Why Portsmouth Needs To Reclaim The News

Back in April, we celebrated our first birthday with a showcase event at the University of Portsmouth. Our Editor in Chief, Sarah Cheverton reflects on S&C’s first year as Portsmouth’s only independent hyperlocal aiming to #ReclaimTheNews.

The News, 21st April 2016

Star and Crescent was born of frustration with the local media, particularly political coverage in the city, which too often duplicates the official line of people in power over the voices of local activists, critics and communities.

The implications of the mainstream local media’s over-reliance on press releases or media statements very often speaks for itself. The image on the right – a genuine article on the website of Portsmouth’s The News – certainly does.

However, on a more serious note for fans of democracy, too often the reliance on uninterrogated statements by local politicians has more serious consequences, as my colleague Tom Sykes and I highlighted in a recent piece for Red Pepper magazine.

Following up on ‘Smeargate‘ – a frankly horrifying incident in which Conservative councillor Scott Harris set out a proposal to smear three local critics of funding cuts to council services, and revealed that he was already ‘compiling some stuff’ on those individuals to do so – we wrote about coverage of Council Leader Donna Jones in The News commenting on a local resident’s FOI submissions.

Council leader Donna Jones described Farouk’s behaviour as ‘horrific’ in an interview with The News. The reason why? Mr Farouk had submitted Freedom of Information requests on a variety of local issues, none of which have been challenged by the Council as ‘vexatious’ (the mechanism by which local authorities can challenge FOI requests that are frequent, offensive, or overly burdensome). Readers unfamiliar with the regulations and processes around FOIs were implicitly encouraged to believe the leader is right to assess as ‘horrific’ a citizen’s democratic right to interrogate the decisions of local government.

Whilst it may be that News journalists do ask difficult questions of local politicians, when they report without question the misleading statements of politicians in local news coverage, they fail the very communities they claim – and ideally aim – to represent. Underneath such failures sits a growing challenge for democracy itself, namely the weakening of independent, non-commercial media serving local communities and holding power interests to account.

The weakening of local mainstream media is nothing new, nor is it a problem unique to Portsmouth. As this video from the Media Reform Coalition highlights, the Johnstone Press – which owns The News in Portsmouth – is one of only 5 major companies controlling 81% of local newspapers in the country.

Such concentration of media ownership narrows the access of local communities to a diverse range of viewpoints on the issues that matter to them most; whether that’s the use of taxpayers’ money to fund a failing shipping company, or the lack of power the Council says it has to deal with politicians who seek to conspire against their own electorate. It also limits the ability of local communities to become actively involved in challenging their representatives, leaving activists and community groups in the city struggling to reach bigger audiences and achieve bigger impact.

With the effects of this lack of diversity in local media in mind, our intention from the beginning with Star & Crescent was very simple.

We wanted to create a Private Eye for Portsmouth – an independent, reputable news organisation with a focus on investigative news and satire. We wanted to hold power to account, to talk up Portsmouth by promoting the city’s history and diverse culture, and we wanted to give local communities a platform to share the issues that are important to them.

So at the end of our first year, how have we done?

Quite early on, we were approached by national innovation charity, Nesta, to apply for funding with them, though we’d only published two issues. Our application competed with 40 others across the country and we were amazed and grateful when Nesta decided to take a chance on a completely new voice like S&C. The funding allowed us to give more time to the website. We moved from publishing in issues every 2 months to publishing 5 days a week; and amongst other things, it also helped us to build up active communities on social media.

Most of all, the funding helped boost our profile locally, which brought us not only to a whole new range of readers, but also to Pompey residents, activists, and community groups who want to write for us, act as sources for stories, and are ambassadors for what we do in local communities.

It is no understatement to say that without these people there would be no Star & Crescent.

Malcolm TuckerIt’s also thanks to those people and our growing relationship with the community that we broke our first story, Smeargate. That story was picked up by a number of nationals, including The Morning Star, which beautifully described Mr Harris as a ‘low rent Malcolm Tucker.’

Shortly after Smeargate, our site was hacked for the first time – we don’t know who by and if the timing was more than a coincidence, we couldn’t possibly comment. We were hacked again just over a month later, this time by a group calling themselves Islamic State Hackers and Virus Iraq. We knew we’d made some powerful enemies locally, but we were surprised – as were Special Branch – to find ourselves under attack from further afield. Fingers crossed, both hackings are now behind us, at least until we provoke someone else.

So it’s been an interesting first year, but we want our second year to be even bigger and even better. We want to become more involved in local communities and we want Portsmouth communities to be at the heart of making the news.

To do this we are now planning to launch as a media cooperative, owned and directed by our membership base, that aims to #ReclaimTheNews.

We will be only the second hyperlocal news organisation in the country to do this, the first was a paper in Bristol called The Bristol Cable, who are making a massive difference to local media and local communities in Bristol and are a great inspiration of ours.

Over the next few months, we’ll be launching a membership scheme. That means that for just £1 a month you will be able to become a part-owner in Star & Crescent. Members can be as involved as they choose to be, but every member will get a say in how Star & Crescent is run, how and where we spend our money, and most importantly, the news we cover.

As I said at the start, Star & Crescent was born of frustration, but it survives and thrives on passion – passion for our city and for the people who live here.

Portsmouth, like the rest of the country, is facing incredible challenges, not least of which is the devastating impact of austerity on our most vulnerable and marginalised communities. Austerity is not only tearing local services apart, but also threatens to tear apart communities themselves as the old ghosts of racism, class war and gender divisions begin to show their ugly faces once more. Moreover, stories like Smeargate show us that those elected to represent our communities may not always have their best interests at heart.

We want Star and Crescent not only to represent the people of Portsmouth, but to be led and run by them. We hope that you’ll join us, and in the coming weeks, we’ll be launching a variety of ways for you to register your interest in becoming part of S&C’s quest to #ReclaimTheNews.

Our birthday showcase was all about celebrating our first year, and what a first year it’s been!

Has it been worth it? Hell, yes.

Star and Crescent is a labour of love for us and for all those who give their time and their words to us – and to the city – for free.

We want to expand our commitment to investigative reporting, big data journalism and writing that comes to you directly from the heart of our local communities.

If you’re as passionate about Portsmouth as we are, please join us in creating the city’s first citizen owned and run newspaper – continuing to make news by the people of Portsmouth, for the people of Portsmouth.

You can start by helping us spread the word. Join us over at our Facebook and Twitter pages to get involved.