, because Peel replied saying how much they’d enjoyed the feature: “Great article! Challenging but fair. Come back in 12 months and see how we’re doing.” Maybe that’s because Peel doesn’t need the likes of Tony McDonough as their friend quite as much as he needs them.
Have we collectively lost our bottle? Do we have to just accept investment and growth at all costs, and breathlessly print press releases without question, and call it media?
When local journalists like McDonough forget what critical thinking looks like because they’re too busy posting press releases about people applying for a job in a new pub, we’re in a whole lot of trouble.
That’s why I write for The Post. Even though I don’t agree with everything it publishes. And why I’d love it if you supported it. The Post needs roughly the same amount as the Echo. But that’s for a whole week’s worth of quality writing. Not one night’s serving of Sudoku and shoplifters.
I think opinion, good writing and authenticity are what we need more of. A plurality of voices. A space to lean in and listen. Disagree. Engage and debate.
If we fail to dig a little deeper, look closer, get out more and invite debate we’re left with the cynical click-bait of Reach, the ugly extensions on top of Millennium House, and editors allegedly trying to stop students finishing journalism courses because they don’t like their outbursts on Twitter. Imagine having the time to do that, as a busy editor, and no time to find brilliant stories in this city?
Of course, I tried it with SevenStreets ten years ago. I spent over ten grand in legal fees trying to fight such luminaries as Signature Living, and self-appointed PR gurus who had really close ties with Joe Anderson’s inner circle, and got their clients the breaks. Obviously I was barking up the wrong tree there, right?
The psychologist Stephen Pinker talks about how, increasingly, we’re terrified of upsetting our tribe. That’s definitely true around here. What we believe, Pinker says, isn’t based on the evidence, but what makes us popular with our mates. Magnify that to the size of a city and look around you. Nepotism, corruption and stagnation.
When The Post ran Mollie Simpson and Harry Shukman’s excellent feature questioning the veracity of everything Liverpool councillor Gerard Woodhouse says, a reader accused the publication of being ‘factional’. As if the Post was some splintering political party, dealing with a revolt on the back benches. How dare it criticize a hero of the left?
The more we read people who we know we’re going to disagree with, the better. Because, sometimes, they might be right.
So here’s what I think. Give The Post a chance. If you’ve ever read anything on here, or anything I’ve written over the years, please think of subscribing. It would be great to be paid for what I love doing. Even a little. Then I could do more of it. Other cities have great local media. It’s insane that we’re a brilliant, creative city - a city of writers and thinkers and makers and doers - and yet we don’t have enough spaces to gather around and just talk.
My dad’s onboard. I really hope you will be too. It might make me less sour.
But I’m not making any promises.
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Substitute "Huddersfield Examiner" for "Liverpool Echo" and every word of it still rings true. It's not coincidence that they are both owned by Reach plc.
I gave up on the Examiner when they decided that "well-known fast food chain makes fun of our sports reporter's name" counted as news.
Since then, they appear to have got even worse. It's all tenth-rate minor celebrities, trashy reality TV shows and a bizarre obsession with London-based newsreaders. It was my bingo card poking fun at their formulaic and news-free output that finally got me banned from their facebook page
I wish I could click "like" more than once for this. (And not just for "curmudgeonly but brilliant".) It's all so true.
When I was freelancing for the Daily Post & Echo in the 80s and 90s there were still old-school hacks who had long lunch "hours" in the pub and usually came back with a story. No chance of that these days when reporters are chained to the desk, scraping Twitter for a living. (I also remember when Liverpool Confidential did proper journalism, when Angie Sammons was editor.)
I don't live in Liverpool any more so I can't comment on specifics but it feels to me that the problem isn't with "local publishers" but the fact that they aren't actually local now. When it comes to the Echo, at least, the strategy comes from Reach and it's the same across the country.
Look at any "local" paper that's not locally owned (where I live, the culprit is Newsquest) and you see the same downward spiral - newsdesks run on a shoestring, inexperienced reporters who never get the time to learn their trade properly, not enough subs to stop crap getting published... it's bad for journalism and (speaking as an NUJ member) bad for journalists too.
I wish I knew what the answer was. But I feel better for reading your rant.