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From Pillar to Post

Articles > Reminiscences

An overview of local newspapers
Ronald Price

Throughout the decades local newspapers have been dragged from pillar to post, going from crisis to crisis with aplomb.  19th  century local newspapers, assisted by gentry establishing reading rooms and donating old copies, grew in popularity, by providing a digest of national news and magazine content. Its other staple, local news organised by town, village or district. Stories  and history published in instalments helped to maintain circulation. Before the Great War this was all-important, as sections, for sport, culture and women were introduced. Look-back, puzzles and children’s features also became popular as national  and regional newspapers and magazines syndicated their content.

A century later advertising income met about 80% of the production and distribution cost. In the 21st century sales of print copies continue their decline. The consequent reduction  in staff numbers affects content with a greater reliance on press releases. Computers allow community groups to self-publish.

  • As linotype reduced production costs; four low-cost national  titles were launched between 1896 and 1912 alongside magazines catering for niche tastes.

  • After the Great War established local newspapers began publishing editions for nearby towns with two to four pages of specific content, otherwise with the same pages, damaging the concept of local newspapers.
  • Advertising became an industry in its own right assisted by holding companies acquiring family firms to improve their profits; many now recognisable as brands.
  • The newspaper industry was one of the last bastions of trade unions, often at loggerheads between themselves. Their power delayed the introduction of offset litho technology.

In 1919 Chelmsford-based Marconi and five other wireless equipment manufacturers  formed the British Broadcasting Company. A newspaper industry lobby successfully limited their broadcast hours and restricted coverage of ‘live’ news. In 1927, after a Government enquiry, a public corporation acting in the national interest,  replaced the company; a contrast to the between-the-wars policy of investigating potential monopolies in other industries. Shades of the era of stamp duty? Before its abolition in 1855, newspapers paid 4d per copy as Governments sought to prevent information  being spread to fuel revolution. Simultaneously W H Smith were among the companies to break the Post Office’s monopoly of distribution.

The Corporation, soon organised in three regions, had difficulty convincing sport and the arts that ‘live’ broadcasts would not affect their attendances. Radio broadcast hours were restricted to the demise of the pirates in 1968; those  for television to the advent of breakfast-time programming in 1983.  In the late 1960s the BBC local radio stations went on air initially with local councils’ oversight. Commercial opportunities soon followed. Local newspapers suffered, the  Barking & Dagenham Yellow Advertiser was one of 12 ‘Essex’ editions, wholly funded by advertisements, emerging from paid-for titles.  Little is known of the 1930s newspaper the Becontree  Beacon which cost two-pence where sold, otherwise free.

1970s editors explored new channels as its staples of births, deaths, marriages, court cases, strikes and news from enlarged local councils, lost their appeal prompting a consolidation of publishing companies.

Archant, one of four major companies, have developed e-editions and information portals. They acquired the Post titles in 2003 five years after the Recorder titles. Its portfolio includes free newspapers  and county magazines. Its cost-model encourages electronic submission of news from its readers and advertisements from companies.  The content of the Barking & Dagenham Post is reshaped into the group’s other titles; in part  because; for example, of the interest in football’s Premier League. The disinterest in local politics grows wider.  

The Chelmsford Chronicle was first published in March, 1771 serving ‘Essex’. It was followed in 1857 by the East London Observer. In 1866 the Essex Times and what  became the East London Advertiser began. Four years later the Essex Halfpenny Newsman targeted the working class. The Chronicle supported Liberal values while the Independent  and Free Press claimed neutrality; but most was Whig or Tory in their viewpoint.

The evidence is incomplete but supports that into the 1870s the Chronicle and Observer franchised their suffix to businessmen allowing them use of their content in local editions. London newspapers the Courier  & Evening Gazette, the Evening News and the Evening Standard did likewise. Some suffixes remain in use in Essex towns, others; are memories as consolidation created unwieldy titles with ‘new towns' such as Plaistow and Stratford incorporated, before in the 1890s they were  aligned with local government including The Borough of West Ham & Stratford Express. It suffix reflected speedy delivery  of the news; before the Great War publishing bi-weekly.  Its founders hoped to attract other printing work. In the 1930s the socialist committees, of the Co-operative movement, issued editions, through their stores, suffixed Citizen.  

A prominent member of his local ratepayer association, Walter A. Locks, created the Post group. He purchased the Middlesex & Essex Guardian and in 1898 launched an Ilford variant, as the Ilford Recorder  also began. By 1910 he owned the East London Advertiser. The Becontree Guardian followed in the early days of the LCC estate, incorporating the Chadwell Heath News, published since 1876. In January  1928 it became the Dagenham Post and Rainham Guardian. Locks was possibly involved with the Ilford Saturday Post, described as an amusement guide, which was briefly published after the Great War. An early Dagenham Post feature was the Manchester Letter for Ford employees, who relocated from Trafford Park. Locks, sued for libel at least twice by municipal bodies, began a campaigning path that the Post maintained  beyond his death in 1941. The Romford Times and Romford Recorder also covered Dagenham. The Ilford Guardian became Pictorial in 1954 and several transformations later became the Ilford & Redbridge Post.

The Stratford and Forest Gate Advertiser of 1877 may be related to the East London Advertiser. The Barking & East Ham variant incorporated the Upton Park, Ilford and  Dagenham Gazette, in 1889. Known as the Barking Advertiser it was acquired by the Recorder group in 1971, to supplement its titles in Romford, Brentwood and Grays. It ceased publication in 1992. Unto the  Second World War its competition was the Barking Chronicle which with the East Ham Echo was incorporated into the South Essex Mail. The Stratford Express having published editions for Barking and Dagenham created a specific title in 1968. The Independent (earlier Weekly News) and the Leader had short lives.

London local government was tidied in the 1930s, but in 1965 32 Greater London boroughs were created reinforcing boundaries drawn for political balance rather than community. The municipal boroughs of Barking and Dagenham became one of the 32 despite  the former’s links to Ilford and East Ham; and the latter’s (including Chadwell Heath) to Romford and Hornchurch. The LCC Hainault Estate in Dagenham was allocated to Redbridge.

As local radio and television looks to the future, promises of super-fast broadband throughout the United Kingdom, suggest it is digital.  The BBC is consulting about its local radio stations as they and commercial stations, many owned by print publishing  groups, consolidate content across their transmitters.  Archant’s  Channel 8 franchise is seeking content from small production companies and local universities. A concept mooted in the 1950s for Independent Television which settled on regional  output, now national, The Open University - a missed opportunity?

The journey by newspapers over three centuries suggests ‘big is not beautiful’, but reversal would be difficult.

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