Is the Citizen‘s work done?

By - Thursday 16th November, 2017

On the occasion of its fifth birthday, in a different Croydon to the one in which it started, the Citizen‘s Editor-in-Chief asks what role the publication still has to play

This is a month where we might permit ourselves a little self-satisfaction. 16th November 2017 will mark exactly five years since the Citizen officially launched in the back room of Matthews Yard to an audience of encouraging community activists and interested people eager for their town to change for the better. Thousands of articles and thirty-six print editions later, we are still here. For Croydon community projects and small magazines of any kind, that’s quite an achievement. As the Citizen’s founder and editor, it’s one that I am unreservedly proud of.

But from the beginning the Citizen was never just a hobby, portfolio piece or a proof-of-concept. The project itself never actually mattered. The only thing that did matter was what it could do for Croydon: the conversations that it could start, the people whom it could inspire, the hidden threats that it could expose, and the solutions that it could put forward. So these opening paragraphs (and a small glass of champagne at our birthday party) will be the only time that I permit for myself to revel in this achievement. I will move instead to what really matters – a simple, tough question: is there still a reason for us to be here?

In the beginning the urgency of need to do something was palpable. In 2012, the town was only just getting back on its feet after riots which had shaken it to its core. The riots had promoted Croydon around the world as an epicentre of fire and violence, and exposed fear, anger and an underlying disregard for home that had been bubbling under the surface among many residents. In response, a groundswell of people seemed to finally say “enough is enough” and get together to change the things that had led us to this. It is no accident that Matthews Yard, Croydon Tech City, Croydon Radio, and the Citizen itself, to name only a few such projects, all date from this same time.

The Citizen was conceived as a true community publication with a serious attitude to pluralism and a motive for social change

In every case, the focus was to change Croydon. But in every conversation in those days the same theme kept coming up. There was a need to change the narrative about Croydon too. The town had always had a laundry list of things to recommend it (community, history, affordability, transport, and green spaces, to trot out the regularly-quoted set) but that neither halted its steady decline nor warded off some of its own residents from wanting to burn it to the ground. Action to change things was not enough. It was clear that we needed to change people’s perceptions too, by highlighting the good and making people believe that a better Croydon was possible. Only then could successful recruitment of people to actually improve it follow.

At that time, I – like many others – had already been doing a lot of thinking of about the future of media. The rapid rise of blogging as a serious competitor to conventional media was well underway. In some cases it was already supplanting regular news outlets. But it was clear that it was only a rival, not a better mode of doing things. While the blogs generally won on detailed treatment of issues or hyperlocal focus, they often lost on a laughably toxic bias and a lack of editorial quality. The Croydon media scene was a perfect microcosm of this, dominated as it was by two gradually declining newspapers and some chippy political blogs with axes that were practically ground down to their handles.

In this world, the Citizen’s potential place was self-evident: a union of differently aligned bloggers, a strong editorial team at the core, and a relentlessly positive, but realistic, take on the town. It would be a true community publication with a serious attitude to pluralism and a motive for social change rather than for making money. After six months of preparation, gradually assembling the people, the site, the systems that we’d need to run it (which took time, given that the team members all had full time jobs), it launched.

Being told that we were “taking Croydon seriously” was my proudest moment

From the beginning, the response was thrilling. People from across the borough were signing up to write at a phenomenal rate and turning out articles across all subjects: politics, sport, heritage, economics, technology, and many more. They joined in our early campaigns for Matthews Yard or the local studies library, both of which were successful. They shared us all over social media. When, less than fourteen months after that launch, we went into print, they bankrolled our first two editions with their hard-earned cash without hesitation.

Things in Croydon felt like they were changing for the better. The community projects flourished. Matthews Yard went from strength to strength. Galleries opened and art started springing art up round Croydon. Westfield looked tantalisingly close, Ruskin Square was being developed, and Croydon’s crime rates stabilised. We had so many festivals, tours and events; we even had an urban saffron farm!

We relentlessly promoted these initiatives and explored the town’s many problems seriously and in depth. We started being told – and this is the compliment that I am proudest of – that we were “taking Croydon seriously”, and made people have confidence in the town again. We could see that we had become the background music to an amazing display of community spirit and change: never the star of the show (and a good thing too), but always there underscoring the action, quietly driving the story. And to our massive surprise, even people outside of Croydon (many reading our site) had started to credit the borough as the next big thing.

Croydon’s changes have stalled

By early 2016, it was tempting to start believing that some of the Citizen‘s goals had been accomplished. I remember very well that “it feels like it’s done now” was a thought that crossed a lot of people’s minds at the time, and I confess that I was sometimes among them. It started to seem like the good times were just going to roll forward and Croydon would take its place as a desirable place to live, filled with self-confidence. The news that Boxpark was on its way became a sort of signal that the battle was done.

It didn’t happen. 

In the last eighteen months, the changes have stalled. Many of Croydon’s mega building projects have been cancelled, delayed, or scaled back. Boxpark’s launch has not come without other problems, and several of those wonderful early initiatives, like Croydon Radio, are no longer with us. Looming largest behind all of this, Westfield has been delayed again. The great interest in my April 2017 article on the subject suggests many share my fear that it might never happen.

But even more importantly, it had been a pig-headed thought from the beginning.

Much of what is celebrated in the Citizen won’t solve the local housing crisis or replace the services that Croydon Council gradually cuts to balance the books

The fate of those changes were only ever about some people’s Croydons. With the time for reflection that this birthday brings, I have thought more and more about the wider town for whom much of this is important. The Westfield, for example, would be strategically valuable to Croydon. It would create (mostly lower paid) jobs and it would make the shops better. But it probably won’t fix Croydon’s knife crime problem, once again on the rise after years of abatement. It won’t solve the local housing crisis or replace the services that Croydon Council gradually cuts to balance the books. The people affected by these things most will be benefited only in broad, indirect and long-term ways by the amazing initiatives that I listed above. Indeed, some of those initiatives could coexist easily with a world that actually gets worse for them. Perhaps toughest of all for me, I have to accept that many of these people are not yet our readers, either. The cold hard numbers are against it: by sober, realistic estimates we probably consistently reach about 35,000-40,000 real people per month. That’s impressive, but it’s still just about 10% of Croydon’s population.

Is our work done? I think that you know the answer.

As long as there are still many more tough issues to interrogate and people to inspire to action, the Citizen’s work is far from done. If anything, the challenge is more substantial now. and it’s why, ultimately, we launched our supporter programme earlier this year: to reach more people, to tackle bigger, tougher stories, to do our community proud. To find out more, and become a supporter, please click here.

Against an uncertain future and the continuing retreat of old-fashioned local news, the Citizen has a larger role to play in Croydon society than ever.

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James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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