The Sharp End: News from elsewhere

Dave Waller samples life as an old-school local journalist on a west country newspaper.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Hold the back page: the Sharp End is in Cornwall seeing how the beleaguered local newspaper industry is faring. Can people's appetite for harvest festivals, litter picks and rummage sales keep circulation up in the downturn?

My chosen rag is the St Austell Voice, circulation 6,000. I arrive at 8am on a Monday to be greeted by a team of just three: Phill, the editor, Paul, the snapper, and Gareth, the one-man sports desk.

Phill asks what leads they have. The big one is a school down the road that has suffered a flash flood, causing its drains to overflow and fill the classrooms with sewage. 'It's that or the fact we won a minor medal at South West in Bloom,' says Phill.

Yet the pace does pick up around here. Phill tells me how a former councillor was recently found guilty of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old male, which the defendant argued was just over-the-top horseplay - he was impersonating Gladys Pugh from Hi-de-Hi at the time. Arch-rival the Cornish Guardian buried the story, 'but we ran a picture of him dressed as Father Christmas while working at Asda', says Phill.

Then there were the two bodies found on the edge of town in July, just one of the Voice's stories to break into the nationals. Others have been picked up by the Sun, the FT, the Observer, even the late News of the World. Paul's story of a policeman who entered a carnival dressed as Osama bin Laden made the New York Times.

Phill proudly boasts that the Voice's success has led the much larger Cornish Guardian to close its office in St Austell. By contrast, the Voice is a fiercely independent outfit, actively pursuing a tabloid line to pull in younger readers. 'We may not have the tech,' says Paul, gesturing at their old iMacs, 'but we know our pissing patch very well.'

This is one of the paper's strengths. Yes, revenues are drying up, but with an ageing readership that's shy of the internet and advertisers keen to be in front of people, there's life in the old rag yet. Plus, says Phill, people want to know about things that affect them - the stuff on the next street.

By now the reporter, Natasha, has shuffled in and I join her for the weekly police briefing, in the office of inspector Stuart Gibbons, who dishes out some press releases. Two of them. One, a month old, is about an attempted robbery at a petrol station, which caused superficial damage to a door frame. 'The police don't tell the media 99% of what's going on,' says Phill later, 'to ensure people don't worry about crime.'

Local news may seem trivial and even comical to outsiders, but it offers something the national press doesn't - stories come from the ground, not agencies, and you can see the changes you're making. You also bump into people the day after you've run a story on them. The widow of someone recently rumbled for sharing a bed with the body of his dead mother is back talking to them again - even though the chosen subhead was 'Councillor slept with rotting corpse'.

We head off to a Wetherspoon for a long lunch of 'cold hop soup'. This is a relic of the old Fleet Street days, when Phill used to work on sport for the Mirror Group. Back then, 'there was no one in the office because all the reporters would be out in the pub getting stories'.

Sadly, the younger generation doesn't always share the instinct. One former senior reporter apparently drove obliviously past a whole street cordoned off with police tape on the way to work.

Phill and Paul are incredulous - they still ply the trade with veterans' pride, but they wouldn't advise anyone to get into the game. The salary's around £17,000 a year for a job that tends to take over your life. Paul lost several contemporaries in their mid-20s to alcohol abuse, and his partner couldn't stick his willingness to abandon whatever he's doing to chase a story. Yet that's the lifestyle. 'I wouldn't expect something to happen and my staff not drop everything to be there to cover it,' says Phill.

Back at the office, the radio reveals a hotel fire in Newquay. 'Jammy bastards,' says Paul, presumably referring to the sister paper there. Over here, something has finally happened: someone's stolen a bench. Barring any sudden heinous crimes - a copycat assault while dressed as Ted Bovis, perhaps - that's the front page sorted.

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