Saturday, 25 September 2010

Story of the Salford Star

A few years back, you might have seen copies of free community magazine the Salford Star, a snapshot of life in Salford that was searching, biting, sometimes funny, often celebratory and always readable and well-written. It featured everything from investigative reporting — showing the other side of local ‘success’ stories such as the Lowry, Mediacity and Urban Splash regeneration — to chats with councillors, gig reviews and interviews with local musicians and artists — the role, in fact, you would expect a local newspaper to fulfil. The Salford Star, though, was launched as an independent project, written and produced by Salfordians for Salfordians, with up to 100 members of the local community involved, from a pool of writers and photographers to graphic designers in bedrooms all over Salford, and families distributing it around the city streets door-to-door.

Unfortunately, the chances are you've never got your hands on the Salford Star. Since starting in 2006, the Salford Star produced nine highly regarded print copies — the magazine was even runner up in the prestigious nationwide Paul Foot Award for Campaigning Journalism in 2007 — before it was forced online in 2008, due to a difficulty attracting advertising and what could be seen as unfair competition from Salford City Council’s own expensive to produce, self-congratulatory magazine Life In Salford which is distributed around the city’s households. The situation has resulted in a long and frustrating struggle for funding, with requests for public funding repeatedly being denied by council committees.

At a talk at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford during the summer, Salford Star editor Stephen Kingston set the scene, describing the backdrop against which the Salford Star started and the motivation behind it: “Salford is one of the most deprived areas in the country. The Salford Star didn’t come about by people sitting in garrets thinking let’s make a nice community magazine. We spent six months researching what our communities wanted and needed.”

Kingston and the other volunteers chose tell the stories of the city because if they didn’t, no one else would. Kingston has to fit it around working in schools and driving a mobile library: “I was up at 4am this morning investigating swimming and taxi ranks. It’s a full time job investigating what’s going on. We‘re not saying it's right or wrong, we‘re investigating it objectively - who else is there to investigate it?”

At a time when the newspaper industry has been struggling, with local newspapers across the country being forced to make redundancies, or in some cases even close down altogether, the Salford Star plugs an important gap in being able to look at stories in depth and perform vital functions such as holding the local council to account, which includes frequently making Freedom of Information requests and looking at where public money goes.

“Without independent media, there is no democracy. There is no investigative journalism even in the nationals anymore because of the cost of reporting it,” Kingston explained.

“The Salford Advertiser has five reporters and the MEN has one reporter covering Salford — they have no time. Why are there so many police stories in the Salford Advertiser/MEN? They’re written for you, they come with video and a photo. They’re there for you. It’s cheap and easy journalism.”

The Salford Star quickly became a political hot potato (“Those that supported us took copies under the desk with a wink. If we put it in the civic centre then 10 minutes later it would be in the bin — but they don’t tell you they won’t take it.”), with the Council denouncing it as biased, although Kingston insists it is non-political: “They can’t find evidence of us being political or unbalanced. We’re not anti the council. We gave John Merry [Salford Council leader] seven pages — we don’t wave flags saying burn the town hall down, we use it as a bridge. We have no axe to grind. We’re not anti Labour. Whoever was in power we would investigate and print anything we find.”

The Salford Star also shows off positive aspects of life in Salford. Kingston claims: “2/3 of it is positive. We have positive stories — actors, dancers, singers, local artists, football teams.”

He continues, “We give people a voice to tell their stories. The Salford Star gets phoned up at least once, twice, five times a day by people wanting to get their stories told.”

The Salford Star was free, as a cover price could exclude people. Thousands of people a month read the Salford Star now it’s online, from as far afield as London, Australia and Brazil, but Kingston is adamant that ‘it has to be a print copy’. The magazine is currently trying to raise the funds to return to print as “we’re updating practically every day, but 60 per cent of people in Salford don’t have the internet”. Kingston gets lots of encouragement from the people the newspaper serves: “We get supportive letters and we’ve had donations in 5 and 10ps.”

Kingston undertook research in the WCML for inspiration for the Salford Star, linking the magazine to a long tradition of radical publications: “There is a history dating back 300 years of communities trying to tell the truth. We ransacked past community magazines — the Northern Star, the Tameside Eye, Rochdale Alternative Press — every little town had one.”

“People have always tried to stop magazines, criticising them and stopping people from having a choice. In 1712, a tax on newspapers was introduced. In 1815, there was a 4p tax on 2p newspapers. In 1818, the editor of the Manchester Observer was jailed, as was the editor of the Northern Star and Richard Carlile, the editor of the Republican.”

The Salford Star editor may not have been sent to jail, but according to Kingston, censorship is still alive and well, working in far more subtle ways: “Censorship is national and international. In Mexico and Columbia they blow up the offices of investigative journalists. In Britain they do it with your wallet. Salford has a regeneration economy. There is no business in Salford — it’s dead. The only businesses we have can’t afford to advertise. Our potential advertisers would be the Lowry, PCTs, fire and police services, but we’re saying things they don’t want to hear. Any application for funding we make just gets ripped up.”

“Salford has nothing. It’s so hard to do anything in Salford as it’s so spread out. That’s why we need the Salford Star.”

To make a donation towards the future of the Salford Star, or to read the magazine online, visit www.salfordstar.com.

The Salford Star also offers journalism training. Email skingston@salfordstar.com for more information.

1 comment:

Jim W said...

Luckily local government involvement in newspapers is to be cut: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/oct/05/council-run-newspapers-eric-pickles

I can't think of a single publicly funded publication with any real value.

Great piece and the Salford Star looks intriguing - though it's a shame they can't buff up the website a touch.