Making a Difference: A ‘Camden Voice’?

Conservation, community, news, tech… how can all these things be made into something useful and influential? I argue that a grassroots ‘Camden Voice’ could be the way forward.

One of the defining characteristics of communities in Camden is that they are strong-willed, opinionated, motivated, and creative. While most communities in England would respond to a threat of redevelopment by putting the kettle on, people in Camden spring up, form associations, dig tunnels under trees, write furious letters, and thoroughly abuse their councillors. People in Camden care about their homes, and will do anything and everything to protect them.

But we all find ourselves in a time and place where converting that raw energy into something useful is extraordinarily difficult. Community action is stifled by the local authority, while coverage of that action and the driving forces behind it is entirely lacking.

People who want to make change might join committees and societies, or write in letters to the Camden New Journal. Others write on blogs like this one, while yet more climb up trees and burrow beneath them. But all these traditional ways of making change no longer really work, thanks to the local authority’s supreme ignorance of such matters. It seems to me that Camden Council is like an enormous wet sponge: absorbing all the energy that can be thrown at it, while slowly smothering anyone who doesn’t put up a fight.

We need to find new and innovative ways to make an impact. To squeeze the sponge dry, and break free of its yoke.

In response to my article on The Future of Save Bloomsbury I received a great deal of very interesting opinions and ideas about what it could become, and what is important about it. I encourage anyone reading now to read that article and send in their opinions and ideas, whether they be supportive or critical. Unlike the local authority, I really do have an interest in what readers think.

The overwhelming opinion I received was that the activities of SB are important for Bloomsbury and Camden as a whole. That reporting on the activities of the local authority and their councillors is important for democracy and accountability, and that the strength of a site like this one is in its fine-grain approach to the neighbourhood. People care about what is happening close to them, but stray a mile or two away and it becomes much less interesting.

But others were of the opinion that a local site like this one can only ever have a local impact – if that. The problems that we face in Bloomsbury are only an instance of a wider class of malpractice, all arising from living within the vast shadow of Camden Council. To have a real impact, perhaps the approach of SB needs to be extended to all of Camden: a ‘Save Camden’.

Obviously the two ideas are completely at odds with each other. How can a website stay intensely local yet cover all of Camden?

The definitive source of news for people living here is the Camden New Journal. Perhaps the strength of SB is in its reporting of local matters. But for those who want their opinions to be heard and read, they don’t write in letters or articles to SB, but the CNJ. Is there a future where people prefer to write in to this site or an evolution of it, rather than the Camden New Journal? I very strongly doubt that.

This proves to me that only a Camden-wide publication will ever have a substantial impact and readership. I have been told that about half of Camden’s councillors read the Camden New Journal from cover to cover on the day of publication – ‘especially’ the letters pages.

Why ‘especially’ the letters pages? Perhaps because it is the raw opinions of Camden’s communities that really matter to anyone.

I will admit to reading the Camden New Journal from back to front. I pick up the paper and look at the front page, only to see things of very little relevance or appeal. I go straight to the letters pages, and work backwards. The most interesting and important articles to me are tucked away at the back – that is, if they are published at all.

Something pointed out to me recently is that the Camden New Journal is strictly a newspaper. It doesn’t give space for opinion, it doesn’t do investigations, and it certainly doesn’t do satire. Yet it is exactly these human aspects of ‘news’ that give publications colour and depth. Would you be interested in SB if I just reported on the facts?

It seems odd that for a borough defined by its colourful tides of different opinions and ideas, its local paper doesn’t report on those opinions. In fact, the only place that the opinions of Camden’s communities can be found is in the CNJ’s letters pages. I would say that is exactly why they are so well-read.

Bloomsbury Building Supplies

And the only place that the opinions of Bloomsbury’s communities can be found is on SB – perhaps that is why this blog is so well-read.

In the same way, the Camden New Journal is strictly a newspaper. While it has a website that ranks fairly well in Google, it isn’t well-maintained at all and for a website it is actually surprisingly poor. But the focus of the CNJ editorial team is clearly on the paper itself rather than the site, which doesn’t even see most of its published articles.

Now none of this is a criticism of the Camden New Journal per se. As a newspaper of course it should report on news and put that in a paper, and if it doesn’t like opinion or the web, then so be it. What I am doing is instead arguing there is a significant gap in the market for interesting news reporting in Camden, and one that doesn’t directly compete with the CNJ. Investigations, opinion, satire, and debate. That is after all what defines Camden. So shouldn’t it be given a voice?

Perhaps this is too ambitious. Camden has a population of half-a-million, how could we possibly just set up a news publication covering that area without significant investment? How would journalists be paid? How would advertisement income be secured? How would papers be printed and delivered?

But this is 2021 after all. News doesn’t need to be published on paper, it can be put online. And the costs of publishing online are minute, while ease of access is increased substantially. The most authoritative sources of news in this country are now largely online: neither the BBC nor the Independent even publish a paper.

But who would write for this website, and how would they be paid?

Done correctly, this problem could also be circumvented. The communities of Camden do not get paid for writing letters to the Camden New Journal, yet it is exactly this free resource of opinion that gives the paper its depth and value.

The point is that people generally don’t feel they need to be paid to express their opinion, and in fact many pay significant amounts just to get their voice out there. How many times have you written a letter to the CNJ only to be disappointed not to see it published? The idea of being paid for such things is almost absurd.

And how many feel that they have the literary ability to write stories of equal or greater interest and quality than those commonly found in the CNJ?

Those who have read this site for a while will know I often talk about ‘mobilising’ the ‘motivation’ of Camden’s communities, converting it into something useful and progressive, while also giving a voice to the ideas and opinions of ignored and forgotten communities. That it is the pure motivation of Camden’s communities that is the most precious resource in this land. But despite thinking and writing, I have not been able to think of anything useful, and all we all do is continue to think and write to each other.

But perhaps that is exactly it. There are so many people across Camden and Bloomsbury who want to make change, but without getting up from the couch. They’ll write to me, to councillors, to the CNJ to express their opinions and ideas, but do little more than that. I don’t think this is a problem, but the very thing to be utilised.

And a ‘Camden Voice’ could be exactly the thing to allow this to flourish and prosper. A completely decentralised site for opinion, investigation, and satire, where anyone and everyone can write in their thoughts and opinions without them being cut down, chopped up, and pitted against the ridiculous PR-speak of major corporations and bureaucracies. Not really an extension of Save Bloomsbury, nor a competitor to the CNJ, but a sort of marriage between the best of both.

Of course there would need to be some sort of quality control, and a set of regular contributors to keep the front page fresh. But there are plenty of people across Camden doing this work already: there’s me writing on my island of Bloomsbury, Linus Rees writing on his island of Ftizrovia, and Sebastian Wocker writing on his island of Hampstead. All sorts of people who already write interesting local stories that would need little more than copying and pasting onto a wider Camden site.

The thing is that traditional news reporting is old, and boring. We live in a world – and indeed a borough – with a huge range of strong opinions, mostly entirely incompatible with each other. Yet journalists aim at impartiality by cutting and pasting bits of opinions from different people and trying to weigh each of them against each other in a single article. But anyone who has done any painting will know that mixing a range of bright and interesting colours will result in a black, gooey, bland mess, of no interest or use to anyone.

Perhaps the approach of allowing individuals across Camden to express their opinions unabridged is what would give real interest to news here. To not discriminate upon topic, or locale, but to let people write in about all sorts of things most important to them, and their own area, and to thus see a bigger picture emerging. The strength of SB is in its fine grain approach to reporting, so why not empower all of Camden’s communities to do this fine grain reporting on their own patches. People all across Camden can then read on news and opinion relevant to them, while seeing a wider pattern of experience and ideas across Camden.

This is after all what makes the Camden New Journal’s letters pages interesting, and why many of us pick up the paper at all.

Clarification: such a site would be entirely separate from Save Bloomsbury and SB would continue to write on things in Bloomsbury in the same way.

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