I was in Sutton at the weekend and saw a sign outside a corner shop urging me to pick up a free copy of the local paper, so I did.
I didn't find much news in it.
Page 1: Toy appeal success (Sutton) Page 3: Croydon tram crash remembered (Croydon); Burglar steals presents (Sutton) Page 5: Sick boy's wish (Sutton); Sprinter comes second (Croydon) Page 7: Bank raid fails (Sutton); War veteran attends football match (Sutton) Page 8: Stabber charged (Sutton); WW2 memories in Normandy (Merton) Page 9: Online company fined (Croydon); Boxer wins again (Croydon) Page 10: Communities remember Armistice Day (Epsom & Ewell, Kingston, Merton) Page 19: Rovers win again (Sutton) Page 27: Carshalton's FA Cup run ends (Sutton) Page 51: Four sports stories from Surrey (Epsom & Ewell)
That's eight Sutton stories, four Croydon stories, and seven stories parachuted in from elsewhere. It's approximately one Sutton story per day, in a borough with over 200,000 residents.
The newspaper also contains generic advertorial (about Battersea Dogs Home and recipe boxes), a letters page (which is 90% Brexit), a Family Announcements page (with zero family announcements), a film review (for a film released a fortnight ago) and a double page feature on education (in Surrey). The What's On page features just two local events, one of which is a consultation event for a new care home. The most local bit of the paper is four pages of council traffic announcements and planning applications.
And OK, it's a free paper, which explains why it's 78% adverts. But as the area's sole remaining local paper it's not doing a great job of reflecting its locality.
The Sutton and Croydon Guardian, as it's now called, is a Newsquest production covering the boroughs of Sutton and Croydon. That's a combined population of 600,000, a larger total than the city of Sheffield.
Until two weeks ago it was two papers, the Sutton Guardian and the Croydon Guardian, but Newsquest have saved a bit of dosh by merging the two together. They've had a habit of doing this over the years, combining readerships into ever broader geographical areas. For example the Kingston Guardian was folded into the Surrey Comet in 2016, and the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian, Waltham Forest Guardian and Chingford Guardian combined to form the East London and West Essex Guardian last year. It's a strategy which allows smaller journalistic teams to cover a greater area in less depth, thereby cutting overheads. That's the direction paper-based local news is going.
To give you some idea how thinly Newsquest's journalists are spread, this week's Armistice Day story in the Sutton and Croydon Guardian featured reports from three boroughs, none of which were Sutton or Croydon. This isn't representation, it's withdrawal.
The Sutton and Croydon Guardian does have a website, of course, or rather it has a generic yourlocalguardian website which can be configured to prioritise news from each local area. I found a lot more Sutton and Croydon news on there, or rather I thought I did until I drilled down and found much of it is over a week old. Also, the tenth most-read news item on the site is currently "The Dave Clark Five announce ‘best of’ album", so there's a fair amount of non-local filler too.
I wondered if Sutton and Croydon were particularly hard done by so I also picked up a copy of my local paper, the Docklands and East London Advertiser. I had to go to Canary Wharf to find one, because round my way the paper's only handed out during a brief window around 4pm on a Thursday afternoon outside Bow Church station.
The East London Advertiser started out in 1866, but was merged with freesheet The Docklands in 2011, so also now covers a larger area than before. It's an Archant publication. It's also free. And it has fewer pages than the Sutton and Croydon Guardian but more news.
I counted eleven stories specific to Tower Hamlets, and very little padding from boroughs nextdoor. The lead story was about the upcoming Liveable Streets plan in Bethnal Green, interestingly with several quotes from people opposing the scheme and none in favour. I also learned about rogue landlords, train surfers, street gangs and Remembrance services. I reckon the D&ELA still has its eye on what the local council are up to, which is not a feeling I got from the S&CD.
My local paper still includes TV listings in attempt to get you to keep it in the house for longer. Its Family Announcements page includes one death and two In Memoriams, so hasn't quite died yet. It also has a jobs page, though admittedly with only one job and that's in Romford. But for sport it serves up just one page of actual Tower Hamlets competition (football, hockey, boxing) alongside three pages of Leyton Orient and West Ham. Could do better, but better than nothing.
Back in 2011 I made a list of all Archant's local newspapers in London, which allows me to present this list eight years later.
Most Londoners don't read newspapers any more, let alone local newspapers. Local news still thrives on regional television, thankfully, but most Londoners aren't watching that either. Some parts of London have mighty fine local websites championing their beat, but they only reach a tiny proportion of the population. A social media feed full of secret speakeasies and vegan cocktail pop-ups is no substitute for knowing what's really going on in your immediate area.
Local democracy no longer gets the scrutiny it used to have, and continues to require. Keep it local, while you still can.