Sick of that ‘click bait stuff’ - The Dispatch’s first ever member is on a crusade for quality reporting
Anne Forster tells us what she wants from her local paper - and it isn’t celebrity gossip.
By Kate Knowles
The best parts of starting a new newspaper? Boredom is now a foreign language; should I ever go on Mastermind, I could confidently select my home city as my specialist subject. But the nicest part of all is being in touch with lots of local people I didn't previously know. Since announcing the launch of The Dispatch, my inbox has been flooded with kind messages from people who are sick of the same old and want a more thoughtful approach to local journalism. I know the same is true for the rest of the team — the subscriber communities which have sprung up around the Manchester Mill, Sheffield Tribune, and Liverpool Post are really heartening to see.
But there's one subscriber in particular I'd like you to know about. Anne Forster is incredibly important to The Dispatch because she is part of the reason that this paper exists in the first place. Anne, 71, lives in Bromsgrove but hails from Manchester and subscribed to the Mill in the early days, back when it was a one-man band. From the off, she commented a lot below stories, which caught editor Joshi’s attention.
As his local news model took off and he teamed up with journalists in Sheffield and Liverpool, Anne pushed him: “You need to start one in Birmingham!”
On ringing Anne to chat to her about the launch (and to learn a little more about the woman behind the comments), I could see why she and Joshi were in contact. She’s chatty and open, with an accent that has maintained its north-western twang despite leaving Manchester decades ago.
She tells me she grew up in Manchester, but crucially wasn’t born in the city, though her siblings were. “It's just that I was born in my grandmother's house near Stafford because my mother went to be with her mother to have the baby,” she says. “But you know, it's always been like a bone of contention that I wasn’t born in Manchester!”
She left Manchester at 19 when she got a grant to train as a teacher at a college in Reading (it had a good art department! How could she turn it down?). But on graduating, her hopes were dashed when for the first time ever, the cohort were not all hired to start work at the beginning of the new school year. Anne was one of the unlucky ones, which meant moving back in with her parents in Manchester – a bitter pill to swallow for any independent twenty-something. She put her name into a pool from which teachers were selected and placed in schools that needed them. That’s how Anne ended up down here — the offer of a job in Stourport came up and that was it, she packed her bags. Back then, you didn’t tend to make a decision about where you live so much as the decision was made for you. This was the case for Anne, anyway. As she puts it, often you go where your job takes you, and then meet people and make a family and before you know it, you’ve been there almost 50 years.
But back to 1976. Her first impressions of the West Midlands? A very friendly place that had drawn in lots of people from outside like herself. She became close to fellow teachers from Cumbria, Dorset, Preston, and elsewhere. “We were all single,” she laughs. “So it was great, we all used to go out, you know. I met some really good people.” She taught kids from the ages of nine to 13 including a few who she refers to as some “real characters”. But outside of work, it was and is the rich culture and history of the West Midlands which has kept her enthralled.
If you know anything about Anne, you’ll know she’s a history junkie. Her living room is filled with reference books and maps of the places she has lived in. She’s fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelite painters (there are collections in both Manchester and Birmingham, so that provided some continuity) and loved seeing the stained-glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones at the All Saint’s Church in Wilden. She learnt all about the remarkable Georgiana Burne-Jones and the Macdonald sisters, women from a lower-middle class family in the West Midlands in the 19th Century, who went on to form influential families of their own. They married or gave birth to some very significant figures, – poet Rudyard Kipling, prime minister Stanley Baldwin, and painter Edward Poynter – and sadly lived at a time when women weren’t so able to realise such ambitions of their own. “I'm 71. You pick up all sorts of information, file it away, and all of a sudden it comes out,” says Anne.
Settling for a while in the Georgian town of Bewdley in 1978 with her then-husband, Anne had a daughter and that’s what has anchored her life in the Midlands. But if she reflects on what it is about life here that she likes, it’s the sense of community. “I love that and it's probably one of the reasons as well that I joined The Mill and also now The Dispatch, because it feels to me like you're amongst like minded people. And that's what I like about where I live.”
She says that while there will always be something that draws her back to Manchester, a “gut feeling” about the place she grew up, here is where she has “put down roots”. Whereas in the north-western city she lived near the heart of the city, that’s not the case for Birmingham where she has always been at least 15 miles from the city centre in Kidderminster, Bewdley, Stourport, Alcester, then Astwood Bank, and now Bromsgrove. However, she loves Birmingham and often meets friends there to visit museums and galleries to satisfy her passion for art. “My daughter was born in Worcestershire and she adores Birmingham so she probably sees it like I do Manchester,” she reflects.
And which place does she think most deserves the title of ‘the second city’? Anne says she’s “got a foot in both camps” but decides “it’s got to be Birmingham really” because of its size and position in the centre of things. She does think Birmingham is losing out in the local transport stakes, however. On a recent trip to Rochdale she caught the metro into Manchester for the first time: “It was amazing, it goes all over, but we need one here” she says. Travel has been on her mind lately because she was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour four years ago. Mostly it doesn’t affect her everyday life but occasionally she gets bouts of vertigo which can be unpleasant. In future, the condition could affect her sight and interfere with her ability to drive. Having other means to get into Birmingham to see the latest exhibition or play would be a real benefit.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the Mill and Dispatch stories about history and people which regularly catch Anne’s eye, like this Mill piece about bog people. Or this look inside the chapel of Strangeways Prison. Or this Dispatch piece about a journalist’s delve into the past to find out what happened to his long lost great-uncle in WW1. Whether it’s history or people-focused features, Anne likes these stories because she doesn’t get them elsewhere. This is especially the case since she has been retired for years and gave up volunteering for the National Trust after Covid. “I was looking around for something that engaged my brain a bit more,” she says of discovering The Mill. “You just want to be a bit more involved.”
Like many people who have got in touch with me, Anne tells me she feels she isn’t being served by her existing local papers which she says have all gone online and become full of “clickbait stuff”. This is a big shame because growing up she used to really respect hers, the Manchester Evening News. “My mother used to send me clippings from it when I left home”, she explains. “She used to come to help fix things and send me clippings from the paper. Now, you're just not getting anything meaty about your area and about the things that matter.”
We hope to redress exactly this: to bring you meaty stories about your area and about the things that matter. If there’s anything to take from this it is: to be more like Anne! When life is giving you reems of clickbait and articles about London-based celebrities and what you want is well-researched and thoughtful journalism about where you live — don’t shut up about it. Subscribe to The Dispatch today and for anyone reading this from outside Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, or Liverpool — you never know, your city could be next.