This week's Economist carried an interesting article about the recession-busting success of a select few local newspapers in Britain. It caught my eye not because of the familiar incisiveness of its meandering, but more-regrettably due to the bone-headed idiocy of its logic.
"For all the woes of local newspapers across Britain, there are those that thrive," the curious little piece informed us, holding up the New Milton Advertiser as one such powerhouse of micro-news. "These papers ... are successful because they retain the best characteristics of their past," it sagely went on. "They cover the local news and politics which matter to people."
And lo, what front page scoop was selected from this sheet's archives as a prime example of such perspicacity? Why, none other than the earth-shattering story which no self-respecting resident of New Milton will ever forget: OVERGRAZING FEAR AS PRICE OF FOREST PONIES SET TO FALL.
Now I won't be facetious. There are, to be sure, people for whom the grazing habits of juvenile horses is a favourite topic of discussion. With not a single ounce of sarcasm I readily accept that it is as valid a source of debate as any of the vacuous drivel which preoccupies my thoughts.
But evidence of a resurgent press? Proof that the inefficient and antiquated practices of local media outlets are able to fend off the free-distribution and limitless-circulation model of online media? I think not.
The article made no attempt to disguise the fact that these rare examples of profit-making local newspapers are largely edited and read by people of a venerably advanced age. "The style and values of the papers are every bit as traditional as their 88-year-old proprietor," it said with regard to one such pair of papers, The Advertiser & Times.
But what it failed to seize upon – and what must surely be the crux of the matter for anyone curious about the decline of local news – is that towns such as Lymington and New Milton, where these papers go to press, are mere microcosms. They are relics of a dying breed of reporting, preserved solely by their coincidentally elderly population.
To uphold a newspaper edited by an 88-year-old and read largely by pensioners as a model for the future of local news is downright senile.
The Economist is of course seeking to stress the merits of good old-fashioned reporting, regardless of the subject matter's gravity. This is doubtless a noble cause, but look with less rose-tinted glasses at the page-filler strewn across such papers and you touch upon a harsher reality.
Consider the article's assertion that Tindle Newspaper-owner and fellow octogenarian Sir Ray Tindle "places great emphasis on reporting local news in an engaging way". Engaging. Fox News is engaging when it brands President Obama a socialist. So is Sky News when it refuses to switch off its BREAKING NEWS ticker, hours after the event; and The Daily Mail when it skilfully taps into the paranoid delusions of a xenophobic Middle Britain.
When these mainstream media outlets behave in such a way, many of us cry sensationalism. So why should we believe the New Milton Advertiser is being any less nefarious in its deployment of such tactics?
FOREST DRIVERS FACE THREAT OF SPEED GUN BLITZ bellows one of its front-page scoops. Only... it's not a blitz, is it? PEDALLERS BATTLE FOR GRAND PRIX GLORY shrills a juxtaposed sporting piece, similarly oblivious of the uninspired banality of its subject matter.
The truth, and one which the staff at The Economist may understandably be reluctant to admit, is that these papers are far from exceptional. It is alleged that they are successful "because they retain the best characteristics of their past". Wrong: the papers are suffocated by their past.
Here in the present, the broadband generation feels unconstrained by geographical borders. It views unfettered access to information as a given, and those among its ranks who care to seek out news instinctively look further afield than their backyard – casting their gaze on Westminster, or Sudan, or the International Space Station. If their attention happens to boomerang homewards, it does so enriched with a cynicism that easily deconstructs the vain sensationalism of desperate neighbourhood hacks.
This demographic doesn't give a fuck about the minutae of the town or village it was unfortunate enough to have been born in. The harsh reality is that most of its members will escape their birthplace at the first opportunity. And so to return to The Economist's original question – sincerely put – of how it is that some local papers are thriving, the answer is simple...
Their readers haven't died yet.