‘It’s really missed’: the death of the Harlow Star newspaper

Jim Waterson Media editor
Harlow used to have three competing local newspapers. The last, the Harlow Star, has now ceased publication. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

A decade ago Harlow had three separate competing print newspapers. Last month the Harlow Star, the last one standing, ceased publication, leaving the Essex town of 80,000 people as one of the largest places in the UK without its own paper.

“It just helped keep us updated on what’s going on in the town, shops shutting, or what the council’s doing,” said Stevie Hicks, 62, a lifelong resident of the town, standing on Harlow’s main shopping precinct on a drizzly afternoon.

“I know people now say it’s all about Facebook but I don’t go on Facebook because I’m old and I just like reading news. I just think the government should do something to keep the local people informed.”

The Harlow Star survived until last month by following a standard pattern for many local papers in mid-sized towns across the UK. It slashed costs, sacked journalists and moved its offices to Chelmsford – a 40-minute drive away. But last month its owner, Reach plc, threw in the towel, blaming the “unsustainable” decline in advertising revenue for its decision to stop printing the weekly newspaper, which was sold in newsagents in addition to being distributed free to many homes in the area.

The company continues to publish a handful of Harlow stories online, although these sit alongside multiple updates on the reality TV star Gemma Collins rather than community news.

“A local newspaper isn’t just about news, it’s a thread that binds a community together,” says the local MP, Robert Halfon, who adds that until recently the Harlow Star had half a dozen reporters and a handful of photographers.

He says thousands of elderly people in the constituency who don’t have the internet have been disenfranchised, with some phoning his constituency office in the hope of finding what is going on in the town.

“Some people in my surgeries can barely afford data, so they look at Facebook for 10 seconds because they can only afford 1GB a month,” said the Conservative politician, who wants ministers to provide grants to support local news outlets.

On the streets of Harlow, residents repeatedly express sadness that they are having to rely on fragments of information distributed by word of mouth or through local Facebook groups to find out what is happening in the town centre.

Many see the symbolism of the paper’s closing as more than simply the loss of updates on the local council’s plans or the birth, deaths and marriages notices. Instead, they draw parallels with the closure of high-street shops and a lack of pride in the town centre. The proprietor of the Choc ’N’ News shop in Harlow’s 1950s shopping square says he still gets 50 people a week asking for a copy of a newspaper that no longer exists.

“It’s really missed. We do miss it,” said Cynthia Jones, 79. She said she backed some form of financial support for the local press: “We’d be happy to pay a small amount to know what’s going on.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. There is talk of a neighbouring newspaper group moving in and launching a Harlow edition of its existing paper. There is also the success of YourHarlow, a local news website run by Michael Casey, a boundlessly enthusiastic man who is the site’s founder, proprietor, advertising salesman, business manager and only reporter.

He founded the site with a £10,000 grant in 2017 and now makes enough money to support his work, even though his lack of a deputy means he had to continue writing stories about Harlow while on holiday with his wife in Australia.

Casey, 57, prides himself on being based in the community, publishing 10 stories a day. But he recognises the limits of a business model that relies on his own energy to publish thousands of articles a year with no prospect of being able to afford extra staff.

“I’m one man and there’s 80,000 people. I can’t do it all. I’ll try my damnedest but I can’t do it all.”

He has broken national stories, including the tragic death of a child on a bouncy castle and the death of a Polish man, with a commitment to covering positive as well as negative news. This weekend, the site was leading on an exclusive about a Harlow taxi firm boss who is in court on charges of turning up at a rival company with a firearm – a story which would have otherwise gone unreported.

His site receives 170,000 page views a month, which is a significant achievement. But it does not compare to the reach of a newspaper dropping through tens of thousands of doors every week. Instead of cursing Facebook, he relies on the social network to distribute his material.

He wants the government to invest in small local news outfits rather than channelling money through large corporate newspaper groups: “I’m a bit like Bob Geldof at Live Aid – give us the fucking money.”