It was one of those pub stories that you never quite believed; half of me suspected that it was one of those tall tales that would be told to cub reporters, as a matter of course.
But anyway, when I first started my wood-staining career on the illustrious organ called the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald the story was that when it came to installing a sparkling new press beneath the Evening Adver’ building in Swindon Old Town, someone was despatched to Germany to bag themselves the business print press-wise.
The joke was that when it finally arrived it emerged that this new press ran – with typical German efficiency – only in a straight line; it didn’t do corners. Which was a bit of a problem – given that the old Adver’ building was of an L-shape design…
Some 20 years on and the interesting point is that print press was a couple of floors beneath us on the editorial floor; every Thursday lunchtime, we’d wander down – through the ad sales dept – and see the first edition, Devizes if memory serves, roll off said bent press. To be followed, in no particular order, by the editions for Calne, Malmesbury, Chippenham, North Wilts and Marlborough.
It was very much a ‘face-to-face’ process. You spoke to the printers; talked all things Swindon Town. Then came the delivery vans and their drivers before disappearing off into the four corners of Wiltshire where they would come ‘face-to-face’ with the newsagents.
Who would then either pass on the mighty sword of truth that was the Gazette to either their customers in the shop or the paper boys and girls charged with it’s safe delivery. Face to face to face to face to face…
It was a thought that popped into my head as I waded through Chapter 6 of Mr Shirky’s new tome, ‘Here Comes Everybody: Collective Action And Institutional Challenges’.
In it, he talks of the way that the new social tools at our disposal enpowered the Catholic laity to rise up, in effect, and challenge the existing order as the Voice Of The Faithful took to the web in their bitter spat with Cardinal Bernard F Law. To prove that it wasn’t just the Catholic voices that were being heard, the Episcopalian Church in Virginia then took it upon themselves to ‘de-locate’ to Nigeria where they found an Anglican bishop far more to their conservative liking.
In so doing, “they are challenging geography as an organizing principle for the church”.
Of course, the church isn’t the only organisation that, since time immemorial, has been organized on geographical lines. So, too, was the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald as we, as a group, went about our face-to-face business.
“In a world where group action means gathering face-to-face, people who need to act as a group should, ideally, be physically near one another.
“Now that we have ridiculously easy group forming, however, that stricture is relaxed and the result is that organizations that assume geography as a core organizing principle – even ones that have been operating that way for centuries – are now facing challenges to that previously bed-rock principle.”
I’m more than happy to give Shirky the benefit of the doubt given that his uncle lived and breathed the Richmond Daily News, but editor and priest, parish and circulation patch, laity and Gazette readers – they are all interchangeable. The message is still the same – just as the Virginians can worship in Nigeria, so the good people of Malmesbury can catch up with their friends on FaceBook, sell their kids’ toys on eBay, buy their next house on RightMove.
Neither the local church nor the local newsagents is the centre of their world any more.
MumsNet.com is an interesting one – a million-odd users every month and growing, it even made it to a speech by Tory leader David Cameron the other month: http://www.conservatives.com/tile.do?def=news.story.page&obj_id=142659&speeches=1
But there was a time when maternal guidance would be handed out on the Woman’s Page in the local evening paper; thousands of Swindon kids were probably weaned on the advice dished out by Shirley Mathias; you’d buy your second hat cot in the ‘For Sale’ classifieds; there’d be a quarter-page ad for Mothercare next to Shirley’s tales from the family front-line.
Now, it’s all there on www.mumsnet.com – mums united across the nation, smashing through one provincial newspaper parish after another as the web destroys geography as an ‘organising principle’.
Read Cameron’s speech again to the Conservative Councillors Conference in Warwickshire in February and it’s clever stuff; intuitive almost – and one or two lines might make for uncomfortable reading for local newspaper editors if local government information is, like MumsNet, about to drop its geographical constraints under any in-coming Tory Government.
“At the moment, local government bodies must provide the public with information about the services they provide, what goes on in council meetings and how councillors have voted on specific issues.
“Sure enough – you all do this. But the information isn’t published in a standardised way. Some councils use adverts in newspapers…”
Come the Revolution, brothers and sisters…
“We will turn that approach on its head. We will require local authorities to publish this information – about the services they provide, council meetings and how councillors vote – online and in a standardised format.
“That way, it can be collected and used by the public and third party groups. And this move will be accompanied by relaxing controls which force councils to pay to publish statutory notices. That way, we will actually reduce local government costs.”
And take money out of who’s hands… Oops. But that’s for another time.
The point is the ‘standardised format’; the ‘one size fits all’ approach that that entails; that there will be this nationwide network of local government information we will all be able to plug into and ‘scrape’ from – our newly-built aggregator tools at the ready. The invitation to help ourselves is clear enough.
“By standardising this data, it can be used by anyone’s website, anytime, anyplace to flag up the services you are putting on and get that information to the people who most need it…”
And will they do it through the existing patch-work quilt of papers and parishes? Or will they look to forge new alliances and new relationships, out there on the web where the eye-balls are?
“… A young parent looking for local crèche facilities. This information revolution will allow websites like mumsnet.com to flag up what is available, where and at what time and save people the bother of trawling individual websites…”
Like, you fear, that of the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald.