South of the River – Reporting Leeds

I went to a talk at the central library last week. David Thornton, a local historian, was talking about the history of newspapers in Leeds. It’s an interesting topic and Leeds has an important place in the story of British newspapers.

It all starts back in 1718 with the launch of the weekly Leeds Mercury, which would publish in different forms until 1939. It’s most interesting period was the first half of the nineteenth century when it took a radical line. The editor spoke at a meeting of 20,000 people on Hunslet Moor in 1817 campaigning for the extension of the vote. Radical and brave, he said he wanted the vote extended to people like him, but not the ordinary folk like those in the crowd!

At this time you had a choice of paper according to your politics, so in the other corner was the pro-Tory Leeds Intelligencer. The Intelligencer is still with us – in 1866 it went daily and changed its name to the Yorkshire Post.

The Leeds Mercury was innovatory, introducing the editorial where it discussed the complex political issues of the day in simple layman’s terms. It had a circulation of 10,000 with every paper being read (or listened to being read aloud) by ten people.

By the 1830s it had lost its edge, to be replaced as the radical’s paper by the Leeds Times. Following the 1841 general election, at a time when people still had to cast their vote in public, the Leeds Times printed the names of all the shopkeepers on Briggate that had voted Tory and called for a boycott of their shops!

The 1840s was the time of the great Chartist movement calling for votes for working people (and the secret ballot) and threatening the established order. Its paper was the Leeds-based Northern Star which had a circulation of 50,000 across the north of England, again you can multiply that by 10-20 in terms of direct influence.

In 1890 the Yorkshire Post launched its sister paper the daily Yorkshire Evening Post which is still with us. It learned early on that this was the profitable part of the business and was supporting the “Times of the North” morning daily. As newspapers decline and Johnston Press who own the YEP wind down operations, I wonder how long it will be before the YEP goes weekly. That would take us back to the weekly Leeds Mercury of 1718, copying articles from national papers ….

OK, history lesson over, let’s reflect on what any of this has to do with South Leeds Life.

Well, we set up this blog with three aims: to inform people about what’s happening in South Leeds; to encourage people to get involved in their community; and to provide a platform for people to voice their opinions. We set up the blog because we felt these aims weren’t being met by the existing press.

Papers and blogs come and go because they gain or lose readers and the advertising income that can be generated because of the readers. The YEP is in decline in print, we are on the up, but not in a position to take over just yet. My hope is that Leeds will be covered by a patchwork of sites like ours. Holt Park Today is already there and Pudsey Life is launching and I understand that the people behind a new  Pool In Wharfedale blog were inspired by South Leeds Life.

We don’t plan to be a radical platform, but I hope we won’t shy away from shining a light into any dark corners that need illuminating. That’s all for this week. Tune in next Friday for more views from South of the River with Jeremy Morton.