Alistair Coleman author of Angry People in Local Newspapers Q&A: People get furious about tiny little things in their life and it’s brilliant
PUBLISHED: 16:28 14 December 2018 | UPDATED: 12:04 17 December 2018
Alistair Coleman, author of the hit book Angry People in Local Newspapers, has been speaking with Layth Yousif about the cult publication about to reach the bestsellers lists...
Layth: I’m with Alistair Coleman, author of ‘Angry People in Local Newspapers’ - the book which came from the Facebook page and blog of the same name. It’s become such a cult thing, everyone I know in local journalism absolutely loves your site. Tell us how the book came about?
Alistair: Yeah I’ve been doing the blog now for ten years and a few years ago I thought I’d switch it over to a Facebook page and that’s when it went absolutely mad. We’ve got a quarter of a million followers on there and loads of people send stories, absolutely loads send us stories of people. It’s a very specific thing, if you’re angry at something like dog poo on your street or your bus has been axed, you go out to your local press and they send a photographer and you point at the thing that’s made you angry and it’s those photos are what we want. People get furious about tiny little things in their life and it’s brilliant. So many people do it.
Layth: You’re part of the BBC and you’ve been a fixture there for many years. Were you in local journalism to start with?
Alistair: I never was. I was a technician to start with and my technician role sort of slid slightly into writing about technology and then the technician role disappeared so I just became a journalist and one thing led to another and I’m now a North Korea analyst and a Fake News analyst. So it’s a very weird career path I’ve taken.
Layth: You must enjoy it – and in terms of North Korea it offers rich material...
Alistair: I was actually given a choice of the Middle East or North Korea and I thought North Korea would be nice and easy, it turned that it’s not. I mean there’s very little media but it’s all mad stuff and I’ve been spending thirty years at the BBC now. I’m in my mid fifties and I spent my entire career watching media from foreign nations who haven’t got the best human rights record and have completely mad leadership and North Korea is one of them. I’m probably on the list for Pyongyang now...
Layth: So there’s no plan for a book on North Korea at the moment?
Alistair- I’m trying with the idea but you know that is a lot of work. I’ll have to talk to a lot of people about it but it’s a possibility. What were thinking of doing is doing one of weird news in local newspapers which there is also a very thick scene of stories for that.
Layth: I’ve done a lot of court reporting in my time and there is a rich seam in that too. But just to go back to the book – how did it come about? Did the publisher come to you and said ‘Well we love your blog, we love your Facebook page, why not write a book…?’
Alistair: Exactly that. I mean I do feel guilty because I have a very good friend who’s spent about ten years trying to get established as a writer and she’s just got books coming out next year. I feel guilty that she’s struggled so long to get a proper book deal and I just had one given to me.
Layth: What do your friends and family think of the book?
Alistair: It’s taken a while. I’ve done some self-published efforts that aren’t very good but I’ve had people come out the woodwork congratulating me. I’m really pleased the way it’s turned out. The publishers gave me until last March to write it and then we’ve been doing re-writes for six months - and then a funny news story comes out and they go ‘You’ve got to get this in!’
Layth: You’re an absolute cult hero to a lot of people…
Alistair: Yeah, yeah, yeah your newspapers have been a great help, you’re Archant aren’t you?
Layth: Yes. We’ve got a large number of newspapers in North London, East London, Essex and North Herts...
Alistair: Your people at Archant have been absolutely brilliant.
Layth: That’s good to hear...
Alistair: You had a chap called Reg whose now left the company he was brilliant at digging out photos for me. I’ve had editors who’ve been really good at giving us copyright commissions for the text because that was the hardest part. Some newspaper groups have been good, some have been terrible. I’m not going to name names but their not in the book.
Layth: More fool other newspaper companies then, that’s all I’ll say…
Alistair: There are some papers that I think twice about putting onto the blog because they don’t deserve it - because they don’t see the benefit of online stuff.
Layth: Having kicked around local journalism I can only imagine which ones they are – I think we’ll leave it there!
Alistair: [Smiles ruefully]. Yes, we’ll leave it there!
Layth: As an author myself your book must have been an absolute joy to write because it’s just so quirky isn’t it?
Alistair: Yeah there’s a lot of stuff that I wrote that hasn’t actually made the book. I was on assignment training people in Delhi so I was locked in a hotel room for three weeks just hammering away thinking: ‘Oh this is good, oh this is good’. It was a labour of love as UB40 would say.
Layth: In terms of the wider conversation about local journalism – it does face serious challenges and newspapers big and small are struggling. What’s your take on the industry?
Alistair: Yeah I’ve become very passionate about local journalism. Not just in the UK but they also have challenges elsewhere in the world. I mean we have a lot of Australian stuff in the book and New Zealand stuff and its same thing all over - people don’t like paying for news. Now that one of the major sources of news is the internet, newspapers find it difficult to monetise the news on the internet, so they’re losing money - just because people don’t want to pay for news. However, I’m all for anything that gets people reading their local newspaper again, connecting with their local communities again - and I’ve accidentally started people doing that again.
Layth: You’re the patron saint of local journalism by the sounds of it but what’s been your favourite story in the book?
Alistair: There are several. I mean there’s one from the Comet series - one of yours! [Self-styled Mrs Angry on EU referendum day]. Another favourite from somewhere else was some bloke that was pulled away from a funeral because there was a squirrel that set fire to his garage. The picture that came with it was an image aiming his shot gun up in the air, right squirrel I’m going to come and get you. That was marvellous. It was a marvellous little story because it’s one mans impotent fury but you do really feel sorry for him…
Layth: Love it. Give us a couple more then…
Alistair: Ok so the one that started me off was from the Reading Evening Post about a little old lady living in Reading. She said her next door neighbour used to walk round the garden naked. But her line to the paper was: ‘It’s put me off sausages for life’. So the journalist went up there with a snapper and she was photographed with a disgusted look on her face holding up a raw sausage on a fork. Marvellous.
Layth: [Laughs] That is marvellous...
Alistair: And that is the thing that made me go ‘I’m going to start a blog about this’…
Layth: Is that the actual story that sparked you off?
Alistair: That is the story that sparked the whole thing off.
Layth: You’ve got a lot to thank them for. Give us one more, I’m loving this...
Alistair: The most famous one was from the Manchester Evening News. It was about a chap called Ron who kept getting huge bills from Virgin Media demanding payment for pornographic material that he swore blind he hadn’t watched. But again the photograph is him holding up the thing that made him angry - which in this case was the Virgin Media bill - but he has a look on his face that tells another story. Of course I fully believe that Virgin have made a terrible, terrible mistake with this nine-hundred pound bill for all the stuff Ron never watched but the photograph, oh the photograph. I’ll show you this will make you laugh. It’s in my favourites folder.
[Alistair shows picture of Ron to Layth]
Layth: A picture tells a thousand words.
Alistair: He knows.
Layth: Ron knows. He knows. It’s that look isn’t it.
Alistair: I actually know people who know Ron - and he’s a lovely old bloke. He lives up in Salford and his wife is lovely - and you know, you know he’s been done wrong…[smiles]
Layth: I’ve got to say on a personal note I was absolutely honoured when you ran my self-styled Mrs Angry story on the day of the referendum. I covered the EU referendum for the Press Association as well as local papers – my word that was a day and a half...
Alistair: That was a photograph and a half that was!
Layth: Yeah it certainly got a lot more clicks the second time round as well. I’m glad she agreed to my request for a picture of her.
Alistair: [laughs] Turned away from the polling station because you went dressed up in ‘Vote Brexit’ and the Union Jack shades.
Layth: So what’s next. Are you doing a signing tour?
Alistair: No not really. I’m rolling into various branches of Waterstones and signing their stock. So Tottenham Court Road’s going to have some of them and a few other branches. I’m just going in and signing them for them. Yeah it’s on Amazon, it’s going to be in WH Smiths. I know Waterstones have brought a lot.
It’s looking like the ideal Christmas present for your father, brother or uncle or aunt or mum. Anybody. Just buy the book.
Layth: Absolutely…and go on the Facebook page for the latest stuff as well
Alistair: Yeah just search up angry people in local newspapers, free to join of course, comment on the stories, have a good laugh. All I ask is that you’re not a terrible person because I will throw you out.
Layth: There’s a Twitter account too…
Alistair: Well I use my personal one because I find switching between several Twitter accounts is a pain and you end up posting the wrong thing on the wrong account and I don’t want to be that person.
Layth: It must be a bit surreal to be in this position now. I know this has been through a lot of hard work and passion for local news but how’d you feel?
Alistair: I do get recognised in the street. I went to the - you know Cold War Steve on Twitter - I went to his exhibition. I got in there and some bloke goes ‘You’re that bloke who runs ‘Angry People’ aren’t you?’ Even at Broadcasting House I’ve had pucker television celebrities coming up to me and saying ‘You’re him. Aren’t you…?’ It’s very strange all of a sudden being recognised and stuff.
Layth: There has to be a volume two of Angry People surely...
Alistair: Yeah volume two. I’m pitching with local newspapers because weird stuff keeps having a habit of happening. If you just look at any newspaper on any day of the year and something strange has happened. The thing is the local press is the source that everything comes from and you know it’s true because you’ve had stuff vindicated.
People go to their local paper about things that make them angry, things that are weird and they go viral from there. Local newspapers are the backbone of journalism. It’s a shame, it’s such a shame many are cut to the bone. It’s a shame they can’t afford to have staffed photographers anymore because they are the people that make the British press what it is. I’m absolutely passionate about this. I wasn’t ten years ago because I just thought it was a laugh but now I’m absolutely passionate about local press because they do so much that people don’t appreciate.
Layth: It’s great hearing you say that…
Alistair: Yeah and you’ve told me how many hours you work, I know how much work people in local papers put in you know.
Layth: What are your views on social media if we’re talking media and journalism?
Alistair: I did a talk yesterday about fake news and it’s all very strange and very depressing how it’s used by people to spread lies. You’re always playing catch up. You also get fake news on local social media when people make up rumours about something and it doesn’t take much for a local rumour such as there’s a dodgy van going down the street and before you know it it’s a fully known paedophile van.
Layth: What are your views on ‘We Are Such and Such Town’ Facebook pages, do they serve a purpose?
Alistair: Yeah they do yeah. I live in Fleet in Hampshire which is a town with absolutely nothing going for it. It’s got a long shopping street and it’s got a nice pond, Justin Rose used to live there. Our local celebrity is Alan Hope of the ‘Raving Loony Party’. So you know it’s a thing that binds communities you know with help and advice and any local gossip.
But it’s also a bad thing in that they’re not trained journalists and you get idiots and I do know this having a very very large Facebook group that, because of the cross-section of society, some people aren’t that clever. And you do get some people who aren’t that clever who hold very offensive views and you can’t stop them commenting on things.
It’s something you have to live with - but people who aren’t trained journalists running news sites is a difficult thing to handle. I mean you can usually tell by the style of writing that they don’t know how to tell a story.
Layth: I completely agree for what it’s worth. On another tack, In terms of Donald Trump and America would you be tempted to do an American ‘Angry People’ book?
Alistair: The American press is very different. They’re all trying to win the Pulitzer Prize whereas British journalists always start with a strong top line, you know, ‘this happened today’. American press is always ‘it started off with an innocent trip to the zoo ad it ended in tragedy’ - every single one of them does that. You’re down the fourth, fifth, sixth paragraph before you find out what the story is about because they’re too busy telling a ‘story story’ rather than a news story. They don’t tend to have the photography that we do, it’s always a picture of the scene - they don’t tend to go for the personal photography. Canada is a lot like ours and Australia is like ours only turned up to eleven.
Layth: Some of the Queensland and Northern Territory titles are fantastic…
Alistair: Yeah NT News, they are absolutely bonkers. The whole of NT News is mad they actually have a book on their front pages called ‘What A Croc’.
Layth: Can you remember a particular story off the top of your head?
Alistair: ‘I wanted a tip but he left a dump’ which was a taxi driver in Darwin in the north where it never falls below about 200 degrees and he dropped off his taxi passenger to find that he’d done a log on his back seat. A thing about NT News is that they do re-enactments so they actually had the photo of the taxi driver leaning back in his seat and they employed an extra to be leaning in through the back door, bum first with his bum out. The front page of the NT was a picture of a man’s arse. I actually paid for the pictures of that but we distorted the naked arse and left it to the imagination. That’s how they roll up there so yeah. New Zealand is very much like us as well. I get up in the morning and there’s always a good dozen stories from down under because I’ve got loyal spotters all over the place.
Layth: Just a word about your spotters, they are brilliant aren’t they?
Alistair: Oh yeah, I’ve got regulars, some people you can always rely on finding a good story, they know it’s a visual medium and so a lot of people send in stories and say they haven’t got a picture with this one and I say I can’t use that. So yeah if it’s got a good picture it’s going in. I am sort of bending the rules now, in that if it’s a funny, weird story I’ll take it. I’ll take submissions from anybody, just come and mail them in. Anyone who reads any newspaper, local newspapers...
Layth: Anything else you want to add?
Alistair: Buy my book, buy multiple copies. Its discounted on Amazon at the moment, only £7.99 and you get 192 quality pages in hardback.
Layth: It’s been an absolute pleasure mate, cheers.
Alistair: Thanks Layth, great to talk to you.
Angry People in Local Newspapers is available in all good bookshops now or you can buy it online here:
Visit Alistair’s Facebook page Angry People in Local Newspapers for more.
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Hackney Gazette. Click the link in the orange box below for details.