Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The dangers of self-publishing

I've had a chuckle in the past about the endearing nature of the community newspaper: those in which poems share column inches with carnival pictures, wartime reminiscences and appeals for missing cats.

A combination of bespoke publishing advanvces and diminishing local coverage by the regional press has fueled their rise in many towns and villages. In some cases, they are hobbyist; the product of too much time on the hands of someone with good intent. In others, they are genuinely filling an information gap, an argument proffered by the publishers of the controversial new wave of council-run newspapers.

Some, like my local one, look on the face of it, to be highly viable businesses, judging by the amount of advertising and the fact that it seems to have a proper distribution network (it comes through my door and I see it in the local Budgens).

But there's a major difference between the Town Hall Times and the Living room Leader that publishers of the latter need to be aware of. The council offerings are compiled to some extent by professionals: usually a PR department staffed by NCTJ-trained former local paper reporters. The parish mags are run by those with no such experience, and here lies the danger.

I'm reading mine now. It's 114 pages, A4, glossy cover, packed with advertising and listings and has just treated itself to a redesign, courtesy of a local ad agency. With this new look comes a newfound confidence that has seen it add the word News prominently to its masthead.

And news there is; stories of vandalism, a school fete being washed out and a host of feel-good people stories of awards for this and that.

But it’s when they stray into the realms of serious journalism that things come unstuck.

The lead story tells of a woman's "miracle escape" from injury in a car crash. It has the headline: "Lady hit head-on by drunk driver". It's explicit in its detail; telling how the “drunk” swerved out in front of her and questioning how he could be so stupid. It goes on to say he was “led away by police”, almost hit another car and that the driver of that car witnessed the whole thing.

The only problem is, the driver she blames for this near-death experience, the magazine reports, has just been charged with drinking and driving.

And if you're wondering why I've not included any geographical details relating to this story – it’s because I don't want to risk the same contempt charges one hapless editor must be facing.

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