I grew up in Northampton, sometimes described as the most typical (ie nondescript) of all English towns. Since 1931 its life has been recorded, daily except Sundays, in the pages of the local newspaper, the Chronicle & Echo, and before that by its two component parts: the Conservative Chronicle and the Liberal Echo. For a while, long ago, I did some of the chronicling.
Gone. The publishers, Johnston Press, are to relaunch the Chron in a move to “platform neutral publishing”, which – even the dimmest reader might have gathered – is management-speak for closure.
Oh, it will be published once a week – “a bumper print edition”; there will be “significant investment” on the web and “exciting new developments”. The fact remains that from next month Northampton will be without a daily paper for the first time since Queen Victoria was a girl.
The move came as part of the biggest tranche of British newspaper closures in memory. Johnston is closing four other dailies (in Halifax, Kettering, Peterborough and Scarborough), and its other papers are to be thumped again. Well, net-savvy readers might think: what do you expect? Papers are finished, the future’s online, wake up and smell the latte.
And a journalist might think: what do you expect from the companies that own local papers? In the fat times they revelled in their monopoly of house, car and job adverts, failed to invest in the product, and have all paid the price.
And, a media analyst might add: what do you expect from Johnston? This was a small-town Scottish company that embarked on a vast debt-fuelled expansion then, when the wind changed, had nowhere to hide. Its share price crashed from £6 to 6p. Its reputation among staff, readers and shareholders is, shall we say, not good.
Or, as Tony Clarke, Northampton’s former Labour MP, put it on the Chron’s own website: “It’s the staff of the Chron and us as a town who will now pay for the mismanagement of this bunch of clueless chancers who wouldn’t even know where Northampton was even if the satnavs on their executive pool cars brought them here by mistake.”
There is something in all these answers. And yet I believe the crucial element of the story goes well beyond either journalism or technology.
Northampton – once famous for shoes – is halfway between London and Birmingham. As a boy, depending on the wind, I could hear either the new M1 motorway or the main line to Glasgow from my bedroom. It was a town of about 100,000, small enough to know everyone you needed to know. I wish I had known, working on the Chron, impatient for the bright lights, that journalism would never be quite so much fun anywhere else.
The paper sold about 50,000 in the town and surrounding countryside. Then, like Topsy and Johnston Press, Northampton more than doubled in size: its position and transport links made it irresistible. Neighbouring towns grew too. The old managing director rubbed his hands, and talked of selling 80,000.
But local newspapers thrive best where the roots are deepest. Rural weeklies (rural dailies in the US) still hold their own. And conventional local journalism doesn’t work on the web because readers have their own agenda – they want to hear news of what and whom they know: “Hey, the post office is closing! . . . Oh, old Mr so-and-so has died! . . . Aah, that kid from No 39 scored the winner!” You have to flick the printed pages to find your own private headlines.
Northampton is now a town of blow-ins and drop-bys, there because it’s easy to get out of, living in anonymous estates, barely knowing their neighbours. They have no need of a local paper or even an iPad app. In the event of flood, pestilence or plague, the BBC is far more useful. The Chron now sells less than 20,000.
The Chronicle & Echo has died, not because the town is too small but because it is too big. Northampton is no longer a coherent community. Though it is by far the largest town in Britain to have lost its daily paper, others will follow, including perhaps – before long – cities as large as Birmingham and Manchester. And post-print websites will fail even there unless they pay for far better journalism than has been the provincial norm.
Mind you, one can’t ignore the mismanagement. As James Cameron, the last editor of the long-lost News Chronicle, said on its closure: “It died of a thrombosis – a healthy circulation impeded by clots.”