All the lonely people
A Sunday note from Kate
Good morning Patchers, and a surprise hello from me, Kate, who doesn’t usually pop into your inbox on a Sunday. Hopefully, you’ll be reading this while wrapped in the duvet, drinking coffee and munching on some toast — an elite way to start the day in my humble opinion.
Not to be maudlin, and perhaps it’s the fact that I launched The Dispatch as a team of one, but I’ve been thinking a lot about loneliness lately. I keep coming back to one story by Kirsty Bosley that we published back in November, about Charlie Sihota, a local postmaster in Halesowen. The quote that really stayed with me was when Charlie described one of his regulars, a lady who often comes in for stamps, but really, is just looking for someone to talk to. “I’ll say ‘give the letter here and I’ll post it for you’ but then there is no letter. When she opens her purse to put the stamp away, I see there’s plenty of stamps in there already.”
It’s one person’s story — but isn’t it so many people’s stories? I used to work for a project focused on the loneliness epidemic among older people in Birmingham and quickly realised how many are affected by it. Like the carers, whose round the clock roles mean they struggle to see people outside of work. Or members of the LGBT community, who feel they need to “go back in the closet” as they get older, as they aren’t understood by others in their care home.
And it’s not just older people. I keep seeing articles about how Gen Z are the loneliest cohort ever, the theory being that younger people are more comfortable with smart phones and are out of practice at face-to-face conversations due to Covid lockdowns. The government has even appointed a minister for loneliness and launched a loneliness strategy — but the issue isn’t showing any signs of going away.
So what’s to be done? There’s no easy solution. But I like to think that maybe we at The Dispatch can be part of the answer, at least here in the West Midlands. In her book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, American journalist Margaret Sullivan writes: “A newspaper’s purpose isn’t only to keep public officials accountable; it is also to be the village square for an entire metropolitan area, to help provide a common reality and touchstone, a sense of community and place.” As our local media has withered, that village square has fallen into disrepair. Little wonder so many people feel disconnected from those around them.
But what we’re doing here gives me hope. Some of my favourite comments I get from readers are the ones which mention community, and say that we’re helping them to connect with what is going on in our city. Like Neil Weaver who has recently moved abroad but reads The Dispatch because it makes him feel closer to home, family, and friends. Or John Burton, who said we are helping to foster a local “sense of belonging and a sense of identity”.
As for me, in one sense I’m not feeling lonely at all. In the 14 weeks since I scheduled our first ever story (and panic called my editor, Joshi, to ask him to proofread it for the umpteenth time) 10,000 of you have joined our mailing list. That’s incredible. We use an electronic dashboard to keep track of the numbers and it has a little dial on it. It’s in the shape of a half moon with an arrow that ticks upwards as more people join, like the speedometer in your car. Last week we broke the dial because so many people were signing up. It was jammed at a 180° angle with nowhere to go! When we hit the 10k milestone on Monday I made another call to Joshi, one that was far less anxious and far more excited. I may have squealed.
The fact of the matter is, leaving my relatively stable job to set up a paper was always a bit of a gamble. Truthfully, I thought I’d have a bit of a longer grace period, a little bit of a run up before I’d be publishing to so many readers. But I’m certainly not complaining. I was always hopeful that there were other people in Birmingham, like me, who wanted to read journalism about our city that was written like stories: with a narrative and lots of colour. To know that there are makes me feel more connected to others in this great city.
If that sounds like you too, then can I encourage you to think about becoming a paying member of this community? I realise that isn’t possible for everyone. But if you think what we’re doing is valuable for Birmingham, and if it makes you feel more connected to the Brummies around you (native and adopted), then we need you to invest in us. Writing up press releases is easy. But getting to the real stories of the people and places that define us is hard, and takes time. We can only sustain it if those who value us are willing to support it. And if you do, you’ll get more of our longer pieces — taking you deeper into the many stories this city has to tell.
And finally, given the theme of this note I’d be remiss not to repeat the news that we are hiring a second staff writer! I cannot describe how excited I am to have a full time colleague. Dan Cave, who writes several Brum in Briefs a week, is excellent company but as a part timer, there’s only so much of my Dispatch patter that I can bother him with (thanks Dan). So please do share the job advert with any keen journalists you know, especially if they are full of ideas and a love for storytelling. I look forward to hearing from them.
Bye for now,
Kate — Editor, The Dispatch