Awards and great investigations could not keep presses rolling at the 'Salford Star', reports Ian Herbert
Plain English. That's what they write at The Salford Star and you don't just have to take their word for it. The paper won Best Regional Newspaper category at last year's Plain English Campaign awards, and its editor Stephen Kingston becoming perhaps the first individual to take such a prize with not so much as one ad sales rep to have helped finance his getting there.
The award was recognition for what has, by anyone's standards, been a journalistic tour de force – a publication which has cut through the uncritical gloss which is so often put on the regeneration industry that has made a fortune out of deprived, post-industrial cities like Salford.
The Star's first issue, three years ago, included a powerful critique of the property company Urban Splash, around whose gleaming new developments the local MP Hazel Blears led a coach party during the 2007 Labour Party conference in neighbouring Manchester.
Kingston powerfully argued that such homes were, and still, are unaffordable to Salford people. The average price of the first 108 Urban Splash homes built and converted in rundown Seedley and Langworthy was £120,000, the Star told its readers. The cheapest was £99,500, far beyond the means of most people living in this deprived city. The piece got the paper shortlisted for another gong, a Paul Foot award for investigative journalism.
The Star has also been relating to Salfordians what the BBC's big names have been saying about their move to Salford's mediacity:UK (Radio 5 Live's Nicky Campbell and the corporation's in-house magazine Ariel don't seem to get the significant difference between Salford and Manchester).
On the face of things, a publication which has continued to mix more of this scrutinising work – it was the Star that pointed out that Bryan Gray, the chairman of the North-West Development Agency, also works for Peel Media, the developer of mediacity:UK, which is receiving £31.8m of NWDA money – should be flourishing at a time when local newspaper owners are retrenching.
Greater Manchester is a war zone in this respect, Guardian Media Group having closed a raft of suburban offices and brought journalists back to Deansgate in the city centre. But the title with all the money in Salford is the council's own monthly publication Life In Salford, fuelled by £175,000 of taxpayers' money. The Star, despite repeatedly selling out its 15,000 print run, can no longer afford the costs of its operation and, for an as yet unspecified period, has gone solely online from this month.
It is a not a decision Kingston feels comfortable with, because it goes against the grain of the inclusive publication the Star has become. "Only one in five people have internet access in Salford so most people can't actually see we are online," he says. "I'm printing posters and putting them in shop windows to encourage people to go online, but many can't."
Some editors will doubtless heave sighs at the thought of the kind of investigations Kingston goes in for. Regeneration stories just don't tend to "make" these days. Urban Splash hits the national press when it's glitzing up Morecambe's art deco Midland Hotel, with its Eric Gill murals, not when someone's questioning Bryan Gray's role as chairman of Urban Splash Hotels (which, coincidentally, has also received NWDA money).
But Salfordian culture fills two-thirds of the Star and few editors would baulk at the first online issue's behind-the-scenes images from the set of Channel 4's Shameless, which are well worth viewing online. Tina Malone, who plays big bad Mimi, pictured left, might live in Salford Quays but she hails from a council estate not too far in spirit from Chatsworth Estate, the Star reveals.
The economics of publishing meant Kingston spent three months earlier this year working as a teaching assistant in nearby Bolton to give himself an income. The Star launched with social funding (Awards for All, UnLtd and the East Salford Community Committee all chipped in, with the offer of money for training from New Deal for Communities) but that has stopped. "I have had 100 volunteers, including photographers, five graphic designers, distributors," says Kingston. "But only half of the print costs are covered by advertising. The problem is that if you are going to produce a proper community magazine you might have to bite the hand that feeds you. Because we are scrutinising and taking figures apart, advertisers don't want to go near you."
Other publishers are also struggling. The Salford Advertiser, has lost £100,000 of council advertising. The North-WestEnquirer folded in less than a year and spawned the website How-Do, a lively place for local media industry news and jobs but, unlike Kingston's paper, is obviously aimed at readers with plentiful online access.
Salford is the place whose working class people were studied by Marx and Engels and discussed by them in The Crescent pub on the A6. The Star seems like a classic example of those publications which, as the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham suggested two weeks ago, would benefit from becoming part of a different business model funded by media trusts or mutuals. "At the end of the day we are not party political and we are not in this to make a profit," says Kingston. In the meantime, hits to the website have risen by 2000 per cent. Beat that for triumph through adversity.