It’s widely accepted that print journalism’s days are numbered. With steep declines in advertising revenue, decreasing circulation, and endemic job cuts, the future looks bleak. On a local level, reports warn of the emergence of a “democratic deficit”, as declining numbers of journalists on the ground leave little capacity for holding local authorities to account. And in Lewisham, a lengthy list of lost papers from the borough’s past reads like an obituary to the fallen.
It seems against all odds then that, out of these ashes, a Kickstarter campaign to launch the Lewisham Ledger – a new local freesheet – was this month propelled to its £5,000 target in just 16 days. With 34 days to go, it’s certain that Lewisham will have a newspaper to call its own by May 2018.
So what’s different? The model is simple: £5,000 covers all costs for the production of the first two issues; after that, revenue will come solely from local advertising, and the paper will be run on a not-for-profit basis. All writers are paid, all profits invested back into the paper, and the copies distributed free of charge. We know people don’t want to pay for their news anymore. This way, they don’t have to.
Behind the initiative are married couple Kate White and Mark McGinlay. Kate is a freelance journalist on paper but behind-the-scenes master of all trades. “She can do anything,” Mark tells me over a carafe of red wine. With Mark’s background in PR, social media and marketing, the pair seem to have formed a winning combination. Together, they seem set on clawing local media – in South East London, at least – back from its impending oblivion.
With the hyperlocal Dulwich Diverter and Peckham Peculiar under their belts, it makes sense that the couple now have set their sights on Lewisham. In recent years, numerous Lewisham-specific local blogs like EastLondonLines, Brockley Central, and the Deptford Dame have sprung up to fill the local news vacuum. It’s clear the borough is fertile with stories – and residents who want to tell them.
Plus, Mark and Kate live there. “We’ve just moved to Catford,” Mark tells me. “The community blows me away.”
For Mark, it’s important not only that the community is reflected, but also that local residents have a sense of ownership over the publications. “People give us all these amazing ideas and even suggest themselves as a cover star,” he says. “You know you succeeded if people are owning it.” Crowdfunding also has a role to play: “I think what crowdfunding does is get everyone behind you straightaway,” Mark tells me. “They’re investing in you, so there’s an element of trust.”
Twelve times a year, the pair rent a Zip Car and hand-deliver the Diverter and Peculiar. “It was kind of cold-calling to begin with,” Mark confesses. Since, though, the deliveries have been made to pre-arranged local spots, and residents know when to expect the delivery: “If we’re late, we normally hear that people have been asking for us,” he says. “We’re very big in launderettes.”
Flicking through the papers, while the Peculiar features several public-interest stories, the Diverter seems focused on commercial interests. Nick Barron of local blog Brockley Central, however, rebuts these criticisms. “I find that a rather depressing line of argument,” he says. “I’d also argue that lifestyle coverage is incredibly important for any area. We all gain from living in an area with a sense of civic pride.”
Not everyone’s convinced the Ledger’s six copies a year can meet the needs of the borough, though. Local blogger Crosswhatfields tells me, “Unless Deptford stories are covered in every issue, it would seem to be of minimal interest to a Deptford readership.” Only if the publication’s online coverage can cover unfolding stories, Crosswhatfields says, would be Ledger be a welcome addition.
Mark is unphased, saying the Ledger will be making use of additional resources to ensure breaking news coverage in Lewisham. “We’re very pro-active,” he says, and tells me about the time the Peckham Peculiar helped secure funding for local businesswoman Gloria Douglas, as well as pointing me towards these Tweets.
BREAKING NEWS: a planning application to redevelop the area in front of Peckham Rye Station has now been submitted https://t.co/naHTigxdqi
— The Peckham Peculiar (@peckhampeculiar) 29 October 2015
— The Peckham Peculiar (@peckhampeculiar) 5 December 2015
“It’s such a buzz to do it all again,” Mark says. “It’s really exciting to make even a little bit of difference.”