Last autumn I spent an unexpected amount of time in Witney Methodist Church. No, I hadn’t suddenly become religious; I was reporting a public inquiry into a local planning issue and the Methodist Church was where it took place.
The inquiry, into the compulsory purchase of land required for the Cogges Link Road, went on for 17 days (not including the non-starter of a first day), so I had to do a lot of juggling to fit it around my paid work. And it makes me angry that I had to.
If the compulsory purchase of the land goes ahead, it’s a significant step towards Oxfordshire County Council building a road that would have a big, irreversible impact on the town where I live. If you’re a Witney resident, whether or not you want the road to go ahead, the outcome of the inquiry will affect you.
However, this big, important story simply didn’t get reported properly. The shambolic first day got attention from the Oxford Mail, the Oxfordshire Guardian and the BBC, partly because it was their best chance of getting some protest-y looking pictures. (The woman pictured in that Oxfordshire Guardian story is me.) But once the inquiry got properly under way, reporters from local news outlets were nowhere to be seen.
I knew that the county council and the Mawle Trust were taking extensive notes of proceedings, but these were for their own use. There was nobody sitting there taking notes on behalf of the public. I was asked by anti-road campaigning group Witney First to live-tweet the first full day from their Twitter account, and that’s when I realised that the “professional” reporters weren’t there any more. I felt very strongly that there should be a publicly available report of each day, so I worked with two other Witney First supporters to pull together a series of daily summaries. These are all available on the Sustainable Witney blog. (Sustainable Witney is unconnected with Witney First, but for various reasons too boring to go into, it was easier to post my daily summaries on the Sustainable Witney site even though I was reporting the inquiry in my capacity as a Witney First supporter.)
The daily summaries were scrappy and hastily written, they weren’t posted as quickly as I would have liked and everybody involved in writing them was a member of the same campaigning group. But that series of blog posts remains the only publicly available daily record of the Cogges Link Road inquiry. That is, frankly, shocking.
Yes, local papers covered it. Tom Jennings of the Witney Gazette (which shares content with the Oxford Mail) did quite a few stories on it. But it wasn’t the kind of bum-on-seat reporting you’d get from someone who actually attended the inquiry. He fell back on the “he said, she said” kind of reporting where getting a quote from “each side” (as if there were only two sides) is substituted for actually finding out what’s going on. The irony is that this kind of unsatisfactory reporting is enabled by the privilege of representing a legitimate local newspaper. Would David Holgate and James Mawle have both agreed to write a little point-of-view piece for a resident’s blog? Would Mark Lowe QC have given a sneak preview of his speech if it wasn’t to fit around the paper’s print deadline? The privilege that made this weak reporting possible was a privilege earned by over a century’s worth of genuine, useful local newspaper reporting.
It might sound as if I’m criticising Tom Jennings himself here. I’m not. Out of all the local reporters who could have covered the story, he seems to have done the most work on it. I know him and I know he’s hard-working and honest. But he’s spread too thin to have the “luxury” of simply attending an inquiry day after day and reporting on it. He has to fill an entire paper, more or less, and since Newsquest Oxfordshire closed the Witney Gazette’s local office, he hasn’t even been based here. He has the impossible-sounding task of writing almost a whole paper about Witney while spending most of his day in an office in Oxford. No wonder he cuts corners and falls back on “he said, she said”.
But it upset me to be trying to fill the gap left by the failure of local media, because I felt as if I was being set up to fail myself. I wasn’t paid for the reporting I did, the people helping me didn’t have any journalism training or experience, and we were all doing it on behalf of a partisan organisation. There were days I couldn’t make it, days where I could only be there for an hour or two, days when I struggled to find out what was going on. I tried to manage expectations and repeatedly asked if anybody else could help to share the reporting work. (Nobody came forward.) At times I felt angry that the "professional" reporters were nowhere to be seen.
Although I felt as if I was being set up to fail, the public response to what I was doing was very encouraging. The positive comments poured in on Twitter:
People from as far away as the Scottish Highlands and New York contacted me on Twitter to say that they were following the Witney First updates with interest. Others asked for more, wanting to know if we were doing audio or video recordings (sadly, no). Revealingly, one pro-road resident said he was following the feed because it was the best source of information, even though he didn’t agree with Witney First’s opposition to the road.
Even more encouraging was the real-life response. I don’t think a day of the inquiry went by without someone new approaching me and telling me they were enjoying the Twitter feed. Many of these people were pensioners who hadn’t known Twitter existed before the inquiry started, but were following the updates streamed on the Witney First website.
The response kept me going because it made me realise there was a point to what I was doing. Here was evidence that there is strong demand for in-depth reporting of important local issues, and that people are willing to go outside their technological comfort zone for it. That need isn’t being met, at present, by the “professional” local media. But I wonder if this unmet demand actually translates into an untapped willingness to pay for this kind of service. Perhaps there is more potential than we think for people to make a living out of good journalism. But perhaps we’re all so used to free content that we’re not prepared to pay for it even when it’s the only source of public information on an important issue and it’s being presented in an entertaining, accessible way by a professionally trained journalist. I just don’t know.
You can’t answer that question by looking at the Witney Gazette, because it’s ultimately owned by a US company which exists to make profits rather than to produce journalism. Newsquest isn’t going to experiment with hiring more Witney reporters, giving them more time, paying them more or anything else that might improve quality but cost money. Quite the reverse, in fact: that’s why they cut the number of Witney reporters to just one, then closed the Witney Gazette office completely and moved the solitary reporter to the main Oxford office.
I would love to know if a community newspaper could make a go of it in West Oxfordshire, whether there's enough potential here for one or two people to make a living if not a profit. But right now I'm too busy and not brave enough to try it myself.