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Local newspapers are under threat – and with them local democratic accountability

by NUJ general secretary MICHELLE STANISTREET

YOUR local newspaper should be the community watchdog, celebrating the achievements of its readers, campaigning for local causes and holding local politicians and businesses to account.

But the industry is in dire straits, titles are closing and merging and independent owners are selling out so the majority of local newspapers are now owned by just three companies — Newsquest, which is part of a United States conglomerate, Reach Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press.

Staffing levels have been repeatedly slashed. Journalists are working in extremely stressful conditions, often in offices miles away from the areas they are supposed to be covering.

Staff at Darlington’s Northern Echo, who had already warned management that the situation in the newsroom was at crisis point, were recently told a further eight posts were being cut — more than a fifth of editorial.

Last week, Britain’s biggest publisher of local and regional newspapers announced that the value of its newspapers and websites have slumped by £150 million.

Reach, formerly Trinity Mirror, which owns the national Mirror and Express titles, also has 200 local newspapers including the Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Mail and Liverpool Echo in its portfolio.

The company has had to set aside £70.5m to fund payouts to phone-hacking claimants, but Reach’s troubles are shared across the industry, as the move to digital publishing has resulted in a loss in newspapers’ advertising revenue and circulations have plummeted.

The cost-cutting measures brought in to stave off loss of profits have led to the loss of thousands of journalist and photographer jobs which has inevitably had an impact on the quality of the news produced. In Reach alone more than 100 jobs have gone in the past year.

The Manchester Evening News once boasted a circulation of 200,000. It was a power in the land in north-west England. Today this figure is lower than 39,500. 

A report by the Mediatique consultancy, commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, revealed newspaper revenues from circulation and print advertising had plunged by more than half during the past decade, down from almost £7 billion to just over £3bn and, at the same time, the number of journalists employed had fallen by 26 per cent, down from 23,000 to 17,000. The National Union of Journalists believes the true picture in many local newspaper offices is worse, with staff numbers slashed by half in this period.

The crisis in local news has been picked up belatedly by the government which has called in former economics journalist Dame Frances Cairncross to hold a review into the sustainability of quality journalism.

When the review was announced by the Prime Minister earlier this year, she said the closure of titles was a danger to democracy.

“When trusted and credible news sources decline, we can become vulnerable to news which is untrustworthy,” she said.

Too often our members have been ground down by the attrition of year-on-year cuts. The union has run a number of stress surveys among members and the results are heart-breaking. 

Keen young journalists suddenly find that, as senior staff get cut or leave because they cannot survive on the poverty wages in the sector, they are left on their own with daunting deadlines and punishing workloads.

Last year staff on the Swindon Advertiser went on a two-day strike over low pay and poor working conditions at the Newsquest-owned regional daily newspaper.

Two years ago journalists on the company’s newspaper in south London voted to come out for 10 days because of plans to have 12 reporters and one content editor to produce 11 newspapers and eight associated websites.

They won great support from their readers and fellow trade unionists, but without more substantive change the NUJ can do little in the long run to resist the tide.

When I met Dame Frances, as part of her review, I stressed that she will need to be radical in her approach if she is to succeed in finding solutions to the sustainability of high-quality British journalism.  

We are now in a situation when some sort of state funding is required to help fix the industry’s broken business model and support public-interest journalism so that courts are covered, planning decisions are questioned, health trusts are scrutinised and journalism can flourish in the communities it serves.

Such funding must not be used to prop up the three major publishers which over the decades have bled their titles dry to pay out excessive profits to executives and shareholders and have not invested in journalism. Instead it should be used to rescue titles that are under threat from closure, perhaps helping a local co-operative to take over the title, and to aid start-ups for collaborative ventures and projects producing innovative and investigative reporting. 

This funding should also be linked to diversity. The newspaper industry is 94 per cent white and journalism is one of the most socially exclusive professions.

We need a press which is representative of the population it serves. Linking funding to diversity targets could help address this problem. 

Dame Frances must talk to the alternative press which is beginning to emerge, such as hyperlocal newspapers, often started by recently laid-off journalists, or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit company, financed by grants, philanthropists and public donations.

Its collaborative approach has led to work with a range of British and international newspapers and broadcasters. She should recommend the government puts in place policies to make co-operative ownership, such as at the Morning Star, easier to achieve.

She should make local newspapers community assets — like the local pub — to prevent publishers closing down a title overnight and preventing others from taking it over.

The union supports the idea of a levy on the internet giants. Google and Facebook have been using journalist content while hoovering up all the advertising revenue. Now it should be payback time and time they took responsibility for the threat they pose to public interest, local journalism.

People still want to read about their local news and want their local newspaper to represent their community’s interests, be it supporting the town’s football team or amateur dramatics society, campaigning about litter and wheelie bins, scrutinising issues of health and education as well as covering council meetings.
That is why we should all support our local newspaper.

We should tell the editors and the owners that we do not want to see journalists sacked and our local democratic institutions no longer held to account. That’s because local news matters.
 
Michelle Stanistreet is general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

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