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Pillars of the community

Community news, hyperlocal, social enterprise – call it what you will, the non-traditional route to independent publishing is a thriving sector for journalism as Alan Geere finds out.

By Alan Geere

Pillars of the community
Alan Weatherspoon (on the left), Alison Aston and Nick Brownlee in the Eskdale & Liddesdale Advertiser office.

Keeping the E&L flag flying

It is deadline day at the Eskdale & Liddesdale Advertiser and the newsroom is buzzing. Design man Alan is putting the finishing touches to page one, E&L volunteer Alison is meticulously proofreading the 16-page issue and editor Nick is hovering, as I have taken the only other available chair in the office.

We are in Langholm (pronounced Lang’em) perched on the edge of the switchback A7 between Carlisle and Hawick and the home of one of the most remarkable success stories of British newspapering.

Just six years ago, the last rites were read for the E&L, with owners CN deciding they could no longer support the loss-making venture and were ready to close the door on a title that was established in 1848. But this community of 3,000 hardy souls in what is officially Dumfries and Galloway had other ideas.

“The paper is just part of life here,” recalls Alan Weatherspoon, who has been with the title since its rebirth. “There was a meeting at the community centre and the plans to keep it going took off from there.”

That was back in May 2017, when Muckle Toon Media was registered as a community interest company and took ownership of the Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser. The CIC was formed by local entrepreneur David Stevenson – who made his name with the Edinburgh Woollen Mill retail group – with help from EU funding.

“To lose the paper would have been a body blow so it had to be saved though we knew the chances of financial viability were low,” Stevenson told InPublishing. “We raised over £100,000 to see us through the first five years and fundraising to cover a £15,000 annual deficit will be a regular feature of its future. We are now a charity which makes accessing funding support easier and we just hope to keep going on this basis.”

The paper now relies on voluntary contributions, both editorial and financial, and as a charity they have access to funding. “We try to sell advertising without employing anyone for that purpose,” said Stevenson. “There are no secrets, just a strong belief that the E&L performs a key role in developing a vibrant community which makes Langholm a wonderful small town in which to live.”

Muckle is the border dialect word for big, and the toon certainly has a grand history, once boasting seven woollen mills. Now the paper reflects the commercial, political and cultural interests of the community but is also not afraid to tackle issues like vandalism and drugs.

The paper is now put together across the road from the original office and print shop in the High Street where Alison Aston’s mother, father and grandfather were all editors of the paper. Alison is lovingly called “the mainstay of the operation”.

That family lived and worked through many of the years of the bound copies of the title, stored in the office, that go back to its inception in 1848. Alas, some are in poor condition so the team are actively seeking ways of repairing them so they don’t deteriorate further – a task with a £10-12k estimate.

Editor Nick Brownlee has brought a professionalism to the operation, calling on his experience as a Thomson trainee in Newcastle, as both a Fleet Street staffer and freelance and a prolific book author. “I’m aiming to give a professional feel to those local stories,” says Nick, 55. “Plus it’s important that the paper should stand up and be independent on behalf of people in the community.”

He writes most of the copy with the help of another seasoned journalist, Gilly Fraser. Nick has added a Page Two leader column to give the paper an authoritative voice while other contributions for activities such as walking and gardening come in from local correspondents.

Around 1,000 copies are printed at the Newsquest facility in Glasgow and distributed to 30 outlets in a broad geographical spread around the town and the neighbouring dales of its name. At a cover price of £1, the heavyweight 60gsm paper gives it a bright feel, complemented by bold use of colour photographs throughout, plus the most delicious masthead you ever did see.

The thriving E&L will be pleased to learn it is not alone as a champion of the community. The Independent Community News Network (ICNN) describes itself as ‘the UK’s representative body for the independent community news sector’ and lists a current membership of 123 titles with 22 million page views and a monthly print run of 300,000.

Product of lockdown

From what is regarded as the oldest newspaper in Scotland, it is just an hour up the road close to Melrose to what is probably the newest.

The Newstead News started life as a simple flyer distributed to villagers about local deliveries during lockdown in March 2020. “It was born out of tragedy, trying to connect the community as we were told to stay at home,” says Lisa Cowan, who has used her skills as a consultant to the creative industries to harness the enthusiasm of the community to make the publication what it is today.

The Newstead News was launched by Lisa Cowan as a lockdown flyer.

Newstead News is now published by the Newstead Village Community Trust (NVCT) and that four-page fact sheet has grown into a stylish 20-page full colour publication distributed free to every home in the village. Issue 9, dated April 2023, has a wide variety of contributions from the village community trust to readers’ photographs, and historical recollections to contemporary nature notes.

Lisa’s drive has clearly been instrumental to making this happen. With her extensive background in the media – who can argue with someone who started out as an ad rep on the Folkestone Herald! – she has shown what can be done harnessing the power of the community.

And from those humble beginnings, the Newstead News was delighted to be named among the winners of a Creative Lives Award, an annual celebration of the achievements of voluntary and community-led creativity across the UK and Ireland.

“Who would have thought that a simple leaflet produced at the start of the pandemic would quickly evolve into a colourful, 20-page magazine entirely written and produced by our community,” said Lisa. “This award belongs to everyone in Newstead, but especially the 100 or so people who have been involved with everything from writing stories to making deliveries. It’s rewarding to see our small village making such a big impact.”

For Lisa, it is that community involvement that is key. “Because it started in lockdown when we couldn’t get near to each other, we’ve continued with that using email for the contributions. Communities need a good core of people – and no meetings!”

Lisa does have a word of advice for would-be community entrepreneurs. “If anyone was to approach doing something like this with a background in media, it is more about recognising other people’s skills, giving confidence and coaching through the process.”

Back in Langholm, there is due homage paid to an unlikely forbear. Man on the moon astronaut Neil Armstrong traced his ancestral roots back to the area and was made the first and only ‘Freeman of the Burgh of Langholm’ on a visit in 1972, just three years after that ‘Giant leap for Mankind’.

No doubt he would be delighted to see how his ‘home town’ newspaper is still soaring high.

Plugging the gap

Head south 350 miles, through what seems like several lifetimes, and in five and half hours arrive in Berkshire, or more precisely the twin towns of Reading and Wokingham.

This thriving area, once home to the Evening Post, part of Thomson’s enterprising ‘ring of steel’ around London, is now served by Wokingham.Today and RDG.Today, social enterprises that aim to ensure that “everyone within the areas has free access to independent and up-to-date news”.

Phil Creighton: “It has been hard work, gruelling at times.”

The enterprise has this year celebrated its eighth birthday under the ceaseless guidance of former Evening Post features editor Phil Creighton. “When Reach announced it was closing the Reading Post, the Bracknell Standard and The Wokingham Times, it left a gap in the market for Wokingham borough. With a growing population, a town centre regeneration project and some amazing people, I knew they needed a dedicated news source,” said Phil.

“It has been hard work, gruelling at times, but we’ve earned our place in our communities as the place to go for news in Wokingham, and we launched a Reading edition in 2021. The only shared content is the leisure and sports sections, and both papers carry around 100 stories each week.”

The printed editions and complementary websites are full of everything from hard news, hyperlocal community fare, sports and entertainment, all put together by three journalists and a sports reporter.

“One of the things we’re proud of is giving opportunities to people – rookies, people who need experience and mould them into shape,” says Phil proudly. “Some of the team have gone on to bigger things – national newspapers or news websites, trade press, BBC. And that’s exactly how it should be.”

The ICNN says that hyperlocal journalism is a movement which is still growing, helping promote social cohesion, connecting and engaging individuals to address local issues and affect positive change. “A better-informed citizenry and increased local accountability mean stronger communities and a healthier democracy,” reports the Cardiff University backed organisation.

Phil would no doubt agree, but has a more down-to-earth definition: “Why do I do it? Local newspapers, be they online or in print, are parts of the glue that hold communities together.

“One day, I might write a book about this adventure. Until then, I’ll keep writing enough material to fill a paperback every week. Only it’s not my story, but the communities we serve.”

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This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.