Guest post: The Northern Correspondent

by Steve Watson in December 2014
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Be careful what you wish for. At the launch event for our second issue of The Northern Correspondent I promised readers and attendees the opportunity to take part in a good, lively conversation. But the conversation they’ll remember most from the event wasn’t the one we’d envisaged.

When we launched the magazine earlier this year, we wanted to create a platform for longer-form, more reflective journalism and storytelling about the north east of England. We felt there was a gap to be filled between the busy morning and evening newspapers and the glossy, advertising-driven magazines.

We want our magazine to be a conversation-starter about the important challenges and opportunities in our region. And so it seems logical to host an event each time we publish an issue, a chance to gather together some of the people we’ve interviewed during the making of the magazine alongside others with informed views and opinions to share their ideas. We call these events The Northern Conversation and our aim is to attract the kind of breadth and diversity that not only makes for interesting and engaging conversations, but also sparks ideas and innovation.

There’s an urban theme to our new issue, so the topic for Friday’s event was how to reinvent our north east towns and cities, to make them even better places to live and work.

Alongside the architects, town planners and council leaders we also had musicians, people who run museums, owners of micro-breweries, comedians, designers, linguists, film-makers, youth workers and engineers.

The first hour of conversation was engaging and constructive as we talked about smart cities, cycle lanes and devolved powers. But the tone of the conversation then darkened abruptly, as half a dozen young protestors marched into the room, unfurling banners and chanting slogans. Their anger was directed at one of our panellists, Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, from whom they demanded answers about the closure of Sure Start centres.

Since I was chairing the event, I needed to make a quick decision on what to do next. Ejecting the protestors wasn’t an option – we hadn’t thought to employ any security. Should we simply shut the event down? That seemed defeatist. Besides, how could we run an open event called The Northern Conversation and then bar someone from joining the conversation? 

So we handed the protestors a mic and let them ask their questions to which the leader of the council responded. When the protestors didn’t like his response, that cycle repeated itself three, maybe four times. The chanting continued. Tempers flared. But eventually the protestors marched off and we resumed our conversation. 

Their anger hadn’t been directed at the magazine, other than to accuse us of being “middle class” and our event of being “swanky” – well, I think that’s the word they used. Our feedback suggests most people enjoyed the event and the new issue. But it bothers me that there are people in our region who see us as part of the establishment and who feel excluded from “our conversation”, whether that’s in the form of an event or in the pages of a magazine.

It’s made me ask questions about what it means to be an “independent magazine”. Is it just about design, about white space and offset paper? Is niche just another word for exclusive – and not in a good way? Is the independent media just as guilty as mainstream media of “agenda-setting”, self-indulgently publishing what we think is important?

I’ve had a weekend to think about it, and not yet come up with any answers. But I have decided to track down those protestors and interview them for the next issue. We may not agree with their tactics or even their politics, but understanding them more may gave us some pointers towards shaping a magazine that can be inclusive as well as independent.

Ian Wylie is editor of The Northern Correspondent

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