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Conversations on press freedom #3: James Hatts

World Press Freedom Day fell last weekend on 3rd May. Through a series of interviews and articles with journalists and activists, our Artistic Director Euchar Gravina is exploring press freedom as a fundamental component of any healthy democracy and transforming communities. Our next guest is James Hatts, who runs SE1 News, a local media organisation.

For many, Waterloo and the South Bank bring exclusively to mind images of a transport hub, a workplace and a centre of arts, culture and entertainment . Indeed, Waterloo Station - which has been around for almost 175 years - receives over 100 million entries-and-exits a year and is the country’s busiest railway station. For several years, it was also London’s international station with a pass to the rest of Europe. The South Bank, over the past few decades, developed into one of the world’s most-renowned cultural centres with over 30 million visitors every year. For others around the globe, this district is synonymous with the London-Eye and its hosting of the New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations.

Yet SE1 is much more than an internationally-recognised area. It is a local postcode shared by 65,000 residents, some of whom have been living in this neighbourhood all their life with strong family and cultural connections to their surroundings. Working at St John’s, I soon discovered that the neighbourhood has been very active over the years in protecting its existence as an anchored community, making its presence felt and voicing its opinion on the ongoing developments in their area: the story of Coin Street Community Builders, the support towards the large homeless community around Cardboard City as well as more recent protest movements on environmental regulations with St John’s opening its doors to Extinction Rebellion.

Back in 2018, when I started putting together the programme of my first Waterloo Festival as director, I was very keen on familiarising myself as best as I can with the locals. I was interested to learn more about what was going on off the main streets of this central district of London and develop the right connections. My workmates at St John’s straightaway advised me to get in touch with James Hatts, who runs the London SE1 community website. In my current quest to explore why press freedom is such a fundamental component of healthy transforming communities, even small local ones such as those of Waterloo, I followed the same advice.

And it doesn’t get any more ‘local’ and ‘locally-informed’ than chatting with James. Born at St Thomas’ Hospital, “I have lived for most of my life in SE1, apart from my university years. When I was growing up, my family lived just off Blackfriars Road. Today my home is at the Elephant & Castle.”

Recalling that he was still at school at the time, James told me London SE1 was founded exactly 22 years ago, in May 1998, as a joint project between him and his father. “If you think back to 1998 there were a lot of big projects in motion in the SE1 area as part of the build-up to the Millennium celebrations: the London Eye was being built, the Jubilee Line Extension was nearly completed, Bankside Power Station was becoming Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge was planned, amongst other schemes.”

“There was a bit of a gap in local media at the time. There had been a community newspaper called SE1 that had thrived during the 1970s and 1980s, but in the early 1990s it had fizzled out. My father was editing a ‘what's on’ guide for the Square Mile, focussing on things people could do in their lunch hour, like concerts in the City churches. We saw the potential for doing something similar for our home turf south of the river! There were more and more cultural and community events taking place locally but no-one was drawing all the strands together in one place.”

“So we began to publish a monthly listings guide. And a website at the same time, which was quite advanced for 1998 and makes us one of the longest-running neighbourhood websites anywhere. We stopped producing the printed publication in 2014 and have been online-only since then. We also produce a weekly email newsletter, and a few weeks ago we sent the 1,000th mailing, which is quite an achievement.”

Over time, SE1 developed from a regular ‘what’s on’ guide to a publication focussed more on local politics, planning and development issues. “I particularly enjoy finding the juicy story buried deep in an official document that few will have taken the trouble to read.” He goes on to tell me, though, that there is no substitute for spending time on the ground in the patch he’s covering. “I can walk or cycle across SE1 and find half a dozen leads for stories, just by spotting public notices on lamp-posts, or shops that have opened or shut down, or building works in progress. Over time you develop well-tuned antennae for potential stories.”

James Hatts

Over the last twenty-two years, SE1 has played an active role in community building, from covering local initiatives to bringing light to conditions and regulations across the local area that have negative impacts on the neighbourhood. “I'm quite proud of the small part we played in preventing the Elephant & Castle pub from becoming a branch of Foxtons estate agents. That was something I spotted deep in the recesses of Southwark's planning database. I wrote about the story, and it led to local politicians and community groups taking swift action to protect the pub. I also appeared on TV and radio to talk about the story.”

More recently, James Hatts received the Honorary Liberty of the Old Metropolitan Borough of Southwark in recognition of the coverage which SE1 and its social media channels provided in the aftermath of the first London Bridge terrorist attack. For the residents just south of the river, this episode was not just another news-story from the capital but another deadly attack on the streets off their homes.

“During those 10 long days when Borough Market and its environs were behind a police cordon, I chronicled what was happening and shared practical information in a way that was only possible because I had such an in-depth knowledge of the area.”

There are several such advantages behind the presence of local journalists who live and report on their area. I have recently read The Shipping News, fiction by Annie Proulx, which, in the background of its main narrative, highlighted the positive impact which a local newspaper - in this case, serving a remote community in Newfoundland - can bring to its readership: from essential harbour information delivered to a readership that lives off the sea, to stories about their joys and sorrows, bringing them closer together. In discussing the value of local press with James, he strongly notes that “well-informed communities are stronger communities” and whilst SE1 doesn’t particularly take a campaigning stance on issues, they “shine a light on things which may inspire readers to take action”. Indeed, as proven by the coverage of the London Bridge terrorist attack, “living and working in the neighbourhood that I write about makes a big difference” in reporting and discovering potential stories.

Moreover, similar to the way the policies of the central government have an extensive impact on the life of its citizens, “our local councils are often taking decisions where millions of pounds are at stake” and the health of the community at risk. “Yet, often, I’m the only journalist present, or indeed, sometimes, the only person in the public gallery at all.” In the absence of local media, James believes that “our national news coverage will be poorer… so many stories that hit the national press have bubbled up from the work done by local journalists.”

Nonetheless, local press organisations such as SE1 have been facing a real threat to their existence. “Advertising has been the key revenue stream funding most journalism for the past century or more, but the numbers don't stack up any more, and so most publications have to diversify their revenue streams to include funds from readers and from philanthropic sources too.” He recognises that amongst policy-makers, there’s a growing realisation that local news needs support. “However, I am concerned that the same companies that have presided over the hollowing-out of local newspapers are the ones receiving the lion's share of the funds being made available, effectively rewarding them for failure.”

“Whilst there are lots of people who will give you a grant to develop an app or experiment with augmented reality, the real challenge is how to pay for the bread and butter work of attending council meetings, ploughing through documents and chronicling day to day events. As more and more small business advertising moves to platforms like Facebook, publishers are increasingly left out of the mix.”

James didn’t shy away when I asked him what the future looks like for local organisations such as SE1. “It is very tough. In truth, our current operating model hasn't been viable for quite a while, and we have come very close to throwing in the towel and closing up. Two decades is a long time to do this kind of thing, and I have been a bit burnt out and run down at times. I believe in local journalism as much as ever, but we've been running on thin air and that takes its toll.”

“When the COVID-19 crisis began, we realised that we simply couldn't shut down and walk away at that moment, and a couple of local organisations and a generous individual stepped forward to avert immediate collapse.”

SE1 has been brainstorming new ways of attracting support not just from the local community and their readers but also through networking. “We are proud members of the Independent Community News Network - based at Cardiff University - which represents more than 100 community journalism projects around the country.” Since 2016, they have been running a membership scheme “which has been vital in keeping us going. In the short term, I'd encourage people who value local journalism to support us in that way.”

In the medium term, James hopes that the SE1 website project takes on a more collaborative nature, “with more people involved in both governance and journalism and a wider variety of voices.” The process to achieve this is still up for debate. As for the future? “We are interested in setting up a community interest company, or we could follow the example of the Bristol Cable, a media outlet with a co-operative ownership structure.” I asked him about the potential negative implications on editorial control with regards to such potential plans. "Broadening out the ownership does come with risks of being pulled in a particular political or socio-economic direction. To date, my family and I have probably been excessively cautious about letting go of control, but if we want the project to outlast us, it's something we'll have to face up to. We've had several approaches from people over the years which we've said 'no' to - and that's subsequently proved to be the right decision because we're still here and they are not!"

Just before we started concluding our chat, I asked James to provide one piece of advice to young people starting in journalism, particularly those interested in covering local community stories and news. “The economic situation is so tough that it is hard to recommend carving out a career in local news at all.” For this, James provides a solution. “The best advice is not to put all your eggs in one basket - try developing community journalism as a side project, but don't rely on it to pay the bills.”

Nevertheless, he finishes off by saying that “at best, local journalism can be great fun and a real privilege. As a journalist, the SE1 area is the best and most stimulating patch that you could wish to cover. It quite literally has a bit of everything.”

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