In the autumn of 2010, I was approached by the then editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express, a lady called Rebecca Whittington, and asked if I might care to contribute a weekly column to the newspaper. We sat at my kitchen table and I asked, ‘What should it be about?’ Rebecca told me that I could write about local culture, but put an Ian Clayton twist on to it. I liked the idea, I have long been a supporter of the local press and advocate on its behalf at every opportunity.
We drank a second cup of tea and then Rebecca said, ‘We can’t pay you, but feel free to advertise any of your projects or books in your piece.’ I felt a bit deflated by this and so said, ‘If you think I’m worth having, you should pay me and you’ll get a good professional job, because after all, I make my living from writing.’ After some thought she offered me £25 per article. I declined that, so she went to forty pounds. I said, ‘If you can make it £50, you’ll get a good value piece of writing and plenty of thought put into it.’ She said that she would have to have a word with her boss, so we left it at that. A few days later, she phoned me and said, ‘Yes we agree that we will pay you fifty pounds, start this week and if you let us have a column every Monday morning it will appear each Thursday.’
So, I did and within a few weeks I started getting lovely letters from readers, all positive and telling me that it was great to be reading something interesting. After a couple of years, Rebecca decided that the column’s popularity deserved a bigger spread, so the little column became a headed page, with my name and a photo of me at the top. I think to reflect this they increased my fee to £75 and then after a couple more years to £100. For my part I decided to put more effort into my piece. Some weeks I would send perhaps a day travelling around researching and thinking about a story and another half a day writing up my notes. I’ve never been a greedy lad for money, so I always thought that for the effort I put in, the paper was getting good value. I have never claimed any expenses in all the time I have written the piece, beyond the fee. All bus and train fares and theatre tickets and purchase of books and music have always come out of my own pocket.
Rebecca moved on a couple of years ago and I then corresponded and sent my pieces to a lady called Hannah Thaxter, who has been kind and supportive about what I write, indeed, when we decided to collect the best of my pieces together and publish them in book form, Hannah was good enough to write the preface for me. She wrote, ‘At the heart of every local paper are the stories and memories, the pride and the achievements of those who live there. We have been privileged at the Pontefract and Castleford Express to share with our readers such musings from local lad Ian Clayton. His column is a favourite amongst our readers.’ I’m very proud of that book and prouder still to say that it was a local best seller, in a district that doesn’t have book shops.
At the back end of February this year. I received an email from a man called John Kenealy. He is the editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express, but his office is in Halifax. He wrote:
I am writing to thank you for your excellent contributions to the Pontefract and Castleford Express over the years. Your column is highly regarded and has given an added bonus to Express readers.
However, you will know how challenging it is to publish newspapers in a digital age and a time of great economic uncertainty. Most of the revenue on which we depend comes from advertisers and in tough times it is more important than ever that we live within our means.
As a result, very sadly, we will no longer be able to pay for contributions such as those provided by yourself.
At the end of the letter, John asked me to contact him if I needed to talk. I phoned him. I asked him to tell me why, if the column was popular and enjoyed by readers, they didn’t want it anymore. He said the decision was made purely on economical grounds and that all freelance writers were being laid off, apart from the ones who were willing to write for free. He hinted that I could continue doing the column if I was prepared to work free of charge. Writing is my job, I will not do it for free. I also told him that I thought the economical argument was a poor one; if readership decreases as a result then they have saved nothing. I also asked for a month’s notice, which he agreed to. Today, 24 March 2016, my penultimate column has appeared in the Pontefract and Castleford Express. I have written about aspects of local culture that disappear while you are not looking. I have also tried to let readers know that I will not be writing for the paper anymore. The Express have published my piece, but they have decided to leave out an important sentence. Here is the sentence they have left out.
‘Changes are on the horizon for this paper and I’m sorry that the decision makers have decided that my work here is no longer required.’
I really don’t know the extent of the changes and I have even less clue about who makes the decisions, John Kenealy told me that the decision to sack me was his. I suspect that he was told from someone above and that these people above have no idea of what makes this area tick. I will continue to be a supporter of local papers, but only if they remain loyal to the locality. I do not want to see my local paper, that I buy every week from the Post Office on Church Lane near where I live, become some kind of generic newsletter for big companies trying to sell stuff. I love writing for the Express and I know, because of all the feedback I receive that readers round here like what I put. If the purpose of a local press is to celebrate and uplift local life and culture, who then are these people in management positions who interfere with good things? We often hear that old saying ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ these days. I’m more than happy to carry on doing something for localness, I want to carry on writing for the paper, but I won’t allow people I don’t know and who don’t know this locality to tell me that I must work for free in order to do it. I’m not that simple!