Scottie Press, Britain’s longest running community newspaper, celebrates its 50th anniversary in February. Stuart Miles O’Hara speaks to current editor Joel Hansen about the publication’s legacy, activism and the need to continue providing North Liverpool with an independent voice.
Even with its strong regional identity, zoom in anywhere on Merseyside and the sense of community is often as strong as it is complex; a conurbation teeming with umpteen close-knit neighbourhoods. Meet someone else from the North West on holiday, the answer to the inevitable question, “Go on then, where are you from?” usually means to the nearest arterial road (but, before we begin, let’s agree to leave all talk of wools and the qualifier “originally from” at the door).
The SCOTTIE PRESS is the longest-running community newspaper in Britain, and there are few publications that can lay down their roots with such a precise regional identity. This February it’s celebrating its 50th anniversary with its 447th edition to follow, Covid-19 permitting. That’s quite an achievement in a time when most regional print media has shrunk to one organ and perhaps a couple of free sheets, heavily dependent on advertising.
Its remit tends to be Vauxhall, Kirkdale and Everton, the boroughs along Scotland Road – the north end. But some of the residents of those areas dispersed over the course of the second half of the 20th century, either by choice or rehousing. And so the Scottie Press has readers in Walton, Southport, Kirkby, Skelmersdale and, as comes to be revealed, much further afield than its trusty patch and the artery into Liverpool’s city centre.
Current editor Joel Hansen has spent four years editing and fixing up the newspaper for the heritage-conscious 21st century. Speaking today in late-December ahead of a half-century milestone that offers plenty of cause to look back, the young editor is continuing to put forward the case for why North Liverpool still needs its own newspaper in this day and age.
“It’s to give the area a voice, cover things that maybe aren’t covered by other media, be that local or national,” says Hansen, talking over the phone about the paper’s ambitions and purpose.
“We try to report on positive things, and report on everything without an agenda, give people a decent account of what’s happening. Luckily, we haven’t got advertisers pressing us to push more copies, so we can afford to give a measured account,” he adds. “Often when media is focused on negativity or trying to chase juicy details for clicks, it can seriously affect how the stories come across and how people feel, particularly at local level.”
Nowhere is that truer than in local media, because so often what you’re reading about is your neighbours, your mates, or a brownfield site near the top of your road. What you’re reading feeds into your self-image.
But what about the history of the Scottie Press? It’s hard enough to get something like that off the ground, let alone run it for 50 years as an independent publication.
“It was started in 1971 as part of a government initiative, actually, and at first it was based out of St Sylvester’s school and a place on Silvester Street, and we’re still based in Vauxhall,” Hansen informs. “The first editor was a student from Newcastle called Ian Hering who just came along and had some ideas about how to organise it, so he’s really the guy who got it off the ground. But there was a whole team of people involved, and we did a feature on them at the start of 2020. There’s also a previous editor, a very dedicated guy named Ron Formby, who got ill and fell off the radar a bit, but we’re going do a feature on him in February to recognise his efforts.”
Hansen clearly takes his role as successor to those editors seriously. He talks about the paper in his stead with obvious passion, not just in his words but embodied in how he says them, too.
“When I arrived about four years ago on a six-month programme, it was a job scheme,” he explains. “I expected there to be staff, but it was pretty much just the archive. It was like, ‘Here you go; good luck’. I was writing everything, typesetting, formatting, printing, folding…”
So, what goes in the Scottie Press, what’s its remit?
“Stories about developments in the area and the local economy, but local history, too,” replies Hansen. “The importance of providing a voice in an area where developments might get thrown up which people haven’t been informed about, or that wasn’t communicated – maybe they had consultation but it wasn’t well-publicised, and by the time people know about it, when the thing’s physically there, it’s too late for the residents to have a say.
“That’s especially important in an area with so much [re]development right now,” adds Hansen. “In fact, one of the motivating factors in starting the Scottie Press was the construction of the new [Kingsway] tunnel which physically separated communities in North Liverpool. Not just Scottie Road and Everton, but also separating the likes of Holy Cross from Vauxhall and Kirkdale.”
Hansen’s reply illustrates the campaigning sentiment that has been at the heart of the paper’s ethos since its inception. It’s a purpose that grows from its adopted role in binding once tight-knit communities severed by city centre expansion. It’s these communities’ voices that line pages, but who are those out there offering up the platform? Is it journalists, local people, amateur historians? By the sounds it’s a fairly small operation in terms of crew?
“Yeah, it’s mostly me and the assistant editor Lewis Jennings, with submissions from local people,” Hansen notes. “We’ve done interviews with the local MP [Dan Carden] and features on community projects, grassroots campaigners.”
‘Grassroots’ is a word that keeps coming to mind as you read the Scottie Press. Looking at the excerpts online, there’s so much variety – interviews with spoken word artists, with boxers, with trans activists. But even with a strong sense of heritage, no place remains the same 50 years apart.
The original editions had tags reading ‘non-party-political’ and ‘non-sectarian’ on the front cover of each issue. Clearly, that had more relevance in the 70s, even if you do still get the Orange Lodge marching down Netherfield Road a couple of times a year. They’re reminiscent of former Guardian editor CP Scott’s modern proverb that “comment is free, but facts are sacred”. Are tag lines still there on the cover, are they still relevant to the paper and area?
“No, that left the masthead before I arrived, but the non-party-political thing stays true,” says Hansen. “It’s a lot less divided in recent years, but we do feel, even in a relatively politically unified place like Liverpool, it’s important to stick to those values so we can honestly say we do speak for everyone in the area, as much as possible.”
The paper became a Community Interest Company in 2018 and rebranded in December 2019, as Hansen further explains. When the relaunched edition hit the streets of Liverpool in late 2019, it was fresh with a new logo and colours that hearkened back to old editions of the Press. Stepping further into the future, a website arrived with the new look paper. “We plan to put the archive up in due course,” says Hansen, “because it’s important for a paper to have an online presence these days that complements the print edition. That’s how you reach people, that’s how you keep them informed.”
Among the choice cuts on the Scottie Press website are bits of local history. You might call it investigative genealogy, that trace the life of a single person, perhaps the grandparent or great-grandparent of the author. These are people straight out of The Furys, Kirkdale author James Hanley’s novels set in a fictionalised Liverpool against the real industrial action and combat of the 1910s. People who belong to our concept of Edwardian Britain, yet who often survived into living memory (local author Jeff Young’s psychogeographical memoir Ghost Town is good on this kind of history, and there’s an interview with him on the website, too). Their stories have so many parallels with those of our own time – perhaps not by the exact same drudgery and industrial work, but by their examples of social mobility, immigration and integration, and raising families on a budget. The same difficulties faced by the residents of a (post-)industrial city not always best served by governments with Victorian social attitudes, no matter the era. Hansen is eager to expand the current readership, not for the sales figures as much as trying to be more demographically representative.
“We haven’t printed since [the first Covid-19 lockdown], but we’re bidding for funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund. We normally have a print run of 5,000 – one guy buys loads and sends them around the world to what you might call the Scotland Road diaspora in Canada, Australia, the USA,” explains Hansen. “So we’ve got a dead loyal readership, and we want to reach more readers, perhaps a few more younger people.”
Given the current situation Liverpool finds itself in, and the limitations as a result, Hansen notes how the paper will be holding off until the current lockdown ends to run out the 50th edition given the near logistical impossibility.
The hard copy may have been on hiatus during the pandemic – a familiar story to independent media – but the Scottie Press has continued to produce content nonetheless. A November 2020 interview with Walton MP Dan Carden was a frank articulation of the concerns of Liverpool residents during the government’s ‘Moonshot’ testing project. Since October’s £44m business-focused support package for Liverpool City Region (population 1.5m), government support has been slim and, in the case of food provision for school-age children, severely lacking. At neighbourhood level, it can seem a long way to Westminster. By keeping people in touch with what’s happening, in plain speaking, the Scottie Press continues to do vital work.
In November, Mann Island’s Open Eye Gallery began displaying 70 years of Liverpudlian social history in a series of three exhibitions titled L— A City Through Its People. Alongside Emma Case’s Red and the Laura Robertson-Ian Clegg collaboration Tell It Like It Is, selections from the Scottie Press archive, the same one that lay in heaps before Joel on his first day at the paper, complete the trilogy.
Hansen expands on the curation behind the exhibition which opened in the weeks leading up to Christmas. “That archival material has been put into five categories, under the headings of Work, Politics and Protest, Childhood, Housing and Architecture and Religion,” he says of the work on display, which takes in a mixture of photography, editions of the magazine and assortments of media relating to the paper’s history. The exhibition was originally scheduled to be shown from November to mid-December, but fortunately, due to prolonged lockdowns, it has been extended to March and could potentially be open for the 50th anniversary. “Covid isn’t making it easy,” says Hansen, “but we’re just going to keep pushing forward and do what we can while in lockdown.”
At the time of writing, Liverpool is under lockdown number three along with the rest of the UK. Accordingly, Open Eye have temporarily converted Scottie Press’ contribution into a digital residency, augmenting a walkthrough of the gallery with video content pertaining to the exhibits. Hi-res images of the photographs, maps and Scottie Press front pages of times past are there for nosing over, as are their captions. They form a continuous thread of the more recent years of that ‘investigative genealogy’ mentioned above. The photographs are grainy, faded and garish at once, sometimes poorly lit, but there’s a cast of hundreds, some familiar, all connected in ways that don’t show up on film.
It’s not artistically driven, like a Martin Parr exhibit – it’s more like documentation, proof that ‘we were here’, no matter how changed the landscape may be from the top deck of the 20.
Given the post-war clearances and abortive projects in North Liverpool, the kind that give a strange feeling of the city centre ‘ending’ when you turn right out of Lime Street and cross London Road, the hive of new development in the area (well reported on by the Scottie Press) can perhaps be viewed in the context of restoring what ought to be there. A resumption after hiatus, rather than something entirely new. Without getting parochial about it, the area has faced obstacles to getting on the up that are different to those faced by Smithdown Road and Wavertree. Then again, there’s a conversation to be had about the role gentrification has played in the south end, and how it’s perhaps not the desirable route to prosperity.
The strong sense of belonging (not always manifested as pride) in Liverpool’s urban neighbourhoods doesn’t diminish the wider regional identity, and that identity is not just Scouse. Like those copies of the Scottie Press posted abroad, people take it with them when they move away and adopt it when they move here. Often that wider identity is the strongest defence against marginalisation by politics, journalism and prejudice. Hopefully the pandemic will prove to be another adversity withstood by the people of Everton, Kirkdale and Vauxhall down the years. There are institutions that sustain communities – not just physical buildings like St Anthony’s or the Throstle’s Nest, but more dynamic entities like Greatie Market and the residents themselves. In amplifying their voices, the Scottie Press is surely one of these.
Scottie Press’ 50th anniversary edition is set to be published in the coming months. L— A City Through Its People is currently being shown virtually at Open Eye Gallery.