The silence of the local

Historically, print newspapers have had a central role in communicating important news to the public. That can hold even more strongly for local newspapers which can carry news and information not generally available elsewhere. However the circulation for most newspapers, including local, has been declining steadily over recent years as the Internet becomes an even more effective substitute for it. One way for local newspapers to try to fight this is to have a strong campaigning editor who gives the readers what they need to know on things that matter to them and lobbies on their behalf, such as Bill Jardine who was editor of the Dunoon Observer until his retirement in 2007.

So when a local newspaper like the Dunoon Observer does not publish matters of crucial local interest to its readers when even the nationals are interested in the local issues in question, not only would this seem to be against the public interest, on the face of it this would also seem to be against the newspaper's interest.

On the 10th January 2011, I posted on my website an analysis of Western Ferries, judging it by economic criteria and other benchmarks set by other ferry services, both local and others cited by some as the most expensive ferries in the world. The article was fact-based with the facts checked (and independently checkable), but many of the facts would not be known to local residents. The article is of crucial relevance to a debate about the future of the ferry services that virtually all local residents depend on, directly or indirectly, given the imminent tender of the alternative CalMac service.

Amongst other things the article noted:

  • Western Ferries fares, including discount fares, were already at least comparable on economic grounds with others that had been cited as the most expensive in the world.
  • Its profit margins were close to averaging 30% for the last six years for which figures were available, significantly higher than for most other ferry companies, indeed significantly higher than for most other forms of public transport.
  • It had paid no tax (net) over the last six years, with a £6,000 tax rebate in 2003-04 balancing a total of £6,000 tonnage tax paid in lieu of corporation tax over the six years 2003-09; the issue of whether or not Western is liable for corporation tax is the subject of an ongoing dispute between HMRC and Western Ferries which has still not been resolved.
  • It is now set to become the monopoly vehicle carrier over the Clyde later this year on the basis of information obtained through Freedom of Information on vessel availability and shortlisted tenderers for the CalMac route.

Issues such as these could all be seen as being of strong local interest, especially since they were based on facts, much of which was in turn based on new research.

The analysis was quickly taken up by For Argyll on Wednesday the 12th January. Before that on Tuesday 11th January a reporter on the Dunoon Observer confirmed that they had written up a story for the paper based my article.

On Friday 14th January, the Dunoon Observer was published but without even a mention of my article and no contact from the newspaper. I e-mailed the reporter to ask what had happened but instead of a reply from the reporter I got an email from the editor which could best be summarized as waffle.

There were others locally interested in the article and why it had not been published and on the basis of the editor's reply I told them that I did not expect to see anything about it in the local paper.

On the same day, Friday 14th January, The Herald carried an article on the Western tonnage tax situation. Later the next week (Thursday 20th January) I was contacted by a national news paper to say they were interested in running a story based on my article.

The Dunoon Observer the next day (Friday 21st January) still carried nothing about it or even the tonnage tax issue, despite Western's tonnage tax issue having been the subject of an article in the Herald the week before.

Wikipedia's entry for the Dunoon Observer says "the newspaper currently has a circulation of around 7,000". In fact, the "view history" link for this entry indicates that that figure has not been updated since the first entry in the summer of 2007. However, for the year 2008 the Dunoon Observer's audited circulation was down to 6406 and for the last six months of 2009 it had fallen to 5225

From this, it would appear that the Dunoon Observer has lost a quarter of its circulation in about three years, and on the basis of these figures there is no evidence the rate of decline is slowing, if anything it would seem the opposite is the case. Ignoring issues of extreme local importance is hardly a way to stem this trend. As I know to my cost down the years, anyone who posts anything which can could be interpreted as not being in Western's interests can expect vitriol from third parties (as the comments on the For Argyll article above confirms). However if a private individual like me is prepared to accept the abuse that inevitably attends this, one would think that no less should be expected from the local paper (as an aside it is worth noting that such vitriol rarely focuses on the facts, and when it does it usually gets the facts wrong).

There are issues which can make for personal tipping points and this is one for me. I am not going to speculate on the specific reasons why the paper chose not to publish these issues or why it did not even refer to them, I'll leave that to others. But there is no point in the local paper campaigning on easy targets such as why there has been no tender for the CalMac service Gourock-Dunoon - not when it continues to ignore the elephant in the room, the issues and effects of Western Ferries' dominance in this area and its likely imminent monopoly of vehicle-carrying post-tender. As the Herald article referred to above confirms, even Western Ferries actively supports the campaign to get the tender done. This is not surprising because as my FoI questions revealed the tender is set to lead to the CalMac route going passenger-only (at best) and a Western monopoly of vehicle-carrying Gourock-Dunoon

There is equally no point in relying on the Dunoon Observer for these matters when there are other modes such as the Internet websites such as For Argyll and old fashioned word of mouth which do better the job they should be doing. And once everyone starts thinking that way, it could also be a tipping point for the Dunoon Observer, if that point has not been reached already. Which is unfortunate, not just for the paper and its readership (not all of whom are logged in to the Web) but also for the good reporters who still work there. And it should be emphasized that there are really good reporters in the Dunoon Observer, there is no evidence the problems lie there, and I do not believe they lie there.

Those with an interest in this can read my original article through the direct link here or at:

Neil Kay 23rd January 2011