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The shock of the ‘new’

Bought for a pound and supported by a bank loan, enthusiastic staff and loyal readers and advertisers – Angela Cobbinah remembers the early days of the CNJ

08 April, 2021 — By Angela Cobbinah

Eric Gordon in the Journal newsroom

IT was an offer that could not be refused. On the other hand, taking it up was also a possible act of madness.

That was the dilemma facing Eric Gordon some 40 years ago when Courier Press, owners of the Camden Journal, offered him the title for £1. It was to be part of a deal to settle a year-long strike staged by staff across the company over the closure of the Journal, of which he was the editor.

While the offer may have been Courier’s way of politely sticking two fingers up at their loss-making newspaper, Eric did not take long to make up his mind – this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do things his way without greedy bosses breathing down his neck.

Two other people joined Eric Gordon in setting up the Camden New Journal as a cooperatively owned business. Me, a Camden Journal reporter barely out of training, and Frank Branson, pugnacious owner of the Bedfordshire on Sunday, a flourishing free weekly newspaper that would shape the direction of the new venture.

Angela Cobbinah at work in the Journal newsroom

Neither Eric nor Frank were short of ideas, ambition or drive. What they lacked was capital, something that you need a lot of when setting up any publication. While Camden Council and the Greater London Council were unwilling to provide any financial backing, they did offer plenty of useful business advice as well as help with obtaining premises. For cash, we approached Midland Bank for a £56,000 loan, enough to get us through the first year. These were the days when you actually had a meeting with the bank manager, who then relied on his own judgement rather than a computer telling him what to do. I don’t know why, but despite the crazy 15 per cent interest rates prevailing at the time, despite the gargantuan nature of the task ahead, the loan was duly granted.

This may have been a great vote of confidence but it did not calm our nerves as we set about bringing out the first, eight-page, edition of the Camden New Journal in March 1981 with a small but energetic band of staff. We had decided to make it a free newspaper as a way of achieving a high enough distribution figure to attract advertisers. Although we employed a company to distribute the newspaper initially, staff themselves helped out and I remember traipsing the streets and going up and down blocks of flats to drop copies through letterboxes till my calves ached.

Celebrations as the first New Journal arrives in Camden Road: L to r: journalist Irving Oldfield, and tenant activists John Mason, Alf Barrett and Terry Hargrave

Those first faltering months proved tremendously hard work but the enthusiasm was infectious, undimmed by the fact that we had all agreed to be paid below the going rate, for the time being.

Others were not so generous. Both the distribution company and the printers would send someone round to collect their cheque at the end of each week just in case the business collapsed the next day, while a woman from the HMRC resembling Miss Trunchbull from Matilda would regularly descend on us to inspect the books as if looking for an excuse to shut us down.

We weathered the storm, buoyed by the support of our readers who saw that a free newspaper did not mean a throwaway “free sheet” but one that continued in the footsteps of the old Journal, reporting news from their community and holding authority to account. In this the CNJ was ahead of its time and now even long established publications like Time Out and the Evening Standard are given away free.

The offices at 40 Camden Road practically became a drop-in centre as people wandered in and out with news and views, while the letter pages began their institutionalisation as a public forum rivalling the council chamber.

Advertisers know a winner when they see one and responded by buying up enough space to get through that rocky first year.

There were plenty of naysayers in the beginning and very often we doubted ourselves. Nevertheless, the Camden New Journal rose out of the ashes to achieve success as one of the few independently owned newspapers in the country. Not only has it won countless awards for its journalism, it has reinforced the strength of its business model by spawning two other equally successful titles, the Islington Tribune and Westminster Extra. It is an achievement made all the more significant in an industry dominated by cost-cutting conglomerates whose first instinct is to either to close local newspapers or warehouse them miles away from the communities they purport to serve.

Frank Branson sadly died a few years into the venture and I eventually left to take up work in Nigeria. By this time, the CNJ was well on its way, driven by a dynamic editor who also doubled up as a businessman and office manager. There are not many people who can assume all three roles at the same time and do them well, while still holding on to the vision he began with, to create a truly independent newspaper, “open to all but coerced by none”.

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