I know – it’s not a headline that feels at all comfortable, is it?
After all, Sir Ray Tindle is quite rightly a hero to anyone serious about local newspapers, opening titles left, right and centre and virtually avoiding redundancies in the midst of the industry’s worst ever recession.
But ‘Shortage of news in Tindle weekly’ is a fair, accurate and contemporaneous account of the state of the South London Press.
Don’t get me wrong: I like the look of the paper, I like the way the front page shouts out ‘buy me’ from the newsstands, with its powerful, emotive splash headlines and clear boosts, and I also like the simple white-on-blue masthead which projects a sense of calm while immediately letting you know what you’re buying.
The pictures are good too – local faces directly involved in the stories throughout the book, with no messing around with angles or reflections.
And I just love the style of writing – short, snappy 10 to 15-word intros, and then healthy, lengthy news stories with lots of facts, names, personal details and colourful quotes.
But – and it is a big but – there are far too few news stories.
In fact, in the 27 months that I’ve been penning this blog, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a paid-for newspaper with such a small news story count.
On Friday 30 March, for a cover price of 50p, readers were given just 33 reports on 21 news pages.
On top of this, there was a busy spread of letters, and another 13 stories were carried in seven pages of features, which included leisure, TV and a memory spread.
But even if you included these as a total news and features count – 46 reports on 28 pages – they were dwarfed by 60+ stories on just 12 sports pages.
So what’s gone wrong? Or is this wrong… do readers in south London actually want little news and more sport?
I doubt the imbalance is for the benefit of readers. While sport is crucial and many papers give it too little coverage, it seems to me that this paper is skinny on news because for some reason there’s a lack of it in the system.
The splash was a strong follow up from the conviction of five-year-old Thusa Kamaleswaren’s assailants, with local MP Kate Hoey leading calls for ‘draconian’ sentences.
The importance of this story made it totally justifiable that pages four and five were devoted to special reports and backgrounders, and this was all captivating stuff.
But there was not the same reason for devoting other pages to single stories, including:
- ‘We just got used to the bombs’ on page six, a news feature about the blitz;
- ‘Tempest takes the stage by storm’ on page eight, a news report on a local singer;
- ‘Race to the South Pole’ taking up all of pages 10 and 11, a news feature story about a local man on Captain Scott’s legendary ill-fated journey;
- ‘Vital to support creativity’ on page 14, a column penned by MP Harriet Harman; and
- ‘Best businesses can paint the town red’ on pages 32 and 33, covering the local business awards.
All of the above were worthy stories – but none of them apart from the shooting case should have dominated entire pages or spreads, and I don’t think they would have been designed that way if extra news had been available.
Quite why this is the case on news is a mystery. I know, many readers might point to recent coverage that paints a picture of an unhappy, reduced editorial staff.
But if that is the case, why is the quantity and breadth of sports coverage so comparably huge, with detailed reports on Olympic preparations, Charlton, Crystal Palace, Millwall, Wimbledon, local boxing, Surrey cricket, athletics, rugby union and junior sport?
The only answer I can fathom is that big changes are afoot, and this was certainly hinted at in a single paragraph in media commentator Ray Snoddy’s interview with Sir Ray in the current edition of InPublishing.
“All the signs are,” wrote Snoddy, “that one of Tindle’s larger papers, the South London Press, which is believed to be losing close to £500,000 a year, will soon get the ultra-local treatment and be sub-divided into separate papers for areas such as Brixton, Streatham and Tulse Hill.”
It rings true to me, the starvation of news perhaps explained because the existing paper is temporarily being left to dawdle in terms of structure while resources are devoted to future relaunch projects.
I certainly hope that there is an explanation along those lines, because otherwise what are obviously a skilled team of news journalists have either too little resource, pagination or both to produce a healthily sized newspaper.
And that, after 147 years of the South London Press, would be a shame.
Footnote: The South London Press is no longer registered with ABC. Its last recorded sale was 18,942 for the second half of 2008.