Page last updated at 10:38 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 11:38 UK
Billboards from around the country



Local Paper billboards

As many local papers struggle for survival, Mike Lockley explains how the ups and downs of his career in local journalism reveal much about why newspapers matter to communities.

Was it really 31 years ago that, as a cub reporter in a mining community on the fringes of the Black Country, I sat straining to hear details, in a cavernous courtroom, of an all-too-common tale of domestic violence?

LOCAL NEWSPAPER BILLBOARDS
We asked for your photos of billboards to build up a picture of a week in local news
All your pictures can be seen on our Newspaper Billboards group on photo sharing website Flickr
The group is now effectively closed

After a three-year apprenticeship - "indentures" they called it - I was ready to cover court without being chaperoned by a senior. In Cannock, hardly the most refined destination on the fringes of the West Midlands conurbation, I had arrived.

The case was a sickening example of domestic violence. An enraged husband had struck his wife repeatedly about the head with a candelabra.

It made page three of the weekly newspaper, now sadly deceased like the mines that spawned Cannock. "Man bludgeons wife with candelabra", the banner headline screamed.

I returned to the same court next day - to be greeted by howls of laughter from ushers, solicitors, clerks… even defendants.

"Is this the level of reporting we can expect from you?" asked the chairman of the bench, studying my exclusive.

Nervously, I pointed out every detail had been checked: the charge, the attacker's name, age and address.

"Every detail," huffed the JP frostily, "except the implement used in the incident. I think you'll find it was a can of lager."

Close to four decades on, in the pubs and working men's clubs, they still remind me of that. I'm glad they do. It means they remember what I write. It means they feel part of the local paper. It means what I produce can fall into folklore. It means I'm within touching distance of our readership.

Off road headlines

Occasionally, the national newspapers will be intrigued enough by a tale to write ABOUT the people of my patch - I write FOR them. Their reporters can get the facts wrong, ruffle feathers, then disappear into the distance. I can't because there's always someone at my local ready to loudly broadcast the inaccuracies.

Mike Lockley then and now
I tried Fleet Street once... soon after we decided to part company
Mike Lockley, in his cub reporter days (above left) and now, editor of Cannock Chase Post

Like the time when reporters, heaven forbid, wrote headlines by hand and nervously presented them to all-powerful print workers to turn into type, I was tasked with producing a front-page on the battle to save British Leyland.

Fighting against deadline and feeling the effects of a boozy lunch, I scrawled the banner headline: "Big Drive To Save Jobs".

The all-powerful print workers, who had previously complained about my illegible handwriting, grabbed the note and rushed to the waiting presses.

Almost the entire population of Birmingham woke-up next morning to a front page proclaiming: "Big Dave To Save Jobs".

I appeased my furious editor by claiming "Big Dave" was a union leader and his quote was cut from the finished story.

I still can't believe I get paid for spreading stories. You might call it gossip, but one man's tittle-tattle is another's key local information.

Billboards, the sort you see outside newsagents with the latest local scandal distilled to five punchy words, are the modern-day version of the town crier - bawling out their wares, entreating passers-by to part with a few pence to find out more.

Silly word fall-out

I, for one, will never under-estimate their influence - it was the sight of one, while holidaying abroad, that decided my career path. It proclaimed: "Woman in owl attack dies of diarrhoea". Boy, I wanted to do that story.

It's been a career devoid of owl attacks, but I've tracked panthers on Cannock Chase, ghosts and even a one-legged lottery winner who spent his/her windfall on a sex change.

Man in space
Local paper billboards - though maybe not local news

I tried Fleet Street once. One leading tabloid asked me to write 120 words on the most personal part of a pop star's anatomy. I was given a public dressing down for using a "bloody silly" word - "phallus".

They changed it to something more sensible - "todger".

Soon after we decided to go our separate ways: a "you call it phallus, I call it todger, let's call the whole thing off" moment.

I'm something of a dinosaur. I know this because the exasperated IT expert who spent a week trying to teach me computer skills called me a dinosaur, or was it a fossil? He'd demanded from me a password for my new piece of kit - "something with seven characters". I came up with Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy and Sneezy.

I may not have the new technology skills, but I have a contact book crammed with "curtain twitchers" and devoid of numbers for gushing PR gals, usually called Gemima, Hannah or Suzi. Poor "Hannah" rang, close to hysteria, this morning to proclaim: "My client's done something reeeeally exciting with milk."

He hadn't. It's still white and hasn't started coming out of cow's noses.

And I, like every other weekly journalist, can play a part in the community I work in. I've helped save schools, stopped telecommunication towers being erected and even put pink custard back on a school menu.

"So basically," scoffed one colleague, "the BBC want the memoirs of a local hack."

They've come to the right person. I'm a hack, often beer-sodden, and proud of it.

Times and technology change, people's desire to know what's happening in their community doesn't. A town without its own weekly newspaper is a town without a heart.

And what the hell would I do without the daily fix of larger-than-life tales from my area? Find someone who's done something reeeeally exciting with milk, probably.


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Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My favourite billboard was from the Telegraph and Argus in my home town of Bradford some years ago. AMERICAN GIANT BEHIND NEW CINEMA screamed the billboard. I still have visions of a 12-foot tall American hiding behind the new building.
Graeme, Sutton Coldfield

About 12 years ago, I'd been in university in the US and come back to my hometown in Northern Ireland to see the headline on the billboards as "Broadway Horror: Mass Pigeon Massacre." I laughed myself silly. Someone had seemingly laced food with drugs on a street called Broadway, the pigeons had scoffed the lot and then someone set about flattening dozens of the doped up pigeons. People were behaving like it was a holocaust.
Conal Stewart, London

I can't believe it's taken this long to honour a true legend of local newspapers. I ask all wannabe journalists to read this article thoroughly, and all those disgruntled and disillusioned hacks to heed the warning - "a town without its own weekly newspaper is a town without a heart".
Darren Parkin, Stratford-upon-Avon

Leicester Mercury Billboards are famous unto themselves, with their own Facebook group.
Michael Sales, Leicester

I used to work in a cornershop in Lancaster and we'd take deliveries of the local billboards - even though we didn't have anywhere to display them. My favourite was the idiom come to life: "BULL RUNS AMOK IN LANCASTER ANTIQUE STORE".
Allan Warhurst, Birmingham, UK

Eroding communities and endangered toads are no joke. In my sleepy coastal village, I look forward to Wednesday and still howl with laughter at my local rag's headlines: "Civic Society concerned over planning application for proposed Mc Donald's" (never passed); "Squirrel reserve under threat"; and my favourite "Three bikes stolen last month". The serious side is my local paper had its office closed and is now run from a larger regional office in Southport. Who will tell us as about the scout hut fire, the cat in the tree, the man who has just raised money for charity, or that my son scored a goal on Saturday for our local team? Sleepy newspapers being ditched for profit by the regionals so it can go online. I'm 41 and can use a Mac and a PC but I want to read a paper with a cup of tea.
Ian Fletcher, Formby, Merseyside

Dorking Advertiser: Human Finger Salad Horror. A customer at a local pizza restaurant had found a bit of the chef's finger in her salad... nice. It certainly beats the usual stories about bus times and bin collections.
Peter Miller, Dorking, Surrey

Dorset Evening Echo: Man Found Nailed to Bench. Some old drunk was worried he'd fall off the bus shelter bench so found the perfect solution to a ensuring a decent night's kip.
Pie, Bristol

The Evening Standard's - which I assume was missing an important comma - once shouted in large letters: "POLICE MURDER FOUR MEN IN COURT".
Jim, London, UK

Kilburn Times: Bottom Drops Out of Knicker Market.
Ivan, London, UK

I own a local self-funded online-only newspaper since the current paper moved out of the town to consolidate with other titles. Knutsford has been left in the dark and fed on issues that relate mainly to neighbouring larger towns. Local news IS important and I am very proud to be a part of the local media machine, if not a little homespun at times.
Jonathan Farber, Knutsford

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