Let me tell you about Saffron Walden, the town closest to where I live. The town council decided that the market square – the place where for decades, even centuries, market traders have plied their wares a couple of times a week – needed a makeover.
This puzzled me. There was nothing wrong with the market square. Cars could park there (on non-market days). People could walk through it on their way to the banks, the library, the shops (though one big department store at the top of the square shut down when its landlord moved to increase its rent; sayonara, the shop replied. Sure hope that landlord can make money from fresh air). As squares go, this one rocked.
But no: what it really needed, some part of the council decided, was to have the fountain in the middle prettied up with some lights, and dig up the road a bit. Don’t ask me why. I didn’t see anything about it in the local papers – freesheets – until it was a fait accompli.
For example this from the Saffron Walden Reporter, which quotes “Cabinet member for highways and transportation, Cllr Norman Hume”. Here’s what he said:
“This scheme will help to breathe new life into a great town centre in Essex enhancing its appearance and making it more user-friendly.
“We know from feedback from our residents how important local market towns to our communities, particularly at these times of economic uncertainty, and we want to do everything we can to help our local businesses attract more shoppers.
“We have worked hard to minimise any inconvenience caused by these works and no shops will need to close because of these works, but I would apologise for any disruption in advance”.
And if you want to know where those quotes came from – were they dug up by an effortful reporter trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on? Perhaps. Or perhaps they came from the same place as this council announcement, since it contains exactly the same words in exactly the same order.
Oh, you call it “disruption”? As a corollary of prettying up the fountain, the market traders had to move out of the market so the works could proceed. They’d have to move right out of the area where the shops and footfall is, to the common about 200 yards away. No shelter, exposed to the elements, and not in a place where people in the normal course of their other shopping would go.
This is of course exactly what you wish for as a market trader: to be removed from the place where hundreds of people will walk past, to somewhere with lousy weather and no people so that a fountain can get a cosmetic do-up.
Early reports suggested they’ve seen a 50% falloff in trade.
And for the shops that line the road into the market square, things aren’t much better. Digging up the square involves closing the roads feeding it. Fewer people can park their cars; fewer people shop. For a market town dependent on people buying discretionary items, that’s not good. Hell, even the places selling food, such as the deli, have seen business fall. People aren’t coming through.
OK, so now I want to know: how the hell did the council think this was a good idea? It’s killing its own revenue source – these traders. More to the point, where were the newspapers that could have made some sort of noise about this? Where are the people like – let’s be honest – me, who love nothing better than causing a bit of trouble by asking difficult questions of powerful people (a trait I first noticed in myself back in school which has never gone away)? Why did such an obviously stupid idea ever get any sort of approval? Did some dolt councillor stand up and say “I know – there’s a recession on. Let’s make things harder for the shops! Woolworths has closed, and that other one. But I won’t be happy until all the lights are out”? And did all the others turn with a sudden realisation that this was indeed what the town needed – fewer shops?
It’s a failure of community – and newspapers ought to be the things making that community realise its values and what decisions cost it. I don’t know of any websites that might have the local “news”; you can talk about microblogging and local websites, but nobody pushes a website through my door. The local freesheets – well, those are a lot easier to pick up.
Yet the local councillors are all scared of negative exposure in the papers, and will do anything to get a favourable mention (including writing bitchy letters about each others’ political doings which they cc to all the local freesheets). The trouble is that the papers don’t have enough heft in their reporting – and nothing like the bloody-mindedness – to find out what’s going on and expose it. I wonder if they’re scared that if they criticise the council too heftily they’ll either have a libel suit (indefensible; the cost would be ruinous) or of scaring away local advertisers for seeming too aggressive? Yet I’d read – hell, I’d buy – a paper that I felt had the same interests as me, of trying to stop stupid ideas going ahead without consultation.
Item: the council (not sure if it was town or county; suspect the former) wanted to remove the traffic lights at one end of town and put them in the other. This would have caused huge tailbacks and pollution at the residential end of the town. Residents weren’t consulted. Only a huge protest by them – including pictures on front page of paper – got the decision put on hold.
Item: Uttlesford, the council which runs Saffron Walden, found a million-pound black hole in its accounts a year or so ago; the bottom of that one hasn’t been reached.
Item: The black hole then grew when it turned out that some of the council money had been deposited in an Icelandic bank. Wasn’t that clever. Not much has been heard since about the money. Again, it’s just too easy for the council to clam up.
This is the sort of loss of local democracy, or more specifically oversight, that is really at risk with the death of newspapers. Should I have a Google alert set up for “Saffron Walden”? But that won’t take me to the council minutes – and anyway, it’s what’s not in the minutes that counts. The backroom deals (such as, I dunno, prettying up fountains with money provided under section
104 106 of the Planning Act by, I dunno, do property developers provide money?) don’t get minuted.
Who’s going to go to the meetings where they come up with idiot plans like these and ask tough questions? Who’s going to buy their ink by the barrel and keep asking in 140-point headlines where the hell council taxpayers’ money is? Who?
Which brings us, roundaboutly, to Tom Watson (not the ministerial one), who does some Ink-Stained Retching:
Crowdsourcing journalism is all the rage, but the idea of its widespread ascendancy and competence is the exclusive province of either deranged optimists or ideological cyberlibertarians; the vast populace will never produce great journalism – or even sufficient journalism of the kind that has nurtured our republic – any more than it will perform surgery on a widespread amateur basis, or turn out competent oil paintings by the millions.
A network of thousands and thousands of young reporters taking notes and asking tough questions – and then writing up their reports in public, for the public – at thousands and thousands of school board and town council meetings on gray Tuesday evenings all around the nation will begin to fade.
Which goes circularly back to a Spokane Review editorial which asks:
“So as newspapers die, it’s worth considering the effects on society. Who will tell the people what their institutions are doing? Who will ferret out the corruption? Who will fend off the legal challenges to public information? If no viable alternative emerges, what does that mean for our representative democracy?
Back to Watson:
I was talking with James Wolcott about this earlier this week and he made a great point – who’s going to churn out all those important but relatively small-scale exposes on bad government contracts and neighborhood graft, the kinds of pieces regularly published by the tabloids and small city dailies? As Bob Stein writes, apropos of reporting’s demise: “For journalism, the goal has never been cosmic verities but everyday truth.”
The everyday truth in Saffron Walden? People who run shops and market stalls are starting to get worried about whether they can cover their bills, because the council did a stupid, mindless, thoughtless thing and nobody stood up quickly and loudly enough to point out that it was a stupid, mindless, thoughtless idea that would hurt peoples’ livelihoods during a brutal recession. I’m not holding my breath for the leader of Saffron Walden’s town council to appear on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, either.
How about you? How are things in your town? Would you be surprised if you turned up in the market square and found it being ripped up by diggers? Sure, as “Bruce” observes in the comments to Watson’s post, you know about the iPhone getting cut and paste, and you’ve got an opinion about the new Facebook UI. Now tell us how much you know what’s being done with your money a mile down the road.
And while you’re here, can I interest you in a subscription to a newspaper website? Local? Regional? National? And will you be paying by credit card or PayPal?