Friday, September 26, 2008

Lessons from a former newspaper editor

Back in July, at the end of a very difficult week, I started to accept that my dream, the newspaper Local Edition, was not going to continue in paper any more. On the same day, I was lucky enough to see Desmond Tutu speaking in Stoke. Of all the miraculous coincidences, nothing could have inspired me more than his speech that focussed on the small things and reflected back on a path that took Josiah Wedgwood from Burslem to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, free from prison after a centuries-long struggle against racist oppression.

Next week, I start a brand new role, on which I will undoubtedly be saying much more. So it's a good time to reflect on what I learnt.

I still don't believe that newspapers are dead. But their business model cannot work in the current climate. The weight of commercial funding needed is dragging newspapers - and more importantly, print journalists - down. Exciting as the new era may be for those working on the new business model, there are generations of reporters still being crushed in newsrooms across the country by groups seeking to hang on to their 30% profits. Much as the mainstream is getting on board with the internet, I still think there is a major point they're not getting. I don't believe Google is hugely profitable because it does everything it can to chase money. Rather, their vast profits have allowed them the freedom to experiment and develop tools that are as good as they can be and improving all the time. Lucky Google. Lucky us.

More and more of us are now finding ourselves in a period of exploration. Whether you grew up thinking you'd be a miner or a banker, there are no safe job routes any more. Those of us who are lucky will be able to find avenues we are passionate about, but there is no reason any more to give your life to any organisation in the hope of future rewards. At the point when I was ready to stop the newspaper, I realised I'd be happier labouring for a living than trying to sell another advertising space to a reluctant shop that hadn't made any money for a week. I was even more sick of trying to sell 'community benefit' to a millionnaire business-owner who wasn't about to start giving something back with my paper. The weight of the cost of paper was simply too much to sustain, I was risking my own reputation trying to fulfil too many roles and I wasn't making any money from it.

However, running Local Edition for as long as I could still created incredible benefits. My faith that there was more out there that people like to believe paid off and the paper pulled together contributions from fantastic writers, photographers and artists, all with the most generous spirits. Enough organisations and businesses put their money into the paper, an unproven concept, to keep it going at a break-even point. I had endless, dizzying conversations with people whose voices never seem to be reflected in centres of power. Our stories were followed up, amplifying the voices of ordinary people. I could start to imagine what these networks could look like if they were listened to and resourced. I had to grapple with a spectrum of political views far removed from the safe spaces we create for ourselves. We had to react to events, rumours and different truths that put me in mind of terrifying scenarios and possibilities. We showed it was possible to run a newspaper full of constructive news and that it would be popular.

These are some things I would tell people thinking about going down the same path:

- don't burn yourself out chasing the money you need to follow your dream. Get the money to sustain your food, essentials and a broadband connection and then carve out the time for your passion. Even a few minutes a day spent on a collaborative project makes an impact.

- the people who tell you not to get into debt are right, unless that debt is with the Princes Trust who will be one of your most steadfast friends (assuming you are in Britain, that is). There are many more organisations who will be just as wonderful and I haven't got time to list them right now, so seek them out rather than the ones that make things difficult while saying they're helping you.

- if your project is unusual, asking people who operate with a different vision for money to do it won't work. Again, use free tools to make your impact so that you're not relying on anybody else. If you prove your point, then risk-averse organisations will support you, but probably well after you need them. Be ready to know when to stop waiting.

The project has led to some great work for me and many of the people who have been involved in the paper (many of whom didn't need any help but it's still nice that Local Edition has been part of their journey). www.localedition.org.uk continues as one of the richest archives of Northern Stoke life on the internet and a communication forum that anybody can use. www.stokesounds.co.uk is without doubt the best music website in North Staffordshire. The company, Social Media CIC, will continue simply to provide a structure for ideas, without the burden of cashflow forecasts that demand endless growth to feed the machinery of business. It will instead create social capital and connect with other small organisations all over the world that are doing the same. Exciting times ahead...


PS If you're reading this thinking "but she's still got to send me that receipt/letter/form/cheque/etc/etc", I will tie up all the loose ends in the end, promise, things have just been a bit hectic recently... :)

2 comments:

Mike Rawlins said...

Good luck with the new venture it looks interesting.. :)

Shame about the paper but life moves on. I got out of the rat race of employment in to self employment to do something I actually wanted to do for a change rather than chasing the £ for somebody else..

Looking at the economy right now it maybe not the best time, but too late now ;)

Snow said...

This is great info to know.