Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

DIARY: Stormy weather, Apostolic Succession, Local rags, Poppycock Watch: Penguins, Profundity of the Week

The River Exe in flood

As I write this, the wind is screaming past my office window, rain slashing into the glass. Our major river, just 200 yards away, is brown and angry and lapping at the top of the flood defences. It doesn’t bode well.

There was catastrophic flooding here in the late 1960s which prompted the building of substantial preventative barriers along the river banks. The problem is, they were built to defend against a one-in-40 year emergency. By my reckoning they are well past their timeout.

The Council is reported to be trying to raise money to finance new works aimed at a one-in-100 year episode. Given the nature of official response times, that will not be soon. It will take another disaster to get things moving fast. Not much breath is being held around here.

If David Cameron needs any incentive to slice away at the grotesque European Union budget, let him consider how much we need that money here in Devon.

Keep it in the family, Dave!

* * * * *

I have never believed in the concept of Apostolic Succession — that someone appointed by their predecessor carries a special mark or mission to succeed them.

Most religions do this. Leading Buddhists are said to be able to trace their spiritual lineage all the way back to Gautama Buddha 2500 years ago, despite the many holes in the early lists of enlightened teachers.

One can see that a reputed connection with the Founder, however tenuous, might add a little glitz and authenticity to a sitting leader, but in practice it has never guaranteed success, either in religion or in politics.

Thus the rejection of the appointment of women bishops by the Church of England Synod on roughly those grounds — women can never be part of an Apostolic lineage because they weren’t there at the beginning — leaves me uneasy about the future of a great institution that is failing to adapt to the present moment.

Ministry in the Church is mainly about empathy, not intellectual jousting; dealing with people in trouble and distress, not putting an elegant case before one’s peers.

The difference is profound and women are much better at it than men, which probably accounts for the fact that half of priests are thought to be homosexual.

In any case, the tale has little truth in it. We know that Rome excised women out of the early Jesus story, especially the enigmatic Mary Magdalene (almost certainly Mary of Bethany, not a woman of the night), who has her own gospel in the Gnostic tradition and was said to be the best, even the highest, of the apostles.

We’ll never know the true story, but we can take the broadest and most generous view. Why would the Almighty object to that?

Time for a change, surely?

* * * * *

Daily Mail, has sold its local and regional newspapers to a consortium led by ex-Mirror man, David Montgomery. Thus the illustrious name of Northcliffe has been lost and “Local World” arises like a phoenix.

Northcliffe’s list of titles was valued at £1.2 billion just months ago, but were sold for a paltry £110 million, showing how their profitability has tumbled off a precipice in the online age.

Indeed, the daily local papers are to be replaced with weekly ones, something that has already happened in the West Country. A few, such as the 150-year old Western Morning News remain, but for how long?

Montgomery has been speaking of a string of quality websites, reminiscent of the big dailies, gradually taking over from the printed page.

Although I’m a website man myself, I do appreciate a real newspaper, hot off the press, for more comfortable reading at the weekends. That’s when monstrous property supplements dominate the news and features sections. In the Sundays a dozen other bits and pieces are added too.

There’s no ideal solution, but the bottom line is that they must all be profitable. Syntagma wishes David Montgomery well, but wonders if he’s more romantic than visionary.

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
Pearson, publisher of the Financial Times and various academic strands, has issued a trading statement confirming that it has reached agreement to combine Penguin Books with American Publisher, Random House. In other words, to sell it to the German media giant, Bertelsmann.

So passes one of the last great British publishing houses, thrown into the global melting pot where bottom line counts for more than quality.

Like local papers, national publishers are becoming treasures of the past. So long as Penguin maintains its immense backlist, we can just about endure it, I suppose.

* * * * *

Profundity of the week
“An atheist is a man with no invisible means of support.”
John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps and later Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada. He was also editor of The Spectator, around 1900 — bet you didn’t know that!

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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Saturday Ramble: It’s not just the national press that’s in dire straits

Local press

Out of a clear blue sky came Hurricane Rupert. With eerie shades of Michael Fish, an unexpected Category 5 summer storm devastated parts of Britain last week. It might well be named “Rupert” as it appeared intent on flattening the life’s work of press and TV baron Rupert Murdoch. Fleet Street has never seen anything like it.

But enough has been said and written about one man and his dogs. Let’s look instead at another, slower-moving, tragedy involving the press: the fate of our regional and local newspapers.

On June 17th, the Press Gazette announced: “Torquay’s Herald Express is to become a weekly newspaper from next month – with an unspecified number of editorial positions under threat. In an announcement on the Northcliffe-owned title’s website this morning, editor Andy Phelan said the last daily edition would be on 15 July and that it will be replaced by a 100-page weekly coming out for the first time on 21 July.”

This is not an isolated incident. It’s happening all over the country, often unreported in the nationals.

Regional newspapers are faring just as badly. Where I live in the Westcountry, the 151-year old Western Morning News (WMN) is in serious trouble. Often its main feature of the day is taken directly from the national Daily Mail, as with Andrew Alexander’s Wednesday column. The Mail’s city editor Alex Brummer is also a regular in both papers.

The WMN’s senior journalist and writer, Martin Hesp, produces so many columns: political, personal, countryside, touristic and general news, that I wonder what would happen if he ever got ill or resigned from overwork. A few other journalists cover far too many arts and culture events. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid an occasional jaded review.

One staffer told me: “You don’t need me to tell you that regional newspapers are in a hell of a plight at the moment – I think we had about 80 editorial staff when I joined the WMN and now we only have 20 odd. People are hanging on to the jobs they’ve got with fingernails scratching down the exit corridors. I know the WMN’s freelance budget has been cut to nothing compared with what it was when I started writing for them.”

It’s hard to avoid the truth that these stalwarts of the local scene are fading away fast. Two years ago I set up an online version of a local newspaper: Devon & Cornwall Online. It seemed obvious that much of the material of town and city-based journalism will go exclusively online eventually.

But there’s online and there’s super-online. Much of the “river of gold” of the local press, classified advertising, is going to specialised national websites, especially in autosales, property, including rentals, and other big-ticket categories. What’s left is appearing on postcards in newsagents’ windows or in a new line of home-delivered freesheets and pamphlets.

My own effort, DCO, grew steadily for a while and then hit the wall. It got stuck at a low-to-medium daily audience and stubbornly refused to budge. Apart from website design and a few freelancers, I’d taken a “toe in the water” approach to funding the project. Either its time had not yet come, or it never would. Looking around at other local projects, I’ve now assumed the worst.

The most vibrant outlet for local news and gossip is, without doubt, hash-tagged Twitter, based, oh so ironically, in California. Take a look at #Exeter, #Devon, #Cornwall. These are wonderful if you run a small, local business. You can quickly build up thousands of like-minded “followers”: individuals and companies. This allows you to “direct message” them. Twitter is very underrated as a business communications tool, and is basically free. What chance local rags?

There are other sources of local news. Here in the West we have two television outfits: ITV’s West Country Tonight, based in Bristol; and the BBC’s Spotlight, in Plymouth. Both are high quality, but ITV’s effort is probably doomed in the medium term because of its dependence on fickle advertising revenues — and Bristol is a bit remote for those of us in Devon and Cornwall. The BBC’s compulsory public subscription is a much better guarantee of survival for the longer term.

In today’s 24-hour news culture, the regional press is not local enough, nor sufficiently national. And truly local journalism is having its existence salami-sliced away by newer entrants with little loyalty to small communities, and by social-media sites.

Perhaps only David Cameron’s community-based enterprise ideas can save it. A voluntary-sector local press could be the last chance to preserve genuine small-town and county-based journalism.

Devon & Cornwall Online will re-emerge soon as a pillar of the Big Society. Who’d have thunk it?

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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