Local News Survey: Mark Gray, Independent District and County Councillor

ImageThe Oxford & District branch is trying to build up a picture of how Oxfordshire residents use local news services – and what they think of local news provision. We’re carrying out a series of interviews and publishing the write-ups on our website.

Here, Roger Howe interviews Mark Gray, who is an Independent Councillor on South Oxfordshire District Council and Oxfordshire County Council, Chair of the Cholsey Parish Council, and full-time community worker, about his experience of local news.

This interview was done before the latest changes to the Oxford Mail and Herald series.

Where do you go for your local news?

I read the Oxford Mail, occasionally I read the Oxford Times, I read the Wallingford Herald, I listen to Radio Oxford.  I try and put Radio Oxford on every morning at 8 o’clock, just to get the news, though I think their breakfast show is far too repetitive. I watch the BBC Oxford news because the ITV one’s a bit of a waste of space now – it covers such a massive area.

ITV made a big mistake when they rationalised their local news output and that’s been proved in the ratings – people don’t watch it any more. The old Central News South, which used to cover Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, up to Milton Keynes, was incredibly popular locally. It was proper local news, and was very popular for 15 years. Wesley, the presenter, was a real local personality and they just completely scrapped that when they rationalised their news output.

I read the parish magazines, which come out three or four times a year. The parish council would like to produce something more frequently, but the problem is finding people to do it.

In terms of local websites, there’s a thing called Cholsey Info that I look at. Vance [who runs it] harvests stuff off other people’s blogs and websites, for instance he’ll take things off my blog. He’s got a local weather link-up that he posts every day. He’s a working chap – I think he’s really into technology and that’s a practical way of using it.

I would love to follow other people’s blogs but I’m not aware of any other people [in Cholsey] having blogs.

What are you looking for from local news?

I want to see what’s behind things, find out what’s going on.

I think the Herald is less than people expect. People think there isn’t enough news in it. There are three pages that relate to the whole of this area. Look at this front page [29/5/13] – only just over 50% is actually news, there’s an advert along the bottom, what’s in the paper and the strapline at the top. It’s very poor. And some weeks one of the two inside pages will be taken up by an advert and I think the precipitate decline in their circulation tells you that.

I’m not blaming the local journalists. They’re run out of Oxford. But I’m not sure it was even particularly better when they had a man locally on the ground. I think Andy Ffrench does a great job. When you’re only left with three pages it’s a bit difficult. It’s a very small amount of space.

I think the local press should have different news values [from nationals]; it should be more inclusive, which is why I think the Henley Standard is so good, it just covers everything. You get what the Women’s Institute has been up to – now probably 90–95% of people don’t want to see what the WI has been up to, but for the 10% who do, it’s really important. So, it’s this broad catch-all kind of news coverage.

There are newspapers like the Maidenhead Advertiser and the Newbury Weekly News that are astonishing newspapers; they don’t cover particularly big settlements, and every week they’re thumping great wodges of newsprint that come out – full of adverts, but they’ve got a damn good lump of news at the front and features as well.

The whole Newsquest thing doesn’t help: it’s all centrally controlled, they make massive profits and they don’t give much back to the community and they try and dress that up with that grant thing they do once a year. It’s not about the individuals, Andy Ffrench does a fantastic job working out of an office in Oxford and they send the photographers to take the pictures. It works very well, but I don’t think that you get that local knowledge you get if you’ve got someone on the ground.

How effective is media coverage in your area of work?

If you’re talking about local politics, I don’t think that’s covered very well at all. The parish councils don’t get covered, even the town councils don’t seem to get covered unless there’s some major controversy, but again I would say the Henley Standard seems to view things very differently.

Re: changes in the quality/quantity of coverage. It’s very obvious ITV have cut their broadcast hours. The BBC I notice has cut their coverage on a Friday night: you used to get 30 minutes of South Today Oxford on a Friday night, you don’t any more. It’s just the 10 minutes at the start of the South Today programme, the same as other weekdays – which I imagine is a response to the fact the government has capped the licence fee.

I’m not sure the Herald has changed: they just gather the news in a different way. It’s obvious Fox FM, now called Heart, doesn’t have anywhere near the local news coverage it used to have, now they’ve moved from Oxfordshire to Berkshire. The interesting one is Jack FM based in Oxford. They seem to have a fair bit of local news, and I would say their local news is actually very good.

The best coverage is the BBC, I think. Actually the Oxford Mail covered the [Bullfinch] trial in Oxford remarkably well: the day of the verdicts there was a really impressive pull-out, 8 pages of the paper – even 10 pages – covering it, written really well. So, that’s very impressive. They’d obviously been resourced to do that – they’d been given extra resources because the paper doesn’t usually look like that.

You could make an argument for that kind of resource-based targeted journalism. Why spread the money out over the year when you could cover big news stories in much greater depth?

The [big local] gravel pit story has been covered really well by the Herald and I know that’s gone into the Oxford Times and presumably the Mail. I think as a village we’d like to see more Cholsey stories.

Does local journalism get across information important to your community?

Take the new Cholsey pavilion, for instance, I think the thing is everybody who wants to know knows. A lot of people live their lives in a bubble and they can’t tell you who the Prime Minister is. I think if you’re interested and you want to be part of the community – most communities – you can. Cholsey’s no different to anywhere else. There are lots of community organisations, lots of facilities.

I think planning issues tend to be well covered. Generally people living in the local area get to know about things that are going to cause them problems or that they are going to be concerned about.

I think there might still be too much ‘Fred & Flo have reached their 100th birthdays in the same week’ or they’ve got to their 70th wedding anniversary, and a slightly more serious tone might help.

This library, for example, was on the national news twice when we opened it, because we opened it just when libraries were starting to be closed down and we were an example of a community library. But there were still many many local people who had no idea we were here: it was in the local press, local magazines, we had a presence in the centre of the village for weeks, with a big A-board. And yet there were many, many people who had no idea we were here. It’s a big issue with community groups: how do you get the news out to people?

 Do you use local media to get your message across?

Yes – letters, press releases, phone-ins, I’ve done all of those. I talk to Andy Ffrench about things that are going on, and he looks at my blog as well and if he thinks something’s sufficiently serious he’ll put it in, if he doesn’t he doesn’t.

We’re not in continual dialogue, but he’ll ring me up if he’s got an issue, and sometimes I’ll ring him up about things.

How important do you feel quality local news services are to the community you live in?

I think it’s absolutely incredibly important, and I think people go to the good stuff. I think the BBC’s investment in journalism in Oxfordshire has paid dividends for them, because so many people tell you they watch South Today Oxford.

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