CJ Stone explains the importance of local, campaigning citizen journalism
Whitstable Views started off as a personal blog. I wrote a monthly column in the local paper, the Whitstable Gazette, from 2009 to 2020. Whitstable Views was the place where I stored my columns once they had appeared in the paper. It was also a space to share my thoughts on living in our unique and vibrant little town. I wrote reviews of books and records, obituaries, news of upcoming cultural, creative and charity events and political rants on a variety of different subjects.
Later I started taking stories from other people. The first of these was by my good friend Julie Wassmer, a Whitstable-based author and campaigner, who I had worked closely with during our campaign to save the Royal Mail delivery office in Whitstable. Her first story was called No Cause for Celebration for our NHS and appeared on 2nd April 2018. It was, as its title suggests, an investigation into the effects of government savings in the NHS.
For four years Julie had also shared her personal opinions in a fortnightly column in another local paper, the Whitstable Times, but when the print paper went online as KentLive the column was discontinued as the paper no longer covered Whitstable news. A resident once wrote that Julie’s column “gave a voice to local people”.
Her last piece for the paper paid tribute to all the reporters and editors on local newspapers across the country who had fearlessly undertaken important investigations and campaigns throughout the years, including the pardoning of Timothy Evans, wrongly hanged for the Rillington Place murders in Notting Hill (Darlington Northern Echo), and the resumption of the inquests for those who died in the Birmingham pub bombings, for which the Birmingham Six were wrongly convicted (Birmingham Mail).
She wrote: “Investigative and campaigning journalism must survive – even if regional newspapers do not – but you can remain confident that I will continue to write and do my best to make public what some would prefer remained hidden.”
This shows why Whitstable Views has become so necessary in the last few years. It is the logic of newspapers that they are run for profit. The tendency is to want to consolidate the news to save costs. The catchment area becomes larger, while the local content diminishes, as do the resources to pursue stories.
So it was with my own paper, the Whitstable Gazette. While the bulk of the paper contained news from across the county – the Gazette being part of a nest of papers from the region – there were also a number of dedicated pages for the town itself. Since the pandemic, however, that has all but stopped. The letters page, once exclusively Whitstable-based, has become a generic page for the whole county, while the number of columnists has been drastically reduced. My own position within the paper was terminated in March 2020. The Whitstable Gazette was left without a Whitstable voice.
Perhaps due to this fact, the number of guest bloggers wanting to write for Whitstable Views began to increase. As well as articles by Julie Wassmer, I had also published work by Matthew Hatchwell and Diane Langford. Finally, in June 2020, I published a piece by Julie which went viral. It was a forensic examination of the record of our recently elected Labour MP, Rosie Duffield, and it has so far gleaned more than 30,000 views. Not bad for a little local blog.
It was after this that I suggested that we might like to reconfigure the site as an outlet for all our Whitstable writers and artists. In the interests of “citizen journalism” Julie and her husband Kas both kindly donated some money so that I could upgrade the site, and Whitstable Views was reborn as a community blog.
Our strapline is “For Whitstable and the World!” That’s exactly how we see it: a platform “for, by and about” the people of Whitstable. We aren’t confined to writing only about our little town. We cover all sorts of issues, both from the North Kent coast, and from the wider world.
We have some fabulous writers here. These include Hugh Lanning, who lived in Whitstable for a number of years, and who stood as our parliamentary candidate for the Canterbury constituency in the 2015 election. Hugh was famously the chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, from 2009 till 2013, and has generously allowed us to republish a number of articles on the Palestinian issue.
Julie Wassmer also has a high profile, having written a successful series of crime novels set in Whitstable which have recently been televised by Acorn TV. Previously she was a drama writer for twenty years, working on EastEnders and other shows. Having contributed a number of significant articles to Whitstable Views, Julie is a mainstay of the site. She has also been busy finding new contributors and new causes to write about, and is always just a phone call away if ever I need help and advice.
Other contributors include Steve Andrews, author, song writer and poet, currently residing in Portugal; Norman Thomas, ex-chair of the South Thanet Labour Party and one of the founders of the Labour In Exile Network; Stuart Heaver, who divides his time between Whitstable and Hong Kong and who has also written for the South China Morning Post, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, amongst others; and Narcy Calamatta, veteran Maltese writer, designer, actor and director on stage, TV and film. You’ll see from this that we have a truly international reach.
We’ve covered a number of significant stories, one of the most important being the ongoing campaign to hold Southern Water to account for its continuing pollution of our coastal waters. A much-publicised customer boycott of payments to Southern Water was begun here in Whitstable, and has since spread to other parts of the country. The story has been reported in a number of national newspapers including The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, as well as the French paper Le Monde, but it was first reported by Whitstable Views and we continue to run updates on this action.
We see our role as proactive. We are not just reporting the news, we are making it. Whitstable Views is a campaigning organisation. We are offering a platform to anyone who is willing to challenge the status quo in this continuously diminishing democracy of ours. For example, the Southern Water story has also allowed us to act as a resource for information. We have published a number of letters which may help others to frame their own missives if they too decide to join the boycott. All of the Southern Water pieces are linked together so that readers are able to access all of them from one point of entry.
Another serious issue affecting our town was the erection of oyster trestles on the foreshore by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company, without planning permission. Not only did Whitstable Views report on the issue but, during the public inquiry that followed, we were able to reproduce many of the submissions made to the inquiry by local residents. Again, we are acting as a resource so that our readership can be properly informed.
This is something the print media cannot do. A blog has no space restrictions, so we are able to host large bodies of material that just wouldn’t fit into the pages of a weekly paper. Being able to read the actual submissions, as opposed to just reading reports on them, allows our readers to make up their own minds about the issues at stake.
As well as written pieces, we also have a number of photo stories on the site, by such talented photographers as Gerry Atkinson and Andrew Hastings. This is an aspect of blogging that is a distinct improvement on print. Not only is the reproduction of photographs superior, but we can show many more of them too. All of our pieces are illustrated and laid out in a way which we hope makes the site as appealing to the eye as it is to the brain.
The site also continues to host reviews, obituaries, news and political rants from this writer; but it has been greatly enhanced by the presence of so many other contributors with a variety of different viewpoints, backgrounds and areas of expertise. It has truly become a fine example of citizen journalism and an invaluable community resource.
CJ Stone (pictured) is an author, columnist, ex-postal worker and Grandad. He wrote the renowned Housing Benefit Hill column for the Guardian Weekend in the 1990s, as well as columns for the Independent, the Big Issue and Mixmag, amongst others. Under the name “Roy Mayall” he wrote about the postal industry, including a book, Dear Granny Smith, which was featured as Book of the Week on Radio 4 in December 2009.
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