Current Features Editor Ben Bruges asked long-term HIP writer Gareth Stevens to explore the development
of HIP from founding to 200th edition. Below Ben explores his own reasons for getting involved with the paper.

Gareth Stevens talks to some of the founders of Hastings Independent to revisit the various reasons
why it was started in the first place and to ask them for their views on how it has developed as it approaches
its 200th edition. 

It was impossible not to be inspired by the passion and enthusiasm shown by Sam Kinch, Paul Osmond, Kate Renwick, Alan Bolwell and Jon Dunham when they spoke to me about Hastings Independent’s early days.

I first met Sam Kinch on Kings Road St Leonards no more than a few days after I moved here four years ago. Clearly a man of principle, he has made it his business to work tirelessly to improve our community for the benefit of all. Whether he is exposing local land bankers or fighting to control the more adverse effects of exponential gentrification, he selflessly and continuously strives to do the right thing. Having spoken to five more of the original team it is clear that every one of them are cut from similar cloth.

The Why

So why was Hastings Independent set up? “It started as an online protest before the paper ever got up and running.” Sam tells me that the final straw came when a “local newspaper ran an article which completely demonised and misrepresented the character of a dear friend of ours. It became immediately apparent when
we very quickly had over 500 supporters for the cause, that we were not the only people who were sick and tired of the state of Hastings’ only other hard copy local newspaper.” 

The team tells me that, whilst being a bit of a motley crew, they still had hope that some form of socialism, at least, could be achieved. The first meeting basically hi-jacked the anarchists’ meeting at the Tubman bar and the atmosphere, from all accounts, was intoxicating. They all agreed what the fight was – to kick back against corporate
asset stripping, to counterpoint Murdoch’s growing grip on print media right down to a local level and they had also begun to anticipate the negative consequences of gentrification in the borough and wanted to do something about it.

At the first protest meeting, Paul Osmond, who at the time ran the legendary Tubman, suggested they start their own newspaper. Alan Bolwell goes on to reiterate “We set Hastings Independent up mainly to provide an antidote to
the pernicious way in which the right-wing press continuously punches down”. 

Of the Tubman days, Sam explained that “a lot of the attitude of the pub spilled into the newspaper. For some the Tubman had a fearsome reputation, for others however, it was more like a haven or a community centre. Some of the first meetings were very well attended. Despite there being a tight core team of directors (a legal requirement of
the incorporation process), those early meetings were complete pandemonium – the Tubman was overrun with people wanting to be involved and to listen to what we were planning to do.”

Community participation

All those I spoke to understand that democracy is not only about intermittent visits to a polling station, and that it is also about community participation and the ability to have agency in your neighbourhood. The way that
the tabloid press manufactures consent and maintains orthodox structures of control can only be counteracted when communities report to themselves on issues going on locally and through doing so galvanise active citizenship. The founding team took pains to emphasise to me that the public-cation of Hastings Independent was never meant to be an end in itself, it was supposed to be a trigger for action. On that, Sam explains that the paper was always intended to be a “platform for community-led regeneration.”

Early HIP meeting
CREDIT: Jon Dunham

Paul says that at the time the only other print news-paper was “actively creating a division in the town, rather than bringing the town together.” It was run by a media conglomerate called Johnston Press. In 2009 they had
bought up many local newspapers across the country. As Sam continues “their nationwide monopoly on local print media publications meant that each town had an identikit paper each of which often perpetuated a countrywide conservative agenda, were entirely profit driven and awash with advertising from national companies. Whilst my personal agenda might have been to produce a paper in which we could sling mud at Amber Rudd, as a group we wanted Hastings Independent to be a broad church which was open to all.” 

As well as raising awareness about community issues and promoting citizenship, Hastings Independent’s founding constitution stated a commitment to promoting the Arts in education and providing opportunities for experience in
the media industry.

Sam explains that Hastings has long suffered a brain drain, with local youngsters leaving for university and never returning. Even at the time we had a university campus specialising in broadcast media here, there were very few avenues for those students to find employment or experience in the media industry locally. It was hoped that Hastings Independent could address this problem.

On how the team intended to develop the paper, Sam says that they wanted eventually to create “Five salaried positions that would revolve to avoid single points of power. It was difficult in the early days to arrive at a position of financial security in order to set up this employment model. Now it seems like HIP is resigned to being a purely volunteer-led concern.
As such, it will never be able to truly address the calamitous collapse of local print media.” Everyone I spoke to was genuinely impressed that the paper is still running and fully appreciated the amazing levels of commitment needed to publish a paper of such a professional quality on a bi-weekly basis. They did, however, have some reservations.

What has changed?

When the success of a paper such as Hastings Independent solely rests on the work of volunteers, it is inevitable that the urgent will always come before the important. The founders all thought that the pressures of such a tight publication schedule had unintentionally led to the paper becoming less inclusive – that it currently does not have the capacity to fulfil its original mission and that it increasingly under-represents some of the more marginalised sections of our community.

CREDIT: Jon Dunham

“The people who could really benefit from a good community newspaper are the poorer and more disempowered sections of the borough’s population. It seems to me they are really being overlooked”. Jon explains “Whilst the Old Town and central St Leonards are well covered by the paper, we have to ask where is the Hollington news, where is mention of Silverhill and Ore?” However, he did admit that “HIP remains a free hard copy news source for those people in Hastings who can’t afford commercial papers or who might not feel confident in keeping up-to-date using online social media”.

Whilst not a core team member, but as someone who has contributed over fifty articles to Hastings Independent, I can testify to the changing demographic of the volunteer team. If the founding members can be characterised by their youth, commitment to community activism and left leaning politics, the current team, whilst doing a brilliant job, are at a different time of life and have to be in a position which gives them the many hours it takes to put the paper together.

Everyone agreed that shortly after the paper was set up the fortnightly deadlines left them all exhausted and not able to look at the bigger picture. Inevitably the young founding team reluctantly had diminishing capacity to contribute the time needed to continue working on Hastings Independent. Parenthood, the need to secure a liveable income and other causes led to the gradual shift in the editorial team’s composite profile and as Jon points out “it was inevitable that this process would lead to the spirit of the paper changing as well.” 

Sam tells me that “the part of the paper I was most proud of when we launched, was the community section. Originally it was supposed to be a quarter of the paper dedicated to the work done by local charities and social enterprises to address the troubling issues in the town. It seems to have all but disappeared.”

Even better if?

So, what do the founders think Hastings Independent could do better? “I think the amount of work that goes into publishing a fortnightly paper would be so much better directed at publishing a monthly or quarterly version.” Sam says, “That way much more time could be put into building deeper relationships with all sectors of the community – especially those who don’t normally put themselves forward and who it takes more effort to ensure contributions from.” Jon agrees with this idea and suggests that the paper formulate a detailed community engagement strategy. 

In support of this argument Paul says “If the paper is going to be successful, going forward, and stay true to its founding principles, it needs to open itself up to a wider and more diverse range of people. To do this it needs to attract secure and sustainable funding and to fight harder to represent the full spectrum of the borough’s community.” 

Alan’s views may seem a little more radical: “I believe that Hastings Independent is now incapable of reform in its
current state, it needs to radically overhaul the inherently informal hierarchies within the core team to bring it back to its original mission.”

Sam suggests that Hastings Independent should adopt the model used by the Bristol Cable. “Because they are a co-operative, they receive 75% of their funding from a source that specifically benefits such media organisations.” 

I am hoping that as we pass our 200th edition, this article might help HIP to take a reflective look at itself and to galvanise others to get involved. Please write in with any thoughts you may have with the issues raised here.

Comment below or write to [email protected]

What HIP means to me

By Ben Bruges

I returned to Hastings having worked abroad for a while and  lived most of my adult life in London. To begin with, though I lived and worked in Hastings, I didn’t feel like I had put down roots until I came across Hastings Independent Press. It stunned me that a town this size (I still think of Hastings and St Leonards as one town, so shoot me!) could produce a regular printed community paper – and one that was so much better than the commercial local and not one relying only on web publication. 

I started my involvement as a ‘sub-editor’, which is a great way to get involved with the paper. My day job (English teacher) means that I can help writers produce their best work in terms of structure, accuracy, word choice and adherence to our style sheet. That came fairly easily to me. And subbing means that you get a good feel for the different sections of the paper, and a way of joining the meetings and becoming a part of what is a pretty unique offer. 

More recent HIP meeting
CREDIT: Dave Young

It has to be said that my initial impression was not that great. Invited by Rod Webb, who has sadly had to step down as Community Editor, initial meetings were often rambling and dissolved into separate conversations. The demographic also verged towards the retired middle classes. However, there was a great spirit and sense of community, and I learned things about Hastings that I would never have learned before, made great friends and contacts and all of those benefits that volunteering brings. All involved were aware that as a community newspaper we needed to continually attempt to reach out to other sections of the town, and continue to do so. 

Initially I found the lack of overall editor difficult to understand. The “horizontal structure” tends towards informal power structures. Each section is run by an editor, then there’s a sign-off editor who comes as close as possible to an editor, and the weekly business meetings try to ensure some coherence and to avoid duplication. Other than that, the direction of the paper is largely in the hands of the editors and the writers who come forward to contribute. That is also a strength.  

Becoming Features Editor was one of those chance chaotic things. I was drawn into it through helping the previous Features Editor, Poppy Prescott, and, when she had to leave for London and her singer-songwriter career, there was no-one else to take on the role, so I did. A lot of my efforts have been with working with the writers I inherited from Poppy, and attempting to reach out to new writers from different parts of the community. 

HIP meeting during lockdown
CREDIT: Dave Young

Please get in touch if you have an idea for a feature – the beauty of features is that they can be about literally anything. It needs to have at least one foot in the locality, but beyond that, the world is our oyster. 

And, yes, it is a stretch to produce a fortnightly paper. And that is also it’s strength. The deadline means that it has to behave like a community newspaper, and not a student newspaper, not an art-piece and also not an occasional web-offering. The regular deadline needs to be met, and that concentrates the minds of all concerned. Without it some things would never get written. And without it, readers wouldn’t know that there’s a regular offering to read. 

As one of those surprising effects of the pandemic, Zoom meetings have actually brought more coherence and effectiveness to business meetings, and we’re trying to combine that with open meetings so we can meet each other in person, invite newcomers, meet new writers and anyone interested in taking part. To which you are invited! 

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.