Sunday, 10 January 2016

It Is With Regret We Announce....

OSSIE SHEARER on the passing of the Hawick News [office]

'LOCAL MEDIA DRIVES RESPONSE & ACTION' screamed the panel down the centre of page 16 of last week's Southern Reporter. Unfortunately the juxtaposition of the advert right next to a virtual obituary notice for the "death" of the Hawick News office this coming Friday could hardly have been more inappropriate.

Imagine the sense of outrage in the columns of the Hawick News if Scottish Borders Council announced it was closing its contact centre in the middle of town, forcing local inhabitants to pay their council tax in Selkirk or Jedburgh.

No doubt the paper would be running a campaign with online petition and no-nonsense editorials to preserve a local authority presence. Hawick's councillors wouldn't know what had hit them while senior officials at Newtown St Boswells would be branded 'enemies of Hawick'.

Yet as we exclusively revealed before Christmas, Johnston Press, the non-local owners of several Borders weekly papers, have decided to shut down the only newspaper office in the region's largest town as part of the company's latest cost cutting measures. It may prove to be a misguided decision, and certainly one which will not go down well with loyal readers of the News.

From this weekend the Hawick News which has been part of the fabric of The Auld Grey Toon since 1882 "will become part of The Southern Reporters [sic] Office in Selkirk", according to that 'It is with Regret' notice referred to earlier. Apparently there will be a drop off point for potential editorial contributions at a local gym.

The demise of the Hawick office is the latest in a string of closures by the Johnston Press Group which has seen newspaper offices disappear from Galashiels, Jedburgh, Kelso and Duns in recent years.

This regrettable trend has been repeated across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom by Johnston and many of its competitors.

When every small and medium sized town had an editorial presence the potential for members of the public to drop into an office with tips for stories and features resulted in far better editorial content than readers enjoy today. The local reporter was a valued member of the community, like the local 'bobby' who has also all but disappeared from our town centres.

But in a definite change for the worse the diminishing number of journalists now find themselves based in a central office - some refer to this as a news factory - and spend much of their time in front of computer screens processing editorial content on templates.

The opportunity to mix with potential contacts and to investigate wrong doing or even cover local events - once primary roles for the local press - have largely disappeared.

The lads and lasses who continue to produce your weekly paper do a sterling job, but they are working with at least one hand tied behind their backs as levels of investment in the editorial function are cut, then cut again. 

Of course readers now have the option of turning to newspaper websites as the cost of paper editions spirals to unjustifiable heights. But a good deal of the content has little or no relevance locally with adverts for cruises and jewelry waiting to snare extra customers.

The closure of the Hawick News office is indeed regrettable, and marks yet another backward step in the decline of Borders local newspapers following their acquisition by national conglomerates.

Perhaps the time is right for the formation of a series of ultra-local websites to serve the distinctive communities that make up the Borders.

According to the industry magazine Press Gazette new research shows there are 550 active local and "hyperlocal" news websites across the UK. These are sites which are run independently of the regional newspaper industry and which, in some cases, fill gaps in coverage.

Over the last ten years there has been a net reduction of 200 in the number of local newspapers in the UK with thousands fewer regional press journalists employed in the industry. The new sites are generally run by volunteers, with a minority employing professional journalists.

But here in the Borders are the resources, the momentum and desire for such a venture out there waiting to be tapped?


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