Belfast Telegraph

A sad day for the local hero as another voice falls silent

The closure of Belfast Telegraph Editor Mike Gilson's hometown paper leaves a void the blogosphere can never fill

Even though I love it here, I'm not from here. I was born in Chatham, Kent. Together with Rochester, Strood and Gillingham, Chatham forms the Medway towns, a fairly dreary conurbation with Rochester's lovely castle, cathedral, the river and pubs its saving grace.

If Kent is the garden of England, wags used to say, Medway is the compost heap.

But it's not memory lane that concerns me about my home town(s) - it's the future. You see, they've closed the Medway News, or the Chatham Gillingham and Rochester News, as it used to be known.

The News, or Snooze as my Dad called it, was our paper of record. In yellowing cuttings in my parents' attic, I'm there with long, hippy hair looking slightly sullen among cheering neighbours during our streets' Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977.

I'm also there (although called Gibson) scoring 25 runs in vain as the Medway Telephones cricket team lost again. My parents' silver and golden wedding anniversaries are similarly recorded and stored.

I tried to get my first job there, but the editor, a local legend called Gerald Hinks, rightly told me to go away and get more life experience.

Lance Morgan has been reporting on the downs and occasional mild highs of the mighty Gillingham FC almost since they wore black and white strips and were called New Brompton. This week he helped produce the final edition.

Closing the News is a terrible blow for the town - and not just for old hacks on a nostalgia trip.

Here's the real news. When the newspaper goes, there'll be hardly anyone left to report on the hopes, fears and concerns of around 300,000 people. The BBC will not cover the place in the depth the newspapers do and the ITV channels less so.

Here's another bit of news. People in Medway are not keeping up to date with the issues surrounding the towns by calling up bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers.

There aren't many bloggers sitting in the town hall, or the magistrate's courts, lifting the rocks to find out what's underneath and they certainly aren't recording the village fetes and golden weddings that portray how a community binds itself together.

And the rub is that, in spite of the opinions of an army of self-appointed experts on future media, newspapers, in all their inky glory, still have a role to play in places like the Medway towns.

The half-witted opinions that fill much of cyberspace will simply not fill the gap. The democratic deficit that will appear is real.

I'm not a fantasist. I know some newspapers now barely deserve to be saved and that digital technologies have opened up a wondrous world for us.

But a local newspaper, full of surprises and quirkiness, topped off with a couple of hacks determined not to let the council leader get away with it, and an odd campaign against the by-pass thrown in, can still be a marvellous life-force in our towns and cities.

I know very little about the circumstances behind the paper's closure and, indeed, it is none of my business. I do know a takeover bid by a rival group was scuppered by the boneheads of the Competition Commission, whose committee room hearings must have taken place a Mars trip away from the real world.

I simply talk as a consumer, whose family still lives in the towns. A newspaper gone is gone forever. Yet my hunch is that a locally owned title, focused so far down into the grassroots you could smell the earth and full of the community detritus that has always filled local papers, could turn a tidy profit for years to come.

The Leveson inquiry has heard some heart-rending testimony from real people who were the victims of crimes. But as it wends its increasingly bizarre way through a galaxy of whingeing stars and axe-grinders, the real story is occurring in Medway. The future star batsmen of Medway Telephones will unlikely ever have their misspelt names thrust into the local limelight. That is genuinely sad.

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