Great Scottie

Set up in 1971 to campaign for the local community, Liverpool’s Scottie Press offered an exciting work placement prospect for Joel Hansen. Then he realised he was the most senior member of staff

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The UK’s longest-running community newspaper was facing extinction when Joel Hansen knocked at the door. Unemployed and aimless, Hansen applied for a temporary post at Scottie Press, a one-time champion of the oppressed, as it limped towards its 50th birthday. He was expecting six months’ work experience. Instead, aged 23, he was made editor.

In the three years since, with no journalistic training, he has rejuvenated the grassroots inner city publication, relaunched it and restored its reputation for fighting injustice, questioning authority, and “saying what needs saying” on behalf of its readership.

Hansen’s solution to stopping the rot defied perceived wisdom. While local papers across the country responded in desperation to haemorrhaging sales with clickbait and listicles, he took inspiration from Scottie Press’s crusading past.

The relaunch, at the end of last year, came as many far better resourced local newspapers were shrinking or folding altogether. Two issues in, Covid-19 struck, but until that point the response was entirely positive, with readers and industry insiders praising the brand of reporting revived by Hansen.

He began researching issues negatively affecting the area but ignored by other media, then printing his findings in long-form articles.

“We had some big stories and got feedback from local politicians, journalists, people in the community, right across the board,” says Hansen.

“Residents said it was like the Scottie Press of old, campaigning for people’s rights and social justice. We’d taken the paper back to its original purpose.”

Hansen had been drifting from job to job when he arrived in Vauxhall, Liverpool, an inner city district with a long history of deprivation and neglect.

“I was unemployed, had worked mainly as a freelance photographer, and a few other odd jobs just to keep me going, but in general I was struggling to make a career out of anything, to find something I enjoyed and could sink my teeth into.”

The placement with Scottie Press was part-funded by a government scheme on the assumption that “there’s a company up and running, there’s a boss, there’s someone to look after you and train you”.

Instead, “I realised there was no editor, and no other staff, and I was looking at this office full of old newspapers and thinking, am I the boss? I think I am the boss.”

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Set up in 1971 to campaign for the local community, Scottie Press had by now lost its leadership and its direction, and been out of print for more than six months. But Hansen was undaunted.

He recalls thinking: “Well, I’m very under-qualified, I don’t have the experience, but I’ve got this amazing opportunity. And if I don’t step up, it will probably disappear.”

Immediate plans to relaunch and create a social media platform were put back as Hansen found himself “pulled in to the power of the journalism”.

“I felt like one of the only people left delivering news in a black and white printed format – literally just me stapling and folding and putting it out – that wasn’t on social media, that didn’t really have an online presence. It was like being a journalist in the most pure and grassroots way that you could be.

“We started to challenge subjects more directly, tackling social and economic issues in the community. We weren’t pulling our punches. People noticed that we weren’t just reporting on nice things but tackling real hard news stories.”

Among those stories have been the battle to stop a historic dock being filled in and built over, the prejudice faced by a young transgender man, the struggle food banks face to keep communities fed amid the pandemic, and how failed developments have left local communities a fortune out of pocket.

A community interest company was formed with local residents among the board members, enabling them to attract grants, which paid for Scottie Press to be given away for a year, while it found its feet again, beginning with the relaunch last Christmas.

Five thousand copies were distributed across Liverpool, in libraries, community hubs, cafés, restaurants, “anywhere that would take them”. A website and social media platforms brought in new, younger readers.

“People round my age were saying: ‘That’s really cool. It’s interesting, it’s varied.’”

Scottie Press already had a valuable commodity – a readership with an attachment to their paper. Scotland Road, from which it took its title, was once the hub of an impoverished neighbourhood, notorious for slum conditions but famous for its resilience, good humour and mutual support, until its residents were reluctantly uprooted and moved miles out to new tower blocks. Long gone inhabitants still use Scottie Press to connect with their old lives

Hansen believes giving readers a stake in the product could secure the future of Scottie Press and be replicated in other communities. His plan is for a membership model, involving as many readers as they can persuade to pay a small amount – “say, 5,000 people contributing £10 a year” – in exchange for fringe benefits and a real say in the content of the paper.

“You can create a relationship, make it much more of a community organisation, where the readers are just as much a part of the newspaper as the journalists. What do you want to see us write about? What problems are affecting your area?”

The young editor’s dearth of experience in newspaper editorial departments could just work in his favour – he lacks the weary resignation with which many regional journalists have watched their industry implode.

Meanwhile, his enthusiasm is infectious. To would-be contributors, he says: “You’re not only keeping the newspaper in print, you’re part of the minority still fighting for true freedom of expression and journalism on a complete grassroots level, uncorrupted by big business. I think people are thirsty for that.

“I do think in news the ethical obligation is being completely tarnished because of clickbait and advertising revenues needing to be hit. Posting pictures of petty criminals online doesn’t help. It’s almost like going back to a circus, a freak show – let’s laugh at them to make me feel better about myself.

“I don’t want to go down that route, and the more you don’t need to have to be bothered about clicks and revenue, then you can get back to doing proper journalism.”

Though born elsewhere in Merseyside, Hansen has strong family ties to the Scotland Road area, a “deep personal connection”, and he feels a moral responsibility to see the job through.

“As soon as you start to see unjust decisions and lack of accountability, it doesn’t sit right. If no one’s looking at this stuff, or investigating it, then no one notices. You’d be surprised what people can get away with.”

Hansen insists he is not delusional. “There’s no way I can say newspapers are sustainable, or our relaunch is going to work, because we were just test-running it, getting some momentum up. It’s a difficult time for something like this. It’s finding what’s going to work best and I think we will.”

He believes they can build on Scottie Press’s name for trustworthiness, adding: “With social media, anyone’s a journalist and they can put it out there and people can read it, and that is one way of doing it, but in this era of fake news and the constant flow of information, and things chopping and changing, being able to trust something is getting harder.

“I think we could hit the sweet spot where we’ve got the reputation and the history, but we’ve adapted to the modern way of journalism and storytelling and I think we’re slowly getting there.”

Whatever happens, Hansen is there for the long haul.

“It’s something I’ve dedicated my life to and regardless of whether the money’s going to be there or isn’t, and I have to go without for a few weeks, I’m going to commit myself.”

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