PhD candidate in the University of Portsmouth’s School of Film, Media and Communication and Editor-in-Chief of Star & Crescent, Sarah Cheverton, talks to Maia Cook about her passion for local news, the academic research process, her writer’s journey and the challenges facing the media in the digital age.
Maia Cook: Could you tell me about your PhD topic?
Sarah Cheverton: My research question is ‘To what extent – if at all – does hyperlocal independent news media like Star & Crescent here in Portsmouth address the broader crisis in the mainstream media?’ That sounds quite specific but it really isn’t. So my first few months are really about reading and reading and reading, understanding what academia has already discovered about hyperlocals – or independent small websites – like ours, and what can I bring to that debate after running Star & Crescent for about three years.
MC: What findings do you have so far?
SC: At the moment I’m just looking at the history of local journalism, since World War II. Some of what I’ve learned has really surprised me. I had it in my head that the main challenge for the news was that the internet was invented and it messed everything up. But actually if you look at it, there was a problem with local news already. That started happening in the mid-1980s when we went from a model of local papers owned by local people, responding to the local area, to these big news organisations buying up literally hundreds of local newspapers. That made them suddenly just part of a bigger corporation and that’s when the problems started: big business got interested in local papers because local papers had a monopoly on advertising. In terms of making money, local papers used to be a really good business, aside from how they helped democracy or local people.
What I’m also getting interested in are the different ways that younger people are consuming news media, which brings up questions around Facebook, fake news and so on. That’s relevant to us because most of our readers on Star & Crescent come to us via Facebook, so you have to have a presence on such platforms. But I think how that works is much more open to debate, and I’m becoming really interested in questions like what are the changes in younger people’s media tastes? How are they consuming local news? Are they even interested in local issues in that sense and what are the implications if they’re not? I have a lot of questions still, but no real evidence as yet!
MC: Did you begin your research with a preconception and that’s changed?
SC: Definitely. The more I read, the more I start to think this is much more complex than I first thought. The subject also varies much more than I thought, so if you go to Sweden you’re looking at a totally different landscape than you are here. In Sweden, news media generally – and local news media – have never really been a particularly commercial proposition. They’re seen as a vital part of democracy – local and national – and consumption of it is different. So the implications for us around seeing news as a sort of commodity, and now seeing news as something we can just access for free, that’s a very different thing in the UK, I think. So yeah, I think my questions are going to change a million times before I settle on one to actually do some real research on!
MC: Are you focusing on just the UK?
SC: I’m really interested in the UK and one of the options for us is using Star & Crescent as a case study for the research. There are a lot of fascinating hyperlocals like ours but, you know, a PhD takes three years, a lot could change in three years, a lot has changed already! I’d like to hang it on Star & Crescent but who knows?
MC: Why did you choose the topic in the first place?
SC: I always – and right from when I was really little – wanted to run a local newspaper, always. I’m from Portsmouth and my whole family’s from here, and we used to live in Fratton in a place called Jessie Road. My first involvement with local newspapers was when I created the Jessie Road Bugle, which basically reported on what my family had been doing! It was a weekly paper, handwritten and hand-drawn, and I distributed it to my family, so it had a very small circulation but at least for me it was incredibly popular.
As I got older, I didn’t think writing generally was something ordinary people could just do. I’m the first person in my family to go to university and most of the jobs I was aware of as I was growing up were what I still call ‘proper work’. Like, you go to a factory, you go to a place, you’re working. It wasn’t ’til much much later, after I’d done my first degree, after I’d done my master’s, that I started to think maybe you can just do writing and see where it goes, if you’re any good at it. Funnily enough, that’s how I met Tom Sykes who got some of my travel writing published [in an anthology called Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia].
It took me a while to realise you can just follow the things you’re interested in. I think for working class kids it can be harder to imagine some things are possible for you, because you don’t grow up seeing people do that stuff. So it took me a little bit longer. One of the things Tom and I used to talk about a lot was local news in Pompey. I’m really passionate about the city and the people here, lots of whom don’t have it that easy, and Tom and I both felt a lot of frustration around how politics was covered in the city, and how a lot of communities are talked about but don’t get to talk very often for themselves.
For example, Somerstown, Paulsgrove, Buckland, Fratton – these are communities that suffer some of the highest levels of deprivation. There were perspectives and voices from those communities that were utterly missing, and from that we got the idea to do Star & Crescent. At first we were just publishing local writers, and then gradually we became more and more involved with communities and more and more involved with community groups, campaigners, individual residents – that’s where I started to get really passionate about that side of the work and that’s kind of what led me to where I am now.
A version of this interview was originally posted on The Eldon Review, University of Portsmouth’s Creative Writing Course blog.