853 exclusive: The Greenwich Mercury has published its last edition after 185 years and will be merged into the South London Press from next week, 853 understands.
The freesheet’s owners – Romford-based leaflet distribution firm Street Runners – made the decision to kill off London’s oldest local newspaper nearly two years after buying it out of administration.
While the paper – launched as the Greenwich, Woolwich and Deptford Gazette and West Kent Advertiser before switching to the Kentish Mercury in 1839 – is barely a shadow of its former self, the news will come as a shock to readers who remember its heyday as a Deptford-based campaigning title covering Greenwich and Lewisham in the 1970s and 1980s – particularly its role in exposing the far-right in 1977, covering the New Cross fire of 1981, and launching a petition to bring Charlton Athletic back to The Valley in 1986.
The local newspaper industry has been shattered by the collapse in the classified ads market as traders and customers switch their loyalties to Google and Facebook. In Greenwich, the local media has also found a formidable competitor for advertising in the shape of Greenwich Council, which offsets the cost of its fortnightly Greenwich Info title with classified ads.
The monthly Greenwich Visitor title, which competed for the same ads, closed at the end of last year and survives as a blog written by its arts writer, Miles Hedley.
But the seeds of the Mercury’s end were sewn long before the rise of the Silicon Valley giants, in the late 1990s, when it came under the same ownership as its fierce rival in Lewisham, the South London Press. The editorial teams were merged in the early 2000s, with the Mercury being exiled to the SLP’s base in Streatham.
In 2007, the titles were sold to the self-styled saviour of the local press, Sir Ray Tindle. In the early 2010s he salami-sliced the papers by producing “hyperlocal” editions of both titles – which were only available in newsagents, even though the Mercury had been a freesheet for over 30 years – and without investing in staff, or replacing those who left. He also launched a series of local titles in central and west London, further draining the SLP and Mercury’s resources.
In early 2016 Tindle withdrew support from the SLP and Mercury, handing them and a series of south coast titles to their management under the banner of Capital Media Newspapers, working out of an office in Penge. Capital Media went bust after 18 months, selling the SLP and Mercury to Street Runners, which produces the titles from Rathmore Road in Charlton.
The Mercury’s sole reporter, Calum Fraser, left last year to join the Islington Tribune in north London, while both the Mercury and SLP have been appealing for readers to send them donations via PayPal, although with no clear indication of what is being done with the money. 853 understands that Street Runners’ plans include launching a new title in west London.
Both papers have spread their coverage thinly in recent years, with the SLP diverging from its traditional editorial area of Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth to cover stories in Wimbledon and Croydon; while the Mercury – traditionally a paper for Lewisham, Greenwich and more recently Bexley – has been covering Bromley stories.
While the SLP was given its own social media accounts, the Mercury name was only ever used on the paper – despite its decades of heritage and the SLP‘s lack of relevance in Greenwich. Indeed, the “serving the community for over 150 years” line on the Mercury‘s masthead refers to the SLP‘s founding in 1865, not the Mercury‘s three decades earlier.
Much of the papers’ coverage is taken from press releases with signs of cutting and pasting visible in recent stories. Only the papers’ comprehensive and highly-rated sports coverage, particularly of Charlton Athletic and Millwall, have set them apart from the others, with reporters and photographers still attending matches, even at smaller clubs like Dulwich Hamlet and Welling United.
The end of the Mercury means the end of the last of two traditional titles that covered Greenwich borough – the Kentish Independent, its fierce rival in Greenwich, closed in 1984. Since 1988, the Mercury has competed with the News Shopper – which began as an Orpington-based paper – in Greenwich and Lewisham, and in Bexley from 1989.
The news is no less gloomy at the Shopper, where one of two sub-editors – journalists who check and adapt reporters’ copy and make it fit printed pages – shared with the South London Guardian and Surrey Comet series is to leave, with one editor to oversee all titles across both series, stretching from Weybridge in Surrey to Gravesend in Kent. Journalists will now be expected to write copy to fit pre-prepared spaces on pages, increasing the room for errors.
SLP and Mercury editor Toby Porter declined to comment, referring 853 to the papers’ chief executive Esther Lam, who has not responded to a request for comment.
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