Local paper continues to fail its readers

The local paper Dunoon Observer continues to fail its readers on the crucial issue of the ferries on which the future of the community depends by ignoring major pertinent facts, and indeed reporting uncritically public relations fluff for vested interests.

It carries a front page article today about the performance of the ferry services over the Cowal Games (if the article goes online I will update with a link here). It manages to fill several hundred words that essentially says: "nothing of interest happened". But it goes beyond simple reporting of promotional guff for the companies with comment, headlining the services as "seamless" and concluding at the end "It all worked. And it all worked very well".

What the article (or indeed any other comment by the newspaper) fails to note was that it was not the new service that succeeded, it was what was described as "supplemented with MV Saturn" the obsolete 500+ passenger car ferry that was not even allowed to do the job it was designed for which was to carry cars. It was Saturn that scooped up all the passengers that the small passenger ferries could never have copied with, essentially it was not the new service that succeeded, it was essentially the old service which was based around MV Saturn then, and was based around MV Saturn now.

The service was also very lucky in that the 25mph winds which the Met Office had forecast just two days before failed to materialise, had they done so there would indeed have been chaos. Yet there is not even a hint in the article that all this carries a real warning for the future, not just for Cowal Games, but for the regular service.

A local paper has lost it when there is an almost total disconnect between what people are writing to it about, the facts they report, what they feel is important, and how all this compares and contrasts with what is observed and analysed by the paper itself.

The irony is that when the paper was published today (Friday 2nd September) the (Glasgow) Herald newspaper carried a major article headed "Western to build new ferries as demand rises" in its business pages. The Herald at least provided balance here by reporting comments by me as well about the implications of Western's plans. It is not just many local people who will be disgusted by the failures of the local paper's coverage, Western Ferries itself clearly holds the local paper in such contempt that it did not even bother telling them about this major piece of local news, now the paper will have to buy a copy of the Herald to find out what is happening here. Talk about being behind the curve and having to play catch up. But if Western felt they would have to cultivate the local paper rather than taking it for granted, then the local paper might have been treated differently.

It is not just the local people that will lose out on all this, but the paper itself. Local papers should have a guaranteed readership that nationals do not have. But people here will cease to use it as a reliable source and even those like Western Ferries that have been using it as a mouthpiece will begin to treat it as wrapping paper.

So what's the alternative? I have already blogged here about "the silence of the local"

and I suggested that the website "For Argyll" might provide an alternative source of hard news and comment for issues like this. But while "For Argyll" had looked a promising alternative, it has turned out to be little more than a PR front for the local MSP.

However, when there are matters of real public interest, there are now other ways to get news out. The matter which prompted my January post was the paper's withdrawing from covering the issues covered in my post looking at the economics of Western Ferries. Judged on basic economic criteria the ferry service could be seen as one of the most expensive services, certainly of its type, anywhere. All this was based on facts, was a matter of real public interest, and was fair comment. There was every reason that the paper should have covered this, no legitimate reason why they should have decided at the last minute to pull out from doing so.

It is usually the case with posts that there is a surge of interest in the first few days after posting, then it tails off. This also happened this time when I posted the analysis in December but then something unusual happened. The number of downloads of the webpage came down to a plateau then began to increase again, it is still is increasing, now well into four figures, hundreds of downloads of it just over the summer period.

Today if you put

"most expensive ferry service"

into Google.com, the webpage comes up the top hit out of 738 hits. Take out the quotation marks and just Google

most expensive ferry service

and it was still the top hit out of 3,850,000 hits

Something like this happened with my academic Coase paper which I out on this website in 2005 and after a slow start built up gradually until it is now over 2,000 downloads a year, and still increasing . On a current monthly basis my analysis of the economics of Western is already the most popular on my website, more popular than even the Coase paper. So something is moving here.

The answer? There are other means for getting the truth out and if it has value, people will find it. And while some say that print media is dead, there is no need for it to commit suicide prematurely.

Neil Kay 2nd September 2011