By Andrew Brown
A church in Kent is hiring a full-time community journalist as a reaction to the contraction of the local press. The Rev Nathan Ward, a former prison governor, placed an advertisement in the Press Gazette and The Guardian after a survey of 600 parishioners found that they thought contact with the community was the most urgent need the church could supply in the pandemic.
Mr Ward, who is the vicar of St Margaret’s in Rainham, on the north Kent coast, says he had expected that the church would be asked for financial aid or a food bank, but this has not been his experience. There is instead a longing for community.
“People are wanting über local news. They’re not interested in Kent, they’re not even interested in Medway: they want Rainham, and that’s a community of 30,000 people,” he added.
The church’s Facebook page already has about 1,000 followers, but when Mr Ward’s wife started a community page for Rainham, it gained 5,000 members in less than a fortnight.
“Three people have already stopped me in the street to say that they don’t go to church but this is a good thing.”
The local newspaper, the Kent Messenger, has been contracting for years as part of the general shrinkage of local journalism in the face of the internet. Its parent company, Iliffe Media Group, lost £10.9 million in 2018-19, even before the coronavirus hit. Before that, the main newspaper in the area was the Medway News, but its owners, Northcliffe, shut that at the end of 2011.
Mr Ward is evangelical about his enterprise: “I could recruit a part-time priest for the money.” He is offering a salary of £20,000 a year. “But we’re so obsessed by dog collars and it’s absurd. The only way God’s story can be understood is in our own individual stories and vice versa. We need to tell those stories. We need truth. To deny the truth is to deny Christ himself.”
The new journalist does not need to be a Christian, nor does Mr Ward want the newspaper to reflect a churchy angle. Nor will the output be dependent on advertising. The post will be paid from parish funds, with money released by reducing the hours worked by the administrator.
By a coincidence, the St Margaret’s assistant minister, the Rev Jonathan Jennings, worked in the past in the Church of England’s central press operation, both at Church House and Lambeth Palace, though he says he had nothing to do with the genesis of this idea.
“When I was first ordained, the local journalist would come and see the vicar to have tea every Monday. They’d send the cub journalists around as part of their training. But there just aren’t the young cubs these days.”
The experiment at St Margaret’s highlights the paradox of local journalism: considered as businesses, local papers live off their advertising, but only part of their function is as businesses. They are also valued by readers because they allow them to understand and to recognise themselves as a community.
Social media can and will replace the business model of local papers, but they cannot replace their social role, paradoxically because of the very qualities that make them such efficient advertisement delivery machines. Google and Facebook offer advertisers a much more closely targeted audience than newspapers could. Many churches indeed have taken advantage of this — they can, for instance, advertise their services within very tight geographical limits on Facebook so that only people who can easily reach the church get their ads.
But this segmentation of the audience also fragments it. When everyone sees only the stories the algorithms decide that they want to see, there is no common pool of stories and of gossip to bind a community together, and the popularity of community Facebook pages shows there is a great hunger for this.
Adrian Harris, the Church of England’s head of digital, said: “The power of the story for building community is as clear in 2020 as it was in the time of Jesus: the parable of the Good Samaritan is just one example.
“This is a really exciting initiative. As we know through AChurchNearYou.com and social media, the local church plays a vital role in the community both physically as a sacred space and in its outreach work from food banks to supporting the vulnerable. There is a story to be told in every person and project and we look forward to reading them.”
Mr Ward has already had nine applicants for the position but one of the more unusual aspects of the job is that he has not decided where and how they will publish the stories they get.
Some will be on Facebook, he thinks, and some in the parish magazine. Some may be published in other ways: some might be video stories, he says. “A community journalist needs to have some of the functions of the old community bobby: to be the person who knows everything that’s going on.”