Why local is so vital

Philippa Stevenson

A tiny corner of the internet is about to wink out. Tamahere Forum, a hyper-local community news website covering Tamahere since 2008, is closing down.

News of Tamahere Forum’s demise may well reflect the quote of wit G.K. Chesterton that “journalism consists largely in saying Lord James is dead to people who never knew Lord James was alive.”

Well, Tamahere Forum lived and possibly its passing contains some lessons.

Tamahere Central

Tamahere Forum was my response to a terrible tragedy that hit my neighbourhood. April 5, 2008. The Icepak coolstore explosion and fire that killed a much loved son, husband and father, Derek Lovell, on my doorstep.

In the laudable response by the Tamahere community that day I learnt that when disaster strikes we all do what we know best. The nearby doctors and nurses saved lives. The farmer neighbours – my family – tore down fences, jumped on tractors to make access tracks for fire trucks and tried to rig up pumps from water tanks for a towering inferno for which there was no local firefighting water.

I, a journalist, took photographs that would play a role in identifying the source and cause of the explosion.

Despite our actions and the trauma we neighbours suffered we were ignored by a Fire Service that trampled our lives and dismissed by a local authority occupied by checking its records for liability for the tragedy.

We locals were on our own. But not helpless. Contacts were tapped for their expertise in gas explosions. We surveyed the fire site, we gathered to discuss what next, we built a contact list.

We were united. We wanted this killer industrial complex gone.

I started a free blog to share what we knew and what others were disseminating. It followed every twist and turn of the Icepak saga – the investigations, a court case, the coroner’s inquiry, responses by engineers and scientists, and the awful fact that given another ignorant rogue and slack company such a disaster could occur again.

Tamahere Forum became a central clearing house for all things Icepak explosion, an event followed globally because it was such a shock and lesson to the gas and cooling industries worldwide. Among other things Icepak’s fatal practices are now an engineering teaching tool of what not to do.

Subsequently, Tamahere Forum morphed into a general news website for the people of the ward of Tamahere in the Waikato district. It was, I like to think, our town square. A place where we could virtually gather to share what was going on in our wee patch.

I am proud that it was named best community website in Australia and New Zealand in 2015.

And while news is about telling people what they didn’t know yesterday it can also be about keeping alive things that happened in the past but still echo today.

I’d like to think that when people drive Wiremu Tamihana Drive in Tamahere that journalism has contributed to some knowing that this famous Ngāti Hauā rangatira – the kingmaker or tumuaki – is the area’s most significant historic figure and that his role and peaceful values continue to this day in the form of his descendent, the 10th tumuaki, Hone Thompson.

But keeping the show on the road mostly solo is wearying. I’m grateful for the support I had, including from the Tamahere Community Committee which helped cover costs, including the expense of extricating the website from a nasty hack.

A fellow journalist started a hyper-local website and, disillusioned, closed it in a year. One year! I ploughed on for 14, ever hopeful – or deluded – that someday I’d become an overnight success. Y’know, go viral. Become, gasp, profitable.

It was not to be. It is a consolation that the biggest media companies in the world struggle with the same challenges of attracting advertisers and reader subscriptions.

It’s a sad reality that since the dawn of the internet thousands of newspapers around the world have closed, tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs and many communities are without local news. There’s “big” news but precious little on the things that affect us in our own backyards.

The advertising that once supported the local rag is now fuelling the parasitic giants such as Meta (Facebook) and Google who profit obscenely from serving up news paid for by media companies.

Lessons from a departing minnow:

Value good, local journalism. It is a community talking to and reflecting itself.

Respect journalists. The ability to dig, delve and deliver a coherent story is a rare skill. Put your money where your eyeballs go. This stuff doesn’t come easily or cheaply.

Social media is not your friend. You are its merchandise. Packaging and selling that merchandise is its exploitive and highly successful business.

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