Punk rock exploded into life in the 70s, firing the passions of a generation who were tired of jaded, distant and ostentatious mainstream rock groups. Punks emerged in local scenes all over the UK; the stripped-down instrumentation and simple style encouraged emergent punks to start up their own bands, in some cases self-producing their work and distributing it through alternative networks. The DIY principle was strong in punk, lyrics reflecting personal experiences and disillusionment with society, generally avoiding the love song mainstay of the mainstream. This resulted in a strong political streak to punk music, often rebellious and anti-establishment.
There is a new breed of journalism developing that shares much with the punk ethos. It is a journalism that has grown tired of the jaded and biased views of a mainstream media dominated by monopolies. It is a journalism emerging from local community DIY initiatives, in response to the barren local news landscape, occasionally crossed by the lightweight, directionless tumbleweed offerings of a mainstream press dedicated to serving itself, the affluent and the powerful rather than society as a whole. It is a journalism created by people passionate about bringing to light the important social justice and public accountability issues deemed unprofitable, unworthy or uncomfortable by the mainstream. It is punk journalism.
The Salford Star was born in 2005; its editor and founding member is Stephen Kingston, who has fond memories of being a punk back in the 70s. The Star burst into existence in response to Salford residents in Whit Lane being threatened with the demolition of their houses as part of a regeneration plan. “They were fighting like mad, I knew one of the people involved in that from other work, and he said what we need is to give people a voice.” Kingston was at the time working with a local paper called the Old Trafford News, which he decided to leave. “I said OK, we will do one for Salford. Trafford is about one square mile whereas Salford is a big city. So you need a big monster magazine for a big monster city, that was how it was born.”
Kingston spent six months researching, talking to the community, holding public meetings to determine what the people of Salford wanted from a local paper. He also investigated the strong Chartist movement’s ties with Salford; there was a huge national meeting to promote social justice on Kersal Moor in 1838. The Chartist paper was called the Northern Star, hence one reason for naming the Salford Star, the other reason being that it had a tabloid ring to it that made it more accessible. It was a source of pride for Kingston that the paper had grown from the needs of the community and that the community members who helped found the paper were still on the board of directors.
Basically it inspired people like myself from that generation to say fuck ’em, we will do it ourselves.
Punk brought about significant change according to Kingston: “In terms of giving people self-confidence to do it themselves, it was the most influential movement probably ever. Because the people who got involved in punk suddenly got a sense that, yes they can take on authority.” He went on to describe how punks reacted to music, art and fashion they didn’t like by creating their own: “Basically that inspired people like myself from that generation to say fuck ’em, we will do it ourselves.”
The decline in local journalism in the UK has been rapid, with many commentators acknowledging that there is a deficit in the ability of the local press to hold people in power accountable. This decline is mainly attributed to the rise in online media sources, which has led to a drop in sales of local newspapers resulting in loss of revenues from the cover price and advertising. A report released last year by the Media Standards Trust summarised this decline in the UK:
- Revenues of the four primary local newspaper companies in the UK, between 2005 and 2010, dropped by between 23% and 53%.
- Media Wales staff fell from around 700 in 1999 to 136 in 2010.
- Northcliffe Media employees fell from 4,200 to 2,200 between 2008 and 2012.
- Media analyst Claire Enders calculated that 40% of jobs have gone in the course of five years in the UK regional press.
- Between 2005 and 2012, a total of 242 local newspapers closed.
- The total circulation of local/regional daily papers dropped from around 4.5m to around 2m between 2000 and 2013.
Co-founder of the Bristol Cable, Alon Aviram, is worried by the current state of the traditional press in the UK. Aviram spoke of his concerns over media conglomerates dominating the remaining local news scene and shaping the nature of the content (Lord Rothermere and Trinity Mirror are two major stakeholders in Bristol’s traditional local paper, The Bristol Post) and the media deserts caused by media consolidation and local papers closing down, “especially low-income communities where papers don’t necessarily operate because advertisers are not interested in reaching out to those communities. So there is a major issue where local media especially is just pretty boring and doesn’t fulfil its function of scrutinising the activities of those in power.”
Overturning old models
The Bristol Cable was established in 2013 by Aviram and Adam Cantwell-Corn with the idea of producing a good quality, sustainable, cooperatively produced media that could go beyond a niche market and appeal to a wide range of people. Aviram is also keen to overturn the old model of one-way direction of news from the media to the public. “We were interested in finding a way to have conversations and investigate established power, whether it was in the home or council or big business… in a way that was shaped differently from traditional organisations.”
The Bristol Cable’s name is symbolic of the philosophy underpinning the organisation: the strands of a cable making up a stronger entity as a whole, the circular cable logo symbolises an exchange of information that can go both ways and sustain itself. The cable also recalls Bristol’s industrial past.
The Manchester Mule was launched in 2008, its logo a bucking mule promising “news with a kick” and harking back to Manchester’s industrial heritage and its use of spinning mules. Its stated three core principles are to:
- Provide an alternative to traditional local media
- Use media as a tool for social change
- Promote openness and inclusivity
As with many punk journalism titles, it has struggled to retain writers, with many contributors moving on to permanent paid positions and input to the online site becoming sporadic. The Mule recently provided a comprehensive local journalism course to encourage local writers to participate. One of the people to complete the course was Ben Beach, a history student at Manchester University planning on a career in journalism once he graduates. Beach thinks the Mule should “look at the Salford Star as something to aspire to … and report on stories, such as the homeless protest camps, that the Manchester Evening News [owned by Trinity Mirror] doesn’t really cover in any depth.”
The Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976 had a huge influence on Manchester according to Beach. He credits the gig with being the catalyst for some of his favourite bands, including Joy Division and New Order. Beach, who will soon be starting the third year of his degree, wants the Mule to offer an alternative viewpoint to the mainstream press and also spoke of the practical reasons for joining the Mule: “Getting work experience and internships is really difficult. While there are student newspapers and publications you can work on, the Mule offers a lot more scope. It covers all of Manchester and not just the student bubble, and it opens up opportunities.”
To become sustainable punk journalism organisations need to become not just a stepping stone to other opportunities, but a worthwhile destination in their own right. But who can afford to work for free (or very little) for any length of time? Very few people, and definitely not students who have likely built up a large student debt during their studies. How can punk journalism become sustainable?
At the Salford Star Kingston has struggled to keep the paper afloat and after 10 years he still doesn’t class it as a sustainable business. “We get loads and loads of donations, very small donations. We have sold 10 T-shirts this week, sold a mug to America, you know we make pounds on them. Advertising on the website, well everyone knows about that, you don’t get it, you get bits and pieces.” The problem with advertising in Salford, Kingston explained, is that the idea of a lot of independent shops has gone and the only businesses that can afford rent in places like MediaCityUK are “big multinationals”, which will not advertise in the Salford Star. He explained that other paid projects are undertaken, such as trade union magazines and teaching, to help keep the Star going.
We wouldn’t accept it [council funding] either because, even though we are going through tough times, we recognise that we need to remain independent.
Holding the powerful to account is also more likely to make you more powerful enemies than friends, which can affect advertising revenue. “Advertising for the actual printed magazine is very difficult, because people are scared of the council,” Kingston explains, saying any companies having contracts with the council, such as regeneration companies, will not advertise in the Salford Star in fear that their association with it would scupper any future deals with the council.
Bristol Cable has also made its fair share of enemies and is unlikely to get any funding from Bristol City Council because of its reporting on their activities. Aviram accepts this bad blood between the Cable and the council as inevitable: “We wouldn’t accept it [council funding] either because, even though we are going through tough times, we recognise that we need to remain independent.”
The Cable has so far been funded by grants, awards and a crowdfunding campaign that raised £3,300 and enabled it to put on 35 hours of free workshops across the city. Three hundred people attended events across the city in things like low-budget film-making, writing and using social media. The Cable also has a membership scheme costing as little as £1 a month; it has already gained over 400 members in the eight months the scheme has been running, who are on average paying £3 per month.
Aviram has high hopes for the membership scheme, hoping it can provide community members with a stake in the Cable and enable work on the paper being paid for rather than voluntary. “Our objective is to hopefully get thousands of people in the city to be members of the Bristol Cable, for a little as £1 a month, and in turn they can self-sustain the Bristol Cable – influence what sort of content they want to see in the paper, have a democratic say on key decisions and be more directly involved in the media as opposed to being just passive consumers of it.”
Michael Moore’s report Addressing the democratic deficit in local news through positive plurality’ compares the state of local media in the UK and US, and suggests the UK should adopt strategies used in the US to support local news. Contestable funding is brought forward as a way of funding local journalism titles and still allows them to maintain their independence, integrity and innovations. He makes three suggestions on how this funding pot can be achieved:
- Google and/or other large internet companies to supply a one-off contribution. This has already been achieved in France, with Google giving €60m. Google has indicated it is willing to do a similar deal in the UK.
- Companies collecting and using personal data for commercial benefit to pay an annual charge. Companies are currently doing this, but it is negligible in relation to the profits made.
- A scheme where every adult in the UK would receive vouchers each year. These vouchers could then be donated to one or many non-profit news services, which can then redeem them for money. It would be funded by a combination of donations from digital intermediaries such as Google.
These excellent suggestions for funding local media need political pressure applying to bring them into play. The current government, while often stating the benefits of transparency, tends in its legislation to make things more opaque. It is possible that it sees a strong and independent local press as a threat to business, rather than a pillar of local democracy. if that is the case, these initiatives are going to need a serious amount of people-power to put them in place.
A flickering flame
Kingston said there were many stories in the Star that he was proud of. One in particular that stood out for him was the series of articles, relying on investigative journalism, the Star had done covering the regeneration of Salford., “They [Salford City Council]were saying, ‘oh, you’re going to get a new house, it’s going to be all lovely’. We knew exactly what they were doing. They were trying to socially cleanse the community. The community knew it, and we gave them a voice.”
At the Cable Aviram also listed reports relying on investigative journalism as the work he was most proud of. One of these reports was an investigation into pay conditions in the catering sector. The Cable carried out a research survey of more than 100 catering workers, resulting in a report presenting unique evidence of poor working conditions and large amounts of unpaid hours. The story got some national coverage with Aviram appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and You and Yours.
The punk journalism analogy is not perfect; very few analogies are. The punk movement of the 70s was an explosion that burned brightly, profoundly influencing people and society, but all too quickly died down to a burning ember, eventually being subsumed as just another current of mainstream music. The new journalism is more of a slow burn, an ember that needs coaxing into a conflagration, the flickering flame being kept alight by people’s passion for truth and justice. Punk was good at pointing out the inequities of society, but not strong on solutions to those problems. The new DIY journalism offers the opportunity of again effectively holding power to account and providing a platform for democratic debate, promoting the transition to a fairer society.
It is ironic that the revolution in information technology, which is proving so problematic to the traditional press, is providing the tools needed to ignite a burgeoning number of punk journalism titles. These flickering flames can only sporadically cast light into the dark reaches where power is abused. We must feed these flames with the oxygen of reliable funding to produce a blazing local media that can illuminate the abuse of power wherever it occurs.
First Published in the September 2015 edition of Contributoria.