If I ever needed a reminder that bloggers are everywhere and nothing you ever say is off the record, it came on Tuesday. Something I said on Monday evening at the Brighton Future of News Group (#bfong), as part of a wide ranging discussion about local and national politics, political leaflets and local coverage of the 2010 general election, was reported by journalist John Keenan on his blog.
“I’m not convinced that the Argus wields political influence.”
The reaction from the #bfong group of mainly journalists apparently sucked “the air out of the room” (but that seems a little dramatic to me). Nevertheless, it seems fair that I should expand my comment a little.
Money, money, money.
Firstly, I would like the Argus to be a highly regarded and passionate political influence in Brighton and Hove. I think we suffer locally from not having the sort of dogged scrutiny and hard-nosed investigation that the best papers revel in. But why isn’t the Argus that creature?
The core of the issue is surely money. The Argus, like most local rags (and frankly plenty of newspapers nationally and across the world), is run on a shoestring and budgets have doubtless been squeezed and sliced every year for many years. It has neither the people nor resources to be truly influential.
Part of the money problem, and this is again hardly unusual,lies with the Argus’s ambiguous online commitment. I’d say, from a strategic point of view, that the Argus needs to go great guns online, develop a top notch, monetized website and stop worrying that online advertising will cannibalise offline revenues. It won’t.
The strategy shouldn’t be desperately protecting dwindling print incomes but working out how to gouge Gumtree, eBay and other players’ revenues. The Argus website might be rather crap but it has a vibrant, if often garrulous, community and that’s a huge asset. Making more money out of the Argus’s strong local brand and the fact online advertising just keep on growing should not be tricky. It just requires a mindset shift and investment in the website.
It starts with local politics.
Beyond cash (but related to it), at the core of the Argus’s lack of political influence is the weak reporting and scrutiny we see at a local level. Coverage of local government goings on is parlous. Part of the problem is geographical. The Brighton Argus doesn’t just concern itself with Brighton and Hove but a wider chunk of Sussex, so we often have news from Lewes, Worthing and beyond in a single issue.
With greater resources this could work, but as it stands the impact is diluted. This Brightonian doesn’t really care what’s happening in local towns. Sorry. But I do care keenly what’s going on here in the City-by-the-Sea. I reckon proper coverage of local government is enormously important if a newspaper is to wield political influence. We’re just not seeing that at the moment. Additionally, the Argus isn’t much of a campaigning operation, as some newspapers are. Maybe it could be?
Bring on the Big Beasts!
Where are the Argus’s big beasts? I’m talking about powerful personalities and must read columnists and correspondents who in themselves act as a draw for readers. Hard hitting opinion and commentary is vital in political discourse and we just don’t see that. Adam Trimingham sometimes pops up and I love his work but, with due respect to the Sage of Sussex, he’d probably rather hang his bicycle clips up than raise political hell. The must read political commentators in Brighton are bloggers. In particular the anonymous Brighton Politics Blogger is providing more provocative and incisive political insight than anyone at the Argus.
Looking to the ‘Fifth Estate’.
That said, from a blogging perspective, whilst we have some useful resources (including Jason Kitcat), I’d say our political blogocracy (our fifth estate) is quite weak considering Brighton’s size and vibrant digital culture. Let’s hope the Community Reporters project goes some way to amend that. But we do need more online comment and debate. But that’s a discussion for another day, perhaps.
Anyone interested in citizenship and democracy must also support a healthy fourth estate participating in the political discourse. A weak Argus isn’t in anyone’s interest but alas the medicine it needs isn’t in the hands of citizens. Perhaps that’s why a politically influential replacement might rise in its place over time.