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How a Local Paper Stayed Relevant by Covering Dildo Deaths, Bullfighting, and Drug Psychosis

The local paper may be dying an internet-related death, but they know their audience better than SEO ever could.

by Charles Olafare
Mar 22 2016, 8:00pm

All images courtesy of 'News Shopper'

News Shopper is London's oldest local paper, and it holds a special place in my heart. Growing up in the district of Thamesmead and Bexleyheath, two of the key areas the paper covers, News Shopper was ever present. Its team of reporters covered everything from conmen in the district of Plumstead, fleecing the elderly out of their jewelry to the time some kids in my high school were caught on film tagging up the 472 bus. I was even featured in it myself once, mentioned in passing as one of several victims in a spate of racist attacks by a local gang, helpfully named the "Racist Attackers."

Coming of age on the edge of southeast London, News Shopper's front pages were an ever-changing portrait of the weird world outside my window. Now that I've left the area, and the paper has made the jump into the digital age, it's become more like a funhouse mirror, refracting everything I loved and hated about growing up in the suburbs into absurdly shareable slices of life.

News Shopper keeps its readers abreast of the goings-on in the areas it covers, which are the London boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley, as well as north Kent. Whereas newsrooms in smaller towns might turn their eye on school fetes and local heroes, News Shopper produces a near-endless cycle of car crashes, pedophile convictions, muggings, and drug busts. Browse its Facebook page on any given day, and you're bound to come across at least one headline that'll make you wonder if we're living in end times. The 82 lost pubs of Greenwich slideshow alone is enough to send you into a catatonic frenzy of despair.

There are also stories such as the one about a man from Thamesmead, who got so high he had a bout of paranoia and called the cops because he thought someone had invaded his home, only to forget that he'd stashed a bag of heroin in his mouth. Then there's the singer from Belvedere single-handedly launching a campaign against Spanish bullfighting. Who could forget the tanker full of human effluence that spontaneously combusted in Dartford one afternoon? This is News Shopper's raison d'être: to alert you to danger and then placate you with toilet humor.

You can get stories about community cranks, hapless criminals, and bizarre accidents like these in any local paper, but there's something about these in particular that feels like they couldn't happen anywhere else. Straddled between the borders of London and Kent, places like Thamesmead, Belvedere, and Dartford are the perfect home for misplaced environmentalists, victims of their own drug psychosis, and exploding vessels of shit.

Andy Parkes is the editor of News Shopper, as well as other papers in Richmond and Wimbledon.

"I've worked at lots of newsrooms in the past‚—Belfast, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester. I think I can put my hand on my heart and say that, in general, the atmosphere and good will in this newsroom is second to none." He's the paper's longest standing editor, and it's a role he carries out with obvious relish.

He sees the News Shopper as a part of the fabric of the local community, and says he is duty-bound to report on the "nastier" crimes that happen in the area. "I have long argued that whilst a number of people see those as negative stories... If the result of publishing these stories is that the police then go and catch that person, and they're brought to justice, then I think it's a positive."

Still, he understands that in times of extreme hardship for many people, it's important to strike a balance between tales of true crime and humor.

"People appreciate a slightly light-hearted take on life. There are serious issues but they like them approached in a different type of way. News Shopper will run the weird and the wonderful. The funny thing is that you can run stories that are, on the one side of it, gruesome, and on the other side very funny, but also very sad."

Of all the stories Parkes has covered in nearly two decades at News Shopper, he finds one in particular to be the most outlandish. A 50-year-old man who lived at home with his mother died after a vibrator got lodged in his anus and perforated his bowels. Too ashamed to call for an ambulance, the man laid on his mother's sofa for five days until he died of poisoning.

Stories like that are what make News Shopper and many other local papers so compelling. They're the trashy hair salon mags of the community. All news sources exist for the whims of their audiences, but few have as innate an understanding of those whims as a local paper. Local papers know what make their readers tick on a much deeper level. The writers and editors have gone to the same schools, ridden the same buses, and gotten drunk at the same pubs. They know that there's nothing readers like more than a scandal, they know just the angle to put on it, and in the case of News Shopper, it's a special blend of bleakness and mundanity. In a time when the future of all newspapers is uncertain, this knowledge keeps the wolves from the door.

It's no secret that the rise of the internet has left print journalism in a tailspin, but the effect it's had on local papers has been particularly galling. Tech-savvy readers across the nation have been ditching their papers for screens, and the sales of regional weekly and daily papers have been in steady decline for years. As a result of this, News Shopper and hundreds of local papers like it are facing redundancies, staff shortages, strikes, and even closures.

With all that in mind, it stands to reason that papers like News Shopper would want to pump out as many eye-grabbing, stomach-wrenching stories as possible. Local news as we know it might not be around for much longer, and if stories about anal play gone terribly wrong are what keeps readers loyal in a rapidly changing news media landscape, then so be it.

"When I first came on board, even the name News Shopper was a bit negative for me, and I tried to make the word news bigger and the shopper smaller... The popularity struck me right from the start, so I quickly realized that it is what it is, and people love it."

In his time as editor, Parkes has also used the paper to campaign on a number of serious issues in the area, and one sticks out as the most daring and important.

"I campaigned at Darrent Valley Hospital to get the chief executive Anne-Marie Dean removed from her post," he says.

Back in the early 2000s, Anne-Marie Dean was the boss of Darrent Valley, a $169 million hospital in Dartford where patients were dying at an alarming rate. Branded as the worst hospital in Britain at the time, reports of bed shortages, a deadly salmonella outbreak, and a rising death toll shook the local community. "At the time it was looked on as though we were attacking the hospital, and we weren't—we just had to campaign on that issue."

News Shopper campaigned for nearly two years before Dean stood down from her post in late 2001. To this day, Parkes sees her resignation as his newsroom's greatest triumph. "That's hopefully what local papers do in communities. They're actually in that community and achieve things within it."

Ultimately, campaigns like the Darrent Valley Hospital scandal are what local papers are made for. Breaking stories that no one else could, or perhaps would, no matter how big or small. News Shopper may be strange in the extreme, but it serves a purpose and fills a need that bigger newspapers are not always able to.