"Local papers are paramount to our listeners"
Johnny Gardener co-ordinator Talking Newspaper
We’re talking newspapers on the Talking Newspaper. One of the oldest and biggest in the country. Produced right here in Blackpool.
N-Vision’s Talking Newspaper for the Blind is 42 this year. That’s roughly the length of my journalistic career. Without The Gazette and allied weeklies, we’d have both been at a loss since 1977.
These days, as a freelance PR, I help N-Vision, the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Society for the Blind, and other charities, advance their own news agendas.
The stories have come thick and fast since being asked to help with the 40th anniversary of the Talking Newspaper.
But would I want to read any of MY articles out loud – given my tendency to stop only when I’ve hit 1500 words (if news editors are lucky)?
If working on Radio City cured me of an addiction to puns listening to volunteers record the weekly Talking Newspaper should stop me overwriting.
Starting – with my next article.
We’ll do the word count later (no, we won’t, Editor).
You have been warned, TN readers – and for listeners there’s always fast-forward…
Here’s the good news. Three hundred listeners load a digital audio plug containing 12-14 hours of recorded content from the Talking Newspaper covering Blackpool Fylde and Wyre each week – delivered and posted back free of charge under Royal Mail’s Articles for the Blind service.
Around four hours of that content comes from all six days of The Gazette, with an hour or so for the Fleetwood Weekly News and Lytham St Annes Express. The charity covers all three local boroughs from coast to inland, urban and rural communities.
Surveys reveal that listeners value the local newspaper content above all.
While 300 people would not keep a local newspaper afloat in terms of circulation – particularly when they get it free – consider that figure as a proportion of 3000 who are visually impaired and supported by the society locally. Others also download the paper online via Sound Cloud.
Many VI people access news on tablets, smartphones, laptops, PCs, smart TVs. They may have some functioning sight, which can be helped by assistive technology, or audio. Many older folk use magnifiers when sight is failing to read the hard-print newspaper. The distinctive white print on red background panels are a particularly tough read for those with failing or little sight. The charity actively helps more develop digital skills.
Back in 1977 when the Talking Newspaper started, I was based at the West Lancashire Evening Gazette at Victoria Street in the town centre.
The local ‘blind’ society’s idea then as now was to reduce the risk of social isolation that can come with reduced vision.
The society dates back to 1910, just 19 years before the local weekly paper, set up in 1873, became the daily West Lancashire Evening Gazette.
These days all too many daily papers have reverted to weekly publication, gone solely online or out of business.
The Cairncross review – findings announced this week by Dame Frances Cairncross – has highlighted the threat to journalism.
In 10 years the circulation has roughly halved of national newspapers and local newspapers across the country, mostly as a result of a shift in the way people source news.
Today, 91 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds read news online. Around a quarter of local and regional papers have closed over the same period.
The threat to public interest journalism – which holds authority to account and covers issues, great and small, within communities, courts, council chambers and elsewhere – is of the greatest concern to those within and beyond the industry. And indeed the panel. Those conducting the review cited examples of the impact on communities when a local paper went out of business.
One MP in a constituency which recently lost the last of three local papers also said it was wrong to assume that everyone had ready access to the internet and online news, the inclination to consume content there, or ability to pay for such. Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow in Essex, said newspaper closures had left older people isolated.
“We’d hate that to happen here,” says Johnny Gardener, 62, visually impaired himself, who started as a volunteer and now works part time as N-Vision’s Talking Newspaper’s coordinator.
“We pride ourselves on our local news content, and that’s thanks to the local press. Our listeners would feel more cut off from the community without it. They want to hear what’s happening locally. They don’t want to be starved of information.”
Back in 1977 – when the Talking Newspaper started in Blackpool – most of us bought local papers. There were news agents everywhere – and youngsters buckling under the weight of newspaper sacks.
Online meant washing. The World Wide Web, the service that operates over the internet, wasn’t widely available until 1991.
Newspapers were heavily staffed even if it didn’t feel that way. Broadsheets ran to several editions. They weren’t templated – the worth of a story would dictate the space. Spell check was a news editor, sub editor, proof reader or hot metal printer who could chip a literal out before the presses rolled below the Gazette newsroom and the beery/cigarette smoke filled interview phone booths in which reporters did the round of calls to contacts or emergency services and the far more occasional ‘phoner’ to someone out of the area. Back then, most interviews took place face to face.
It was a decent news year too. Red Rum switched on the Lights in 1977, the Tower was painted silver for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Phil Kelsall first started playing the Mighty Wurlitzer in the ballroom below and Blackpool held Chelsea to a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. Owen Oyston didn’t own Blackpool FC back then. It just feels that way.
It was also the year local hotelier Joy Killip began reading the news for the Talking Newspaper – a founder and a fundraiser for the service.
Now in her mid-90s Joy still turns up two or three times a week at the studios off Bosworth Place, Squires Gate, and joined BBC North West Tonight presenters last year.
Joy’s one of around 150 Talking Newspaper volunteers. They come from all walks of life. Mostly retired but many still working - such as the Beaverbrooks Gems who cover consumer news from Which? And Phil Richardson, who reports on sport, and works at N-Vision in the Community Services team.
It takes two teams around two hours to record three days’ worth of Gazettes, the Tuesday team covering Friday Saturday and Monday, and the Thursday team - on which volunteers such as rotarian David Shaw and others work - cover Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday. Others cover the weeklies.
They arrive with their stash of papers, having selected stories in advance, avoid clashes of content and, like journalists, protect their patch. “Shall I read that - I can do it faster.” “No, I want to read it.”
There are giggles. As Pauline Elvidge wraps up a story about restrictions on the number of takeaways, Betty Horrocks features the Gazette’s quest for the best takeout.
The third reader on the four strong team Barbara Medcalf gamely tackles my article on N-Vision’s assistive tech exhibition.
“We appreciate brevity,” Barbara points out during a break to get her breath back and nudge me awake. Point made.
Barbara and Betty are both retired teachers so when the grammar slips – the rest of us know it.
Fortunately, listeners can’t hear literals.
Alan Waterfield, who worked at British Aerospace (electronics), oversees the recording, edits the ‘fluffs’, and watches the time.
When he fluffs my surname in the sign-off I put it down to payback.
Given my own dismal record on Radio City when regularly having to say ‘city’ and ‘ship’ in one sentence I marvel at Betty, a volunteer for almost 30 years, breezing through ‘Guillain–Barré syndrome’. Then Barbara pops out: “Poster Person of Pilling” – with aplomb. The team not only cover three days’ worth of Gazettes every six weeks but cover listings in the TV Times every three weeks.
“I prefer those,” Pauline admits.
The four all hail from the Windmill Players – and are also preparing for their next production, Ray Cooney’s Caught in the Net at Thornton Little Theatre February 19-23, all seats £8.50. A comedy farce about a bigamist. (This plug is the least I can do.)
The volunteers on afternoon and evening reading rota are supported by two part time members of staff at N-Vision – one of whom has recently left, audio engineer Chris Carter having joined Collabro’s 10 week 51-date tour as drummer having also helped co-produce their fourth studio album The Road to the Royal Albert Hall (where the tour ends).
“It’s too good an opportunity for Chris to miss,” admits coordinator Johnny.
From Talking News to making news - the teams shared the news of Chris's departure with their listeners.
“Local papers are paramount to our listeners,” says Johnny.
“It’s why we cover every Gazette. Some of the news may be a bit stale by the time listeners get it but they catch up with items they wouldn’t hear on TV or local radio.
“It’s important. They want to know what’s happening. I attend the Talking Newspaper Federation meetings and some local papers now go out only once a week or lean towards online.
“A lot of our listeners are more mature and may not be interested in technology or, as with talking books, like to hear the news read to them.
“The Talking Newspaper is one of their best friends. Many are on their own. The Gazette is a great resource not just for news. sport and features but also public information about bridge closures, roadworks, tram works, transport delays, weather alerts and more.
“A lot of listeners are happy to hear updates on the running stories too, such as about fracking, the prom closure, the Oyston saga.
“Some may think there’s too much violence or downbeat stuff, but visually impaired people cannot be denied access to the world as it is.
“A sighted person can choose not to read something, turn to another page. It’s different with a blind person, they want to hear what’s being read, we shouldn’t cherry pick just the nice stories and nanny them, it’s their choice to make, not ours.
“I’d back The Gazette #buyapaper #readonline all the way because it also helps those who may not have that choice.
“I expect there are Talking News listeners across the land – and further afield – who feel just the same.”
As for that word count.... maybe next time!