Saturday, 12 May 2012

Ponteland Observed, part six

After the Observer’s departure, voluntary newspapers and newsletters continued to circulate in Ponteland in addition to established church magazines and party political bulletins. For several years from 1988, Ponteland’s two middle schools and one high school produced (by rotation) the Pont and Darras Post, into which the former Observer supplement HighLights was merged. The newsletter produced for several years by Ponteland Neighbourhood Watch attracted several correspondents and widened its interests beyond police matters. When this finished there were briefly two competing monthly newsletters, one a direct successor to the Neighbourhood Watch newsletter and another formally supported by the local authority with commercial involvement, and it is this, Pont News and Views, which survives at the time of writing. This glossy publication is mainly concerned with reports from Ponteland Town Council though it does contain listings from local societies, and it is available in pdf form online. There is also a Ponteland community website run by the local printer, in echoes of weeklies past . A news blog is associated with the site, though it seems largely to repeat news from other online sources.

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.

However, the Northumberland papers have carried their share of cuts. Since 2009 the Gazette and the Herald have shared an editor, though the Herald maintains its own office in Morpeth with its own reporters. Though not as weighty as Northumberland’s biggest weekly, the Hexham Courant, the Herald staff produce an energetically readable title in full colour which maintains a high level of community involvement. Stories in the 26 April 2012 edition concerned a reprieve for another long-established Morpeth business, Appleby's Bookshop, an exhibition about proposed opencast coal mining at Widdrington Station, news that the mayor of Ponteland is so busy he can't have a summer holiday, and two pages of letters about traffic jams in Morpeth caused by a new set of lights. During the floods of 2008 the Herald took full advantage of the facilities their web template offers to upload video footage and news updates. The Gazette will be among the first wave of Johnston Press titles to be relaunched as a tabloid this year, and the Herald will presumably follow later in 2012. Whether or not the Johnston Press recovery programme succeeds – and a ‘five sizes fits all’ template model seems to this layman to build upon the unsteady foundations of the web platform, which doesn’t distinguish satisfactorily between the different needs of, for example, The Scotsman and the Newtownabbey Times – a way needs to be found to keep communities such as Ponteland represented and moderate the passage of information between businesses and individuals, whatever the platform.

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.

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