A friend just sent me a link to this Tom Tomorrow cartoon about the death of reporting. You see, we're not really living in the Information Age at all. We're in the Opinion Age, building wobbly castles on a shaky base of not-quite-fact. (That's partly why it's also known as the Age of Stupid, but more on that later.)
One of the many things I’ve been doing in my recent “feast” period is training aspiring community journalists in Barton. My message to them was simple: if you concentrate on first-hand reporting of the events in your local community, and you do that reporting in good faith, you are providing a unique service.
During my time at Leys News, we revived the idea of having a monthly community bulletin sheet. (There had been a very popular one on the estate some years previously, but it folded because of lack of funds.) We called our new version the Leys Listings and launched it in January 2008. Copies were pinned up all over the estate in community buildings, takeaways, phone boxes and bus shelters.
Residents loved it. Almost immediately we began getting calls from people who wanted to advertise in the classified section or get more information about events listed. Community workers and parish councillors took the time to tell us how much they liked it. I'm happy to see that it's still going strong over a year after we launched it.
The Leys Listings isn't exciting. The main content is a calendar showing what's happening on various dates throughout the month. It also has a Useful Numbers section (NHS Direct, out-of-hours emergency contacts for the local housing associations, the Thames Valley Police non-emergency number, etc) and a free classified ads section for residents. One or two small paid-for adverts help to cover production costs. Julian Dourado's design is clean and functional rather than arty. There is no glossy photography, no humour, no incisive analysis of current affairs. But it works because it's useful. It works because it gives people information they needed to know, and it brings that information into places they are likely to go.
Leys Listings complements the paper because it fits in with its remit of providing useful, detailed community information. In some ways, it achieves that remit more successfully than the paper itself because a shorter production process means that it can come out monthly and be more up to date.
Of course I think that community newspapers can and should do a lot more than just providing information. There's space for creativity, analysis, opinion, campaigning. But what makes a community paper indispensible is the nitty-gritty, the micro-local stories too small or boring for large regionals to bother with. Leys News tells readers what's happening with the bin collections, the state of play over that problem alleyway, where to get emergency contraception over the Christmas holidays. The Listings supports it in that unglamorous role.
It's hard to explain to aspiring community journalists why writing about bin collection times is important, especially when they have a global perspective on the news. One of the people in my training sessions turned out fascinating articles on a whole range of topics: applied theology, the judicial process, the state of mainstream journalism. But none of it was local and none of it was really reporting.
Why should someone like that turn his hand to finding out about local Easter playschemes? Well, because everybody has opinions, but we currently don't have a very good system for working out whose opinions are worth listening to. Most people in the Western world have the tools and skills to set up a blog and use it to tell the world what they think about global current affairs. But even if you're spectacularly well-informed and insightful, very few people will take any notice unless you're already famous.
But if you've collected the information about Easter playschemes on your estate and written about it clearly, people will want to read what you've written because it's useful to them. Not only that, but you can take pride in knowing that you're almost certainly the only person in the world putting that information into the public domain. You can do that, or you can add to the millions of underinformed blog posts about Gaza or the international banking crisis.
As I said, there's still room for campaigning and analysis. But that kind of writing in a community paper has a lot more power when it's locally focused and backed up with good-quality local reporting. I don't believe that neutrality is possible or even desirable, but the campaigns and the opinion pieces should be drawing on solid research. That means talking to people, attending events, putting in the hours. It's a Cinderella role in some ways, but the message of the Cinderella story is that you can find glamour in unexpected places.