It was a desperately sad day for journalism and our town, and of course the 49 staff who lost their jobs, when the news broke on 31 August that The Oldham Chronicle had gone to print for the last time that day after an incredible 163 years and was now in the hands of administrators.
Dave Whaley, editor since 2000, told regional TV news that he’d taken a phone call from a friend the night of the announcement. The friend was in a pub and he said all in the pub were in shock and sad and Dave asked him to ask for a show of hands of those who’d recently bought a copy and it was two, in a busy local pub, just two. The numbers speak for themselves. The number of people purchasing the paper had gone down dramatically.
Critics will (and have) comment on the quality of the stories in the paper and the number of adverts, as well as the advent of social media. The quality of the stories was never in any doubt in our opinion – indeed we know of many occasions where the Chron refused to touch unsubstantiated (fake!) news. They upheld journalistic standards, as they should. And they did, latterly, embrace social media, and posted stories online, for free alongside the full subscription eChron version.
We’re not going to do an analysis on the future of print media or the fake news phenomenon or debate the merits of giving people news for free but we did want to make a few points.
Yes there is a place for pages/communities on Facebook alerting people to local incidents, crashes etc in a bid to help people avoid an area for example, but is this news? Is it balanced, researched and factual?
Historically the local paper would have been THE place to advertise but businesses are less brand loyal now and are spoilt for choice now when it comes to where to advertise both on and offline with the market dominated by Facebook of course – advertising on Facebook wins elections! But there are also those local advertising booklets that come through the door for free which must have been competition for the Chron, as well as radio, Google etc.
PR. Now this is hugely relevant to us. We have placed loads of local stories in the Chron since our inception back in 2010. For local businesses it’s always been the holy grail to get in t’chron. Yes there are alternatives but nothing with the kudos of local business good news in local paper – in print, so your mum can cut it out for your scrap book/clippings. We reckon a straw poll of Oldhamers would reveal a high percentage of people with hard copy cuttings of coverage in the Chron. That ship has sailed.
Where will people place obituaries? I have to admit this wasn’t my first thought but for people of the older generation it really has been the only way to find out of the passing of old friends. It offered a really useful service to the bereaved as well as being a source of revenue for the paper. I’ve already seen a few people announcing deaths on community pages on Facebook to try and get the message out about funeral details. It doesn’t have the same dignity around it somehow, and I wonder what funeral directors are advising people?
The letters pages – oh gosh I am really going to miss the letters page. It was a snapshot into the minutiae of life in Oldham and based on the volume of letters from some regular names it was clearly a hobby-horse for some. But again, it also highlighted issues for the community and provided a service.
Most importantly for Oldham I believe is that locally at the least, for now, we’ve lost the vehicle for holding people/businesses/public bodies to account. The journalistic investigations can and do have serious ramifications. If you’ve never seen Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime then please seek it out. It’s the true story of how Harold Evans, then Sunday Times editor, fought for years on behalf of thalidomide victims to get to the truth and then to seek compensation on their behalf. It really gives an insight into how journalism can and does work. It’s not about cutting and pasting press releases. And it’s not about click bait.
For context I’m going to reproduce what I posted on my personal Facebook on the day the news broke. The comments were truly amazing, from friends whose family had worked on the presses, to a big debate about a controversial front page story from 30 plus years ago when I was a pupil at Blue Coat and some girls launched a save our socks campaign to get the strict rules on our scrunched downs socks relaxed – heady stuff!
“Genuinely sad about today’s Oldham Chron being the last ever, which I’m pretty sure most of the staff wouldn’t have even known when they were putting it to bed. Every one of us that stopped buying it, or advertising in it partly contributed to its demise, but it’s also a sign of the times when there is so much news for free. When my dad was effectively in a coma I was desperate to get a copy because we all thought reading out the crossword clues, as well as the news would bring him round. That’s what local papers once meant. Sad day”
To go t’papers is going to be one of those phrases that the next generation don’t know and this makes me sad.