Canvey Island is a small area of reclaimed land, in the Thames Estuary, surrounded by a fifteen mile long concrete seawall. It is located some thirty miles east of London, and around fifteen miles west of Southend-On-Sea, in Essex. It is connected to the mainland via two bridges, which are provided by the B1014, Canvey Road, and the A130, Canvey Way.

In 2007, a successful petition by three-thousand islanders led to the UK government granting its inhabitants their own Town Council, which was established in 2008.

The Canvey Beat covers the eighteen square-kilometer area that is Canvey Island with its golf-course, leisure centre, thirteen schools, high-street shops, two health centres, nature reserves, arable land, pubs, retirement homes, bingo hall, cinema, sea-front amusements, restaurants, night-clubs, library, youth and political clubs — all serving the needs of some forty-thousand islanders.

I have lived on Canvey Island since the turn of the millennium; but it was not until recently (when I was finally forced to face the prospect of a boring retirement) that my long suffering girlfriend suggested I might turn my journalistic skills towards creating a Canvey Blog.

‘What was once a free weekly paper has now turned into a monthly digest of old news and adverts,’ she complained, ‘and the evening paper, based in Basildon, lumps Canvey in with Castle Point and rarely has any community coverage.’

I did a little research and was forced to agree.

Hard times

The problem facing Canvey is the same as that faced by many other small UK towns. The mushrooming of out-of-town super stores has resulted in the closure of many independent High Street shops, and this, in turn, has had a serious impact on local paper advertising revenues — forcing old titles to cut-back on staffing or scrap the presses all together.

The recession has only made matters much worse, with the BBC recently reporting that an average of six local titles were ceasing publication every week. Even the Daily Mail & General Trust newspaper group, following a projected 37 percent drop in regional advertising revenues, has announced plans to cut 1,000 jobs, and News Corp has announced the forming of a new unit to share journalism across all its properties.

It is not a good time for journalists; but, in my opinion, it is they and their management who must shoulder a good proportion of the blame for their papers’ demise.

The good old days

My first experience of a local newspaper was as a High School student, during a week’s work experience, at the old Southend Standard in Essex. That was back in the 1960s, when its offices were situated just off the High Street, and the thump of the presses could be felt beneath your feet as you placed the dust-cover over your Adler for the night.

In those days, reporters used to arrive on the early bus and exchange good-mornings with shop owners who were unlocking their premises for the coming day’s business. Everyone would be in by 8.00 am for the daily briefing and, by 8.30 am, the only people present would be those typing-up their stories from the night before — with the editor or his assistant manning the phones behind the sound-proof glass of their office. Journalists did not wait for the news to come to them: they went out and actively sought it.

In those days, reporters worked as a team, collecting diary news for the spike as they pursued their own hot leads. When they returned to the office to file their deadline stories, routine news was transcribed from their Pitman notes onto individual sheets of plain paper and placed on the spike in front of the editor’s office. (Nobody was permitted to enter the holy domain without an invitation!).

Everyone checked the spike. The editor picked out anything worth pursuing and assigned it appropriately. Reporters checked to see if it contained something worth including in their own reports and, if there was anything relating to their own contributions, they were removed, stapled together, and re-spiked on top of the pile.

Those with time on their hands worked the spike, confirming the information that a promising piece contained, and typing it up for filing. By its very nature, the spike was never empty…

Front pageThe demise of the community paper

The community paper signed its own death warrant when management decided to concentrate on the money making opportunities from advertising and provide the paper free. From that moment on, detailed local news gathering, especially in small towns, was confined to the pages of history, and independent reporting (together with journalistic credibility) was lost. Community newspapers were no longer in the news gathering business: they were surrogates of the advertising game.

Page 8The old Southend Standard was a daily broadsheet with around sixteen pages each day. Just the last three were devoted to classified advertising — and display adverts simply were not permitted where they would detract from the news.

As illustrated by the insets, such a rule no longer applies. Facts are subjugated to advertising space and there is no longer any real journalism. Even pure reporting standards have declined to the point where they are no longer recognizable.

This is best illustrated in the Canvey Primary Care Centre Opens Its Doors piece that made the front page above. It is a good bet that this would have made the front page of the old Standard as well; but it would certainly have led into a middle page spread.

It could be argued that, given its snail-like deadline, The Times had no excuse not to give the story the coverage it deserved. But, not only did it not provide an external shot of the new premises (it repeated the same photograph of Dr Chaudhury, which it placed on the front page), it did not even report where the new building is located! Canvey may be a small island; but it is by no means a one-street-town. I live half a mile from the town centre, and shop there regularly; but I have seen no new building works!

The old Southend Standard would have conducted interviews with doctors and staff alike; sought out those opposed to the new development and found an angle that would bring the story to life. But there is no attempt to do that here. Even the Council Tax Up 4.96% lead is a rework of Council handouts without the detailed analysis. There is no attempt to report what residents think of the new charge — or provide an editorial perspective. There is a political attack upon the new charge under the subhead Candidate Slams Tax Rise, on page 2 (with the byline of ‘Times Reporter’); but it simply gives a platform for Castle Point’s Labour Party candidate to beat his drum. There is no independent analysis; no attempt to explain or to inform readers of the issues involved.

It is no wonder that such titles are free. No one would be prepared to buy them. Their columns contain no more than a poor summary of political and establishment handouts — masquerading as news.

Compare the Times article, on Canvey’s new primary care centre, with Sarah Calkin’s original piece in the Echo, and it is not difficult to see where the Times Reporter’s information was obtained. Her article goes to show that professional journalism is not dead and that there are still responsible staffers whom believe in gathering the facts and providing proper attribution.

This blog

Using a blog to impart news is an increasing journalistic trend. That is because blogs do not come under the remit of the PCC and, apart from the precious time needed to research and compile a story, there is little or no financial cost. Unlike traditional newspapers, readers do not have to wait for a title to be published to obtain the latest news: they simply take advantage of the blog’s RSS feed to have new content delivered immediately to their email client or browser.

For its part, The Canvey Beat is an experiment. It is a means to discover if there is still an appetite for community news, or if, as some barons would have us believe, the days of local journalism have no place in today’s TV based, latest only, celebrity culture. It would be such a shame if that were the case, because, in essence, all news is local — and without an independent watchdog expressing the people’s voice, true democracy cannot hope to exist.

I personally believe that the electronic blog, run upon strict journalistic lines, is the modern day train that local citizens can board to revive community news. And, perhaps in an attempt to prove that old hacks like myself still have something to offer (as well as prove my theory) I have chosen to adopt Canvey Island as this blog’s beat, take my shoes and socks off, and go paddle in the water.

These are just some of the island’s stories…

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