Why Freedom of the City honour would never stop The Sentinel doing its job

The Sentinel's offices in Hanley.

The Sentinel’s offices in Hanley.

We like to think we’re reasonably well informed at The Sentinel but I have to say the announcement that the newspaper we work for is set to be honoured with the Freedom of the City came as something of a shock to our newsroom.

That doesn’t mean to say everyone who works here isn’t thrilled at the prospect, of course.

It’s simply a reflection of the fact that it wasn’t something any of us envisaged. Such honours, rare as they are, tend to be given to other organisations or notable individuals and we dutifully tell everyone about them and record the news for posterity.

It’s a rather exclusive club we may be joining if councillors approve the idea.

Members include Lucie Wedgwood, the North Staffordshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s) – as was, Sir Stanley Matthews CBE, Stoke City FC and – very soon, hopefully – Robbie Williams esquire.

That the Freedom of Stoke-on-Trent is set to be conferred on The Sentinel as we mark our 160th year is a huge honour, a welcome boost to its employees, and a timely acknowledgment of the newspaper’s place in the city’s history.

Who knows what the aspirations of the founding fathers were when they launched The Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial and General Advertiser on January 7, 1854?

However, I dare say that if you had told them the product of their invention would still be chronicling local life in 2014 they would have been pleased at the thought.

The format may have changed, it may have evolved into something markedly different to the original offering, it may have a website currently generating 50,000-plus visitors each day, but the basic function of this newspaper remains the same as it ever was. To inform, educate and entertain the people of North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

Do we make mistakes? Sure we do. When you’re producing the equivalent of a small novel every day you’re bound to – no matter how many pairs of eyes you have scanning the pages and web uploads. But hopefully people can see we do far more good than harm and I like to think most Sentinel readers trust the paper, rely on its integrity, and understand that its journalists do things in all good faith for the right reasons.

Which brings me neatly on to what being given the Freedom of the City actually means for an organisation like the local newspaper.

Does it mean, as some mischievous commentators may claim, that we’re too close to the city council?

The suggestion is patently absurd given that The Sentinel is unquestionably the most passionate advocate of Potteries folk and the only organisation locally with the resources or the know-how to consistently hold decision-makers to account.

I don’t believe any self-respecting councillor would want The Sentinel to be anything other than a critical friend of the local authority and an organisation they, like anyone else, can turn to for help and support.

After all, if you remove us from the equation who else would attend all the meetings, quiz elected members, speak to residents’ associations or let people vent their spleen to tens of thousands of taxpayers six days a week through well-thumbed letters’ pages?

No, there’s absolutely no danger of this fantastic honour somehow equating to an unseemly, cosy relationship between The Sentinel and the city council – or anyone else for that matter.

The truth is, certainly during my time with this newspaper, the organisations have worked together on many intrinsically positive initiatives and yours truly has been involved with most of them.

Those that spring to mind include the Staffordshire Saxon project; the annual City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in their 39th year); The Sentinel Business Awards (now in their 20th year); the recent Robbie Williams tourist trail, exhibition and charity fans’ festival and the bid for a HS2 hub station.

We work with our colleagues at the city council on these projects because they are hugely positive, they champion local people and they help our city aspire to better things.

Now add those projects to The Sentinel’s campaigns for a new North Staffs Hospital and for the cancer drug Herceptin to be made available to all women on the NHS or our fight to save Port Vale FC and the name of our county regiment.

Then there’s the Young Journalist Awards, the Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition and the Our Heroes community awards.

You start to build up a picture of how, over time, this newspaper is a genuine force for good and can hopefully understand why a local lad like me who used to deliver The Sentinel in Sneyd Green during the mid-1980s is enormously proud of working for it.

Of course, these are just some of the campaigns and projects which this newspaper has been involved with during my 15 years here.

Think of the good The Sentinel has done over 160 years, the help it has given, the information disseminated to generations of families through good times and bad, and the role the newspaper has played and continues to play in local democracy.

Ignore the trolls who will inevitably pour scorn on this column on our website. It’s easy to mock and disparage which is why the internet remains the virtual equivalent of the Wild West.

The Freedom of the City is an honour that would be gratefully and graciously received by The Sentinel’s current generation of journalists on behalf of everyone who went before and everyone who comes after.

Here’s to keeping people informed for the next 160 years… whether that be through film, the internet, via phones and tablets, or by you getting good, old-fashioned print on your hands.

We’ll still be The Sentinel: Local and proud.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Don’t write local newspapers like The Sentinel off just yet

There is a book in the mini library in my office. It is blue with gold lettering and is entitled: ‘Rendezvous With The Past: Sentinel Centenary’.

It celebrates the first 100 years of the newspaper I work for and, unbelievably, was published back in 1954 – almost 20 years before I was born.

That’s right, The Sentinel is 158 years old. Its first issue emerged on January 7, 1854, and it was sold for threepence.

Since then, through two World Wars, various economic crises, under several monarchs, and despite numerous technological advances, this newspaper has been part and parcel of life in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

Last week, however, some of our colleagues in the broadcast media were voicing The Sentinel’s obituary.

Blurring the stories of the takeover our parent company with a separate decision to close the Daily Mail’s printing press in Stoke-on-Trent, they were helpfully reading us the last rites.

The first many of us knew of the rumours of our demise were from the messages of condolence which appeared on social media on Thursday morning.

‘Sad to hear about The Sentinel closing’ Tweeted one concerned city councillor.

Then readers began ringing in and advertisers started querying their accounts.

Suffice to say The Editor-in-Chief wasn’t best pleased and the thin partition wall separating our rooms did little to muffle his annoyance.

To be fair, many ‘experts’ – usually former journalists or academics – have been predicting The Sentinel’s imminent closure for several years now.

Indeed, if I had a fiver for every time someone had claimed the end is nigh for us old-fashioned print hacks here at Etruria I’d have enough money to, well… buy an annual subscription for The Sentinel.

The doom-mongers’ logic is simple: The circulation figures of every newspaper in the country – both national and local – have fallen over the last 20 years, thanks in large part to the advent of the internet and digital media.

They argue that people can now access information on their telephones and other hand-held devices or computers at home and in the workplace and many enjoy the immediacy of broadcast media.

It is also absolutely correct to say the economic downturn has hit advertising revenues hard and my industry has suffered more than its fair share of redundancies since 2008.

On the face of it, the prognosis seems gloomy and it is, of course, in the interests of our colleagues in radio and television to talk up our decline.

Their pessimism is shared by many former newspaper journalists turned public relations professionals/retired persons espousing the view that standards have fallen and things are ‘not how they were in their day’.

At the same time we have seen the rise of so-called ‘citizen journalism’.

It seems anyone can be a journalist these days. You don’t need any training, you don’t need any knowledge of the law and you don’t need to be able to assimilate information or even string a sentence together.

Just get yourself access to the internet, a funky pseudonym and an attitude and, hey presto, you’re Clark Kent. Or not.

You see, it’s one thing to write some unsubstantiated nonsense on a website read by three men and a dog and another thing entirely to have you work printed in a format which is properly scrutinised daily by hundreds of thousands of people.

Very few people record radio station news bulletins or can be bothered to listen again or watch TV news programmes on the internet.

However, there are plenty who will march into The Sentinel’s reception waving a copy of yesterday’s paper and crying foul if we make a mistake.

Working for a newspaper is harder than working as a broadcast journalist and please don’t let anyone ever tell you different.

As one of the few people left at The Sentinel who has ever had the dubious privilege of making a phone call and saying the immortal words: ‘Stop the press’, I’d just like to say: Don’t write us off just yet.

The Sentinel still sells almost 50,000 copies every day – making it the sixth biggest-selling regional newspaper in the country.

In addition, our website is visited by more than 400,000 unique users each month. See, we can do new-fangled too.

Here at Etruria we employ nearly 50 full-time journalists and still see it as vital to cover council meetings and court hearings and inquests every day – something no other media organisation locally has the staff to do on anything other than an occasional basis.

How many times does a regional television camera crew visit the ST postcode area each month? How often do you hear local radio stations following our lead on stories?

What’s more, The Sentinel still understands the importance of championing the communities it serves – as do its journalists, many of whom are local to the area.

Think about the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards; The Sentinel’s Business Awards; the Class Act campaign for local schools; the Young Journalist Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition.

Whether it’s through the Our Heroes community awards, the Save Our Staffords campaign or by breaking the stories such as the ones which led to the removal of the discredited board of directors at Port Vale – this newspaper provides what I honestly believe is an invaluable service.

The Sentinel had been doing its job for 118 years when yours truly was born and I’m confident it will still be delivering journalism to local people long after I’ve gone.

We walk with the ghosts of colleagues long since passed here at The Sentinel and let me tell you we carry the burden of the weight of history proudly.

So the next time someone tells you the local rag is finished, just give a wry smile and tell them you’ll only believe it when you read it in The Sentinel.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel