This latter feature suggests that professional reporters have a continuing role in community life. The Journal’s website includes a Ponteland section, as it does for several other Northumberland towns. The Morpeth Herald website feeds content from the paper online throughout the week and this usually includes several Ponteland stories. Indeed, in the late 2000s (it may still continue) the Morpeth Herald experimented with an occasional tabloid Ponteland Herald, given away free at Ponteland library and presumably elsewhere, anthologising recent Ponteland content from the Morpeth Herald and invoking the memory of the Ponteland Observer. The Herald’s continued interest in Ponteland, despite the removal of the shared district council in 2009, is indicative of a continued appetite for local news. Ponteland has its stringers – one for the Morpeth Herald and one for the Hexham Courant – but has yet to produce its equivalent to Amble’s semi-professional newspaper and website The Ambler, although such an effort depends very much on the individuals concerned as well as the location of the population being served.
Nearly thirty years on from the launch of the Ponteland Observer, Ponteland is gently transformed. It has more restaurants and supermarkets, and like many other places fewer independent shops, though there is still a turnover. Its buses to Newcastle are less frequent, particularly in evenings where they are almost non-existent outside weekends. There are still many independent businesses based in Ponteland, and it’s less precious about its rural identity. Since 2009 and the introduction of a unitary authority for Northumberland, Ponteland's parish council has become a town council with a mayor, and in recent years the town has gained its own Civic Society.
A former newspaper editor and owner, Chris Oakley, pointed out in a recent speech (which can be found in full at journalism news site Hold the Front Page) that the recent round of consolidation in the large newspaper groups means that such large towns as Port Talbot and Long Eaton no longer have their own paper. Consolidation isn’t new: as a submission to an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament from a veteran of the Border press pointed out, it has been going on for decades as publishers sought to corner as much as they could of an advertising market which appeared to be in decline after the rise of ITV in the 1950s and 1960s. Centralisation of printing has a long heritage too: for decades the Northern Press’s titles were printed in South Shields before being sent out to Alnwick, Morpeth, Blyth, Ashington, Wallsend or Whitley Bay. Sharing of copy has been long-established as well. In the present pattern of the CN Group’s Hexham Courant and Johnston Press’s Berwick Advertiser, Northumberland Gazette, Morpeth Herald and News Post Leader, it could be argued that Northumberland has weekly newspapers more clearly distinct from each other than was usual in earlier decades.
One of the Oxford University entrance examination questions for history in the 1980s was “Are the British a nation? If so, what about the English, the Scots and the Welsh?” The answer (as least as far as one candidate was concerned) involved the idea that communities overlap; there are different communities at different levels and they need to be understood on their own terms. There seems to be little appreciation of this concept in the upper levels of some media companies; and while a lot of attention is paid to the success of Tindle Newspapers in appreciating the distinct needs of individual coverage areas they are only one firm. The Ponteland Observer demonstrates that hyperlocalism is not a new idea, but that executing it successfully has always been difficult. The original Ponteland Observer of 1982 to 1984 combined elements of the traditional weekly newspaper of court and council reports, planning meetings and police notices and details of local sports teams and clubs with features on people and businesses more usual in a magazine, and produced to a higher standard than was common in newspapers at the time. How such an idea would have prospered in the internet age can only be imagined, but it would not have depended on citizen journalists and social networking for its content. If there is someone with the funds and the initiative to devise a hyperlocal news platform for Ponteland or community of similar size more dynamic than what is presently available, they could do worse than look at what Michael Sharman and his team tried to do three decades ago, noting what went wrong, with tragic consequences, as well as what went right.
These posts draw from newspapers in my own collection, research using internet sources, and recollections. Corrections, clarifications and comments are welcome.