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Farewell, citizens of Croydon

Farewell, citizens of Croydon
Sep 18, 2018 Shaking Hands 0 comments

This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 18/09/2018.

Farewell, citizens of Croydon

It’s been wonderful to know you, but the Citizen‘s time is up. I will always be grateful.

In an alternative reality, this article has the same title, but it’s very different. In that article I tell you that I am stepping down as the Editor-in-Chief of the Croydon Citizen to hand the torch to someone else – someone who will bravely lead the Citizen to its next glorious chapter and to take it to places that I can’t, but will also continue its nascent traditions: giving voice to the town’s citizens, analysing its problems and always finding something positive to say. There’s the obligatory review of what we did, the wary-but-optimistic look to the future. And while I talk about the wrench of it, it is clear that I am riding off optimistically into the sunset to the next chapter of my own life while the Citizen goes onto bigger and better things.

But that is not our world. Instead I am not just writing the editorial that I have avoided by my own procrastination (that’s all of them and it never gets easier – this one has been the worst). I am writing the one editorial that I never, ever in a million years wanted to write at all: the Citizen is done. Less than three weeks after this articles goes to press, all publishing activity (online and off-) will cease and it will move from being part of Croydon’s media present to its media history.

How did we get here? Love and money

Something that you should know is that the Citizen has always run on two fuels: love and money. And like any volunteer-driven project, the ratio of love to money is very high. For several of us, love is the only fuel that we put in: I have never been paid by the project, never will, and never expected to be. What our great gardener of content, Liz, does every day is also done out of pure love – as is the work of our managing editor Rob. Love is also the main reason why 200+ writers toil into the evening, on the train to work, and find tiny slices of time just to share some thoughts about Croydon with the world in the hope that they might be just making the town a tiny bit better by doing so.

Where money is involved at the Citizen, it is because it’s strictly necessary. When we ask people to do things instead of doing a job, well, we couldn’t ask for anything else. But we have never been able to pay anything that resembled mega-bucks. So even the paid people who have worked to make this a success are also running on love as well as money.

The problem is that love, unlike money, is not a commodity. It must be be freely given from an individual to another person or project. If you’re not lucky enough to happen on someone new to give that love, money is your only option. That’s why really successful and enduring private businesses are never really about love at all, whatever corporate propaganda would have you believe. The only successful businesses that outlive their founders’ involvement are those that primarily run on money, because it is the only thing that can be relied upon indefinitely. There is always someone who needs the money; not always someone who will do it out of love.

The Citizen is simply too short of love and money to survive

The Citizen is simply too short of both love and money to survive now. After working away to make it a success every week for five years of our lives, several of us old guard decided that the time was right to move on. I can’t speak for everyone, but I had long since been personally ready to leave to pursue other ventures. But the Citizen was so desperately important to us, none of us was prepared to see it go merely because our passions had waned. Moved by our belief in its importance and a sense of duty to Croydon, we wanted to build something sustainable. So we spent eighteen months trying to put measures in place that meant we could secure enough money into the engine’s mix that the love walking out the door wouldn’t matter.

But, as with so much of media, there isn’t enough money for it to make up the difference. We have never been able to consistently plug that gap with advertising revenue. Our supporter programme has been hugely successful in allowing our readers, our fans and our followers to turn their amazing, humbling love for the Citizen into money. But it falls short of the major objective that I set for it when it started in early 2017: generating enough money to pay people who are not as committed as us to run it.

It is a wrench, a sadness and a profound feeling of personal failure that this is so. I really believed that we could be different. We knew going into this no one was going to get rich. But we too have fallen to the pressures of a collapsing local media industry in general. There are no meaningful digital advertising revenues to be had, and print revenue is so expensive to win that it is simply not possible to run a publication like the Citizen on the revenues that can be generated from one local paper alone.

Is it all doom and gloom?

When I set out to write this I decided that I wasn’t going to sugar the pill. I wasn’t going to hide how I felt about the end of a cherished dream and the real obstacles that we have faced. But there is genuinely much to be positive about.

Since going into print we have produced nearly five years of print editions and published thousands of articles in the most hostile media environment of all time. In the same time span, plenty of national media projects – run by well-founded professionals – were born, bombed, fizzled and died multiple times over. We maintained our quality and commitment to ideals, and increased both circulation and paper length. Meanwhile, all around us, every other local newspaper continued to wither into understaffed, increasingly clickbait-driven sites, dependent on meagre digital ad revenues to keep what is left of their original mission going.

We did all of this with almost zero experience and only limited funding. There was only one truly substantial asset that we had all along: the incredible community of writers, editors, supporting organisations, individual supporters and readers like you who believed in us. Without you, it would quite literally not have been possible. I will always be grateful to all of you for making that dream come true.

Looking at our balance sheet, the cool startup people would say that we didn’t fail fast enough. Perhaps we should have realised that a sustainable future was not on the cards for us without a significant expansion. But, as I write this, leafing through all of my old personal copies of the Citizen‘s printed edition, it’s difficult to see what we did as any kind of failure. All of those stories would otherwise never have been told, their voices never heard: all of the action that was motivated from these pages would not have been taken. My heavy heart is lifted.

A town changed

Croydon has changed a lot since we started and most of that change is for the better. The Citizenbegan in that first year immediately following the riots when the town seemed to be at an absolute nadir: massive cuts to culture spending, an almost total lack of new construction, and the dubious honour of having been the focus of the BBC’s rolling coverage of the public disorder, thanks to the spectacular and horrifying display of Reeve’s Corner on fire. Even before the fire, Croydon was thought of as boring, dangerous and ugly, a perception which had been growing gradually every year for the previous decade or more.

We all know the story of what happened next; it is the abiding origin mythos of the ‘new Croydon’ (which is not to question its truth, only to speak to its emotional appeal). This is how it goes: the people, tired of the decline which culminated in a riot, got together to build a new future. A whole raft of community organisations and initiatives were born: Croydon Tech City, Matthews Yard, and Croydon Radio, to name just the oft-quoted headliners, rose like the phoenix from the ashes, inspiring others to do likewise.

Today the town is plastered with art. The high street is a beacon of ‘hipster’ culture with an incubator, a vegan restaurant, a board game café and even a VR arcade. Boxpark, for all of its occasional faults, has brought a tremendous increase in culinary choice to the previously sad site of the former Warehouse Theatre. New buildings have shot up everywhere, even against the backdrop of a sluggish national economy, and Croydon’s house prices indicate that it is desirable again. Some of these things have also brought their own problems with affordability. But, as I will say again for the last time in these pages, the whole country’s housing system is broken and such problems will only be fixed by a massive national change in policy. It would do Croydon no good to be an almost as expensive cultural desert, which is what it would be without these things. It is a better town than it was.

I am proud to say that the Citizen was an integral part of those changes. We were there, critiquing, cheerleading, highlighting and motivating this great groundswell. Even our greatest critics would have to at least grant us that we were a magnificent hype machine for the Croydon community and what it could do. But for the same reasons that I am proud of all of this – of being there in that moment – I am also a little fearful for our future.

The wary-but-optimistic look to the future

Within six years Croydon has already burned up much of the volunteer energy that was a critical part of making all of this possible. It started with the demise of the ‘tweet-ups’ that, at the time, felt like a who’s who of everyone who wanted to change Croydon. But in the last few years it has consumed more and more of the whole roll-call of organisations that once defined the period. Finally, the Citizen joins the list of deceased or threatened organisations that were once the town’s bright future: Croydon Tech City, Croydon Radio and, of course, Matthews Yard. And that is a problem because of how these projects worked.

All of these projects, built on love by people who never, ever make any money out of them, were founded to make the town better. In doing so, they had a very real practical effect: creating a platform and a halo effect for bigger interests. The evidence is clear: without the constant lobbying and PR machine of Croydon Tech City, there’d likely be no technology ‘incubators’ like Sussex Innovation or TMRW, which now support many promising, well-funded firms. Without Matthews Yard proving that a cool café-bar-gallery-artsy place with good coffee was a risk worth taking in Croydon, there might be no high street as we know it today; the fact that it was the only such place back then was almost a joke in itself. And without the synergistic effect of Croydon Radio or, dare I say, us, fewer people would have heard about any of it. Where will Croydon be without these pioneers?

All of them are now gone or under threat for slighlty different reasons. But common to all – from what I have seen and heard – is that no adequate support system existed to save them from their troubles. No meaningful support – which means money and resources by the way, not kind words – was offered to them by the local authority or the town’s largest businesses. Whether this came from short-sightedness, institutional inertia, or something else, I don’t know. I can tell you myself though that it was not for the want of trying to secure such support from these quarters.

Perhaps in this cycle of renewal, volunteer organisations recede while private businesses move in

Maybe I am – amazingly – already an old-timer who simply doesn’t see all the projects already taking the place of that generation. Maybe I just have a bad case of early-onset obligatory nostalgia: that I yearn for a time passed as if it were better, when its passing was normal, natural and right. Perhaps in this cycle of renewal the ramshackle volunteer organisations naturally recede while better-funded private businesses move in to take their place. After all, that’s been my lesson, hasn’t it? How the really sustainable organisations survive on money, not love.

But I am still a little sceptical of this idea. The town could easily face another downturn in its fortunes in the not-so-distant future and we would be be foolish to look solely to private business to save us. We have the colossal uncertainty of Brexit still ahead of us, we are back to rising living costs and rising crime rates, including the return of the scourge of knife crime which haunted Croydon in the ’00s.

If a downtown does happen, we can expect the people who were only around for profit to leave. We can’t expect private concerns to be like the organisations that supported this magazine so generously. After all, if your first duty is to yourself or your shareholders, the fate of a town cannot take priority. A cycle of decline perpetuated by this self-interest is what got us to the situation of 2011 in the first place. As big firms began leaving Croydon in the ’90s an economic depression settled on the town. That in turn meant that many of the businesses that had once provided goods and services to their employees followed suit, further dragging down the town’s appeal to new employers.

It’s the oldest economic pattern in the book and yet Croydon Council still has nearly all of its hopes pinned on the biggest self-interest of them all: that ‘New Jerusalem’ that is the great Westfield/Hammerson redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre. And yet, like the ends of days themselves, any actual construction work beginning on that project is always just receding out of reach.

Advertising is no longer able to fund journalism; Facebook has won the battle for eyeballs

Indeed, as far as newspapers themselves go, it’s not clear that even if times remain relatively good the profit motive will be enough for them to survive. For-profit media organisations are declining everywhere; not just our local press. As the former Guardian Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger, has recently suggested, the happy accident of advertising being able to fund journalism for so long may itself now be over. Now that the journalism-free likes of Google and Facebook have clearly won the battle for eyeballs we may need to look to public-funding models just to ensure that there is adequate, trustworthy local journalism in areas like Croydon. It is with great sadness that I shall never see the day when the Citizen is the organisation to take that wider mission on, as we had planned.

Unlike most private concerns though, volunteers do not leave when the money dries up. First hand, here at the Citizen, I have seen what defines them. They fight on unreasonably, in spite of their own interests, because no one else is prepared to. While others hang back for fear of ’backing the wrong horse’, they are prepared to stand up and be counted. They back a place like Croydon not so much for what it is, but what it will become. In the most British possible of ways, it was they who screamed “CROYDON’S NOT THAT BAD ACTUALLY AND IT COULD BE GREAT” from the rooftops and, in doing so, made it great even while private businesses were still pulling their money out. It was their positivity and their determination to make small projects work that proved the market, giving way to bigger investments from the more self-interested again.

If another big downturn in the town’s fortunes comes, it is they who will break that cycle once again. We will need our volunteers, community activists and unrepentant town evangelists, because it is they who will get us back on track. But if these deranged but wonderful souls are allowed to ebb away, to see their energies drained away, who will pick up the pieces again?

This is where, perhaps, even after all of this – even writing the most difficult article that I have ever written – I am provably an optimist.

People will shout from the rooftops about the town’s potential

Because even though I foresee that Croydon will continue to squander the people that it has, that when a fresh crisis comes we will be horribly unprepared by our own complacency, and that we will have to waste so much time re-booting all of this energy, I know one important thing: this future Croydon will be filled with people as mad as us. Those people will shout from the rooftops about the town’s potential even while others complain that it’s not been cool/nice/welcoming since the 2010s. Those people will go against the odds and all good common sense to launch their own bar/arts centre/magazine/augmented-reality webTV station/whatever in a town that’s unloved once again, precisely because it is unloved.

And there to support them will be people just like you, dear reader: people to actually make their mad ideas for a better town happen. Who knows, in some years hence, you will be one of those mad people.

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