Uncovering the darker side of regeneration and social housing, the Salford Star has been rocking the boat in Salford since 2006. The only independent, radical and community-orientated news source in Salford, it’s “produced by Salfordians for Salfordians with attitude and love.” It won the 2008 Plain English Campaign and was runner up for the Paul Foot Award for Campaigning Journalism in 2007. Taking its name from the popular radical newspaper the Northern Star, Salford Star has not only been writing stories but jumping in with two feet to help residents fight their battles. Manchester Radical History spoke to founder and editor Stephen Kingston.
Tell us a little about yourself and how the Salford Star started…
SK: Well, I’m not a trained journalist and I didn’t become a journalist till I was 28. For fifteen years I wrote for style and music magazines, in the Evening News, but you don’t get into journalism to interview Coronation Street stars and celebrities. That’s not why I got into it anyway. In the end, although I was getting very well paid to write for the national papers, I couldn’t get the real stories across which is housing, regeneration – things that mattered to people.
So I took a back step and started teaching journalism in the community and I did that for a few years, then I got offered the chance to help on a magazine called ‘Old Trafford News’ which is a community magazine which we revamped. So I did that and it was very successful. People saw the magazine that we were doing in Old Trafford and the community invited us to do one in Salford. But I said to them ‘hold on second, Salford is a city whereas Old Trafford is one square mile’. As Salford is a big city, we’ll need a big magazine to go with it! So Salford Star was born.
What was the initial reaction from locals. Was it positive or did they not really believe it was going to last?
SK: Well before we started, we went to a lot of public meetings and I went to one guy called Guy Griffiths who is notorious in Salford because he’s the only person to have been forcibly evicted from his house. I went to him with the idea for the magazine and I said ‘well, what do you think?’. He says ‘I don’t want anything to do with it. You budget journalists are all the same’ and this and that. But he did say ‘I’ll give you one bit of advice, if it looks anything like the council magazine everyone will put it in the bin.’ So I took that advice and ran with it.
The response to the first issue was phenomenal, I’ve never seen anything like it. What we first did was to take a copy to the town hall to Council Leader John Merry and within ten minutes he was on the phone screaming blue murder so we knew we’d got something right! The second call was from a women whose mother had a house about to be knocked down and needed some help. I mean the calls, the email that we got, I’ve not seen anything like it. Reactions were phenomenal and they are continuing to be. The only problem is that we only had the funds to print 15,000 copies but Salford has a population of around 300,000 people so there are people who have never heard of it. Out in Worsley, Walkden and Swinton they are not aware of it. What we do know is that each copy is read by about 100 people as it gets passed round.
With Salford Star now only being online it’s more complicated. We do get a lot of readers but we know that two thirds of those living in Salford don’t have the Internet so we’ve excluded a lot of people before we’ve even started. The advantage is that it is more accessible to those outside of Salford and we know that we get readers from all over like London and even Devon. The stories are getting out of Salford and that’s good – apart from when journalists nick my stories and then call them exclusives which I don’t like!
What have been some of the biggest campaigns that Salford Star has been involved in?
SK: There’s a lot. One of the first that we did was to take a group of normal kids from Salford to the Lowry Centre in their street gear. They said ‘no, we’ll be kicked out’ and we thought ‘get lost’. So we took them down there with hidden cameras and lo and behold two minutes later they were kicked out. It was shocking but what happened after that was that the Lowry realised that they weren’t reaching the local community and their policy changed, not a 100% percent but now they are aware. There were groups that wanted to use the space in the Lowry but they were charging eight thousands pounds. But after that people were getting in just by waving the Salford Star and saying ‘hey, come on’! They were giving it to them for nothing so that was a real benefit that we got.
In Langworthy, just opposite the Urban Splash development, people were being offered £52,000 for the houses whereas the ones on the other side of the street were going for £90,000. So we interviewed the leader of the council, John Merry, and we told him what was going on and he said that if it was true it would be illegal. And lo and behold they all got £90,000 so that was another result. Another one was keeping the Salford Film Festival going and also getting the Tree of Knowledge in Salford listed when it was due to be demolished. We don’t just write the stories like the Evening News or an Advertiser journalist, we jump in with two feet and give people in Salford the information to fight these battles.
Housing and regeneration have been huge problem areas in Salford, could you talk us through some of the major issues the Salford Star has been looking at?
SK: If you open your eyes and you walk round so-called ‘Langworthy Village,’ there are shutters on the newsagents. Another newsagents up the road shut down a few year ago- they couldn’t even sustain a corner shop. I mean when you consider that £88 million of private and public money (that was the last time we looked, it’s probably more now) has gone into this immediate area..Where’s it gone? There’s nothing here. A report has just come out from the Manchester Independent Economic Review and it say that nothing’s changed, so where has that money gone?
If you look at where the regeneration money is going, a hell of a lot of it – I’m not saying all of it by any stretch – is going into sweeteners for developers to keep their profits high and salaries for the regenerators who don’t even live here. I interviewed the chief executive for the URC which is the regeneration company responsible for Salford regeneration and I asked him how many in his office actually lived in Salford. There wasn’t one. They don’t have a stake in the plan, but we do and so do our readers and writers.
You have been quite dubious about the council magazine ‘LIFE in Salford’. Why is that?
It’s called accountability! At the end of the day, if you go through the Evening News and any other newspaper – I used to do that when I taught community journalism – and I can tell you that’s a press release, that’s another press release. It’s all press release journalism. The council or whoever will put out a press release and then people just cut and paste it and stick their name at the top, whereas I question it. Which is what you’re supposed to do as a journalist.
We’ve lost that community journalism. I mean there is virtually nothing in the country. There are things on-line and in print but a lot of things called community magazines are just shams. They just push the council line, or the housing association line because it brings advertising. I could water that [Salford Star] down tomorrow and say ‘isn’t it wonderful what Salix Homes are doing’, ‘isn’t Urban Splash great’ and they’d all advertise with us. They’ve millions of pounds in budgets and I could be a millionaire by now!
Talking of money and advertising, how do you fund the Salford Star?
SK: What happens is that the real community places in Salford like the Langworthy Cornerstone, The Angel and small community organisations that have a bit of money will advertise in it. Small businesses that can see the magazine flying out – I mean we get a thousand copies just on this road here in Langworthy- they know that the community is looking at it and they want to be a part of it. So we do get a bit of advertising but those organisations don’t have huge budgets and they can’t afford to take pages and pages out. But through those and donations we try to get half the printing costs covered and we think that we should get public funding for the other half to keep us going.
What’s in store for Salford Star and the future?
SK: Well, we want to get a printed issue before the next election but whether we’ll be able to do that I don’t know. We’re hoping to do that through donations but I guess we’ll see. My problem is that I don’t get paid to do any of this and it takes up so much time – my wife’s had enough! We keep putting in applications to all sorts of trust funds and grants but they get ripped up every time because people perceive us as being too controversial. Yet, I don’t see what’s controversial about asking where our money is going and we’re always professional, non-political and balanced.
We have no agenda whatsoever. What we do is also different to normal journalism, where they’d go to an area, dip their toe in, get the best story and then get out again. They’re not interested in the people. Well, we live in this community and we’re still talking to those people so it’s different. We’re not playing at this, we’re for real because at the end of the day it’s our community.