What Can Be Done To Stop The Death Of Local Newspapers?
Amid the leaked briefings on Covid restrictions and headline-grabbing clashes between local and national government this week, few would have noticed a policy paper slipped out by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on a somewhat less explosive subject: the material impact of local media on democratic participation.
But the report, commissioned in April and written by the consultancy firm Plum, carried deeply concerning findings for the future of British democracy.
It looked at the “recent dynamics of the press sector”, and found “the presence of journalism in civil society is vital to its functioning”. The future for the UK is bleak: “The closure of local and regional news titles has led to underreporting and less scrutiny of democratic functions.”
The effect, it said, could be dire: the absence of journalism, it said, could be “potentially catastrophic” on local communities, particularly in rural areas.
As well as direct political engagement, the study found the loss of local newspapers could “lead to other effects with negative consequences for cohesion in democratic society” such as “increasingly polarised political behaviour”.
It went on: “Looking ahead, challenging conditions for UK local and regional news publishers are likely to continue.” It added that “this situation is unlikely to change without intervention”.
In the wake of the report, leading figures in the media sector and politicians have told The House a raft of measures are needed to help papers get through the pandemic and the resulting economic slowdown.They are calling for a massive expansion of the existing Local Democracy Reporter scheme in partnership with the BBC, along with tax credits, digital transition grants and an increase in advertising spend.
With job losses as a result of the Covid-19 crisis already being announced, the report looked at government intervention around the world in the industry, many of which go further than the historically “hands-off approach” in the UK.
David Higgerson, chief audience officer at publisher Reach, which owns regional titles including the Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Echo, Birmingham Mail and Bristol Post, welcomed the report’s conclusions about the impact good local journalism can have on democratic engagement.
He said robust local coverage was vital to counter disinformation on social media, and added “we need to make sure we don't lose any more in the future”.
Suggesting there should not be direct subsidies from central government to the industry - “we must make sure local journalism can still do its job without worrying they will get a tap on their shoulder for doing it,” he also said they could look at funding a massive expansion of the BBC Local Democracy Reporter scheme.
Launched in 2017, it sees the state broadcaster allocate £8 million a year to fund up to 150 additional roles covering local authorities around the UK for other titles, or shared with them.
Higgerson said it could double the number of reporters and cover every council in the country, and be used for court reporters too - whose numbers have dwindled in recent years.
“It would be very easy for the government to say let's do that for every crown court in the country, every magistrates’ court in the country.
“Even the LDR scheme we've got - there are something like 300 councils, even a doubling of that so every borough council has a dedicated reporter, in terms of investment from the government it would be relatively small.”
It is a scheme James Mitchinson, editor of the Yorkshire Post and a host of other titles in the region, would also like to see expanded.
He said it had “done nothing but good in the areas my titles cover,” and agreed it could be extended to cover courts too, as readers deserve "justice being seen to be done”.
Mitchinson is also wary of state subsidies, but said money could be given to titles through an intermediary such as the News Media Association or the Society of Editors, and it must have “very stringent balances”.
But he was clear more help is needed, explaining: “We will lose titles - and what is even more corrosive is that which replaces them: the hobbyists in back bedrooms who are ill-informed, have nefarious motivations.
“They are not trained, they are not accredited, they are not accountable to a body like IPSO, and so yes it is damaging for those titles to disappear - but that’s compounded by the fact it creates a democratic vacuum where frankly anything can occupy the space and they begin to inform the public however they want to frankly.
“Because social media sites are not regulated, there are no standards and it’s very difficult for an ordinary member of the public to differentiate between what they can and can't trust.”
Mitchinson also called for transition grants to be made available from DCMS that can be invested in improving digital infrastructure so titles can monetise their business better online and target advertisers to try and take back some of the market share hoovered up by the tech giants.
He said they don’t have the wherewithal to make that investment themselves, and grants “would allow local journalism to save itself”.
Both of them suggested central government and local authorities should go back to making publishers their default place for getting their message out, rather than using Google.
The Lib Dem spokesperson on culture Jamie Stone put it in more stark terms, saying ad spending was the fastest way to get “dosh in the door” at local titles.
Referencing the plight of the newspapers in his northern Scottish constituency he said: “We need to get dosh in the door, otherwise they are going to wither and die. And it's as bleak as that.”
A former councillor and member of the Scottish Parliament, he said: “I have seen a decline in coverage of council meetings, notwithstanding the best attempts of local papers to sit at the back and report on it, and that’s very dangerous because all sorts of things might be happening that a light should be shone on.
“Not because they are evil, but it's watching democracy happen.”
He said a “vibrant local press cheers people up and improves the quality of life”, echoing Mitchinson, who said the report shows papers are a “symbol of a functioning society”.
Jo Stevens, Labour’s shadow culture secretary agreed, saying: “We know the vital role that local newspapers play in our democracy holding councils and regional and devolved governments to account.
“The decline in local newspapers is not just damaging for our democracy but also our sense of community.
“Sadly the problems that were already there in terms of funding have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the need to find a long term solution is imperative.”
And industry body the News Media Association said: “Local newspapers underpin democracy at a local level and this study provides a graphic illustration of one of the many ways in which they do this.”
But its deputy chief executive Lynne Anderson added: “The study also highlights the significant challenges facing the local news sector.
“It is vital that we act urgently to safeguard local news media and local journalism by taking decisive action to level the playing with the tech giants and providing quick targeted support for the industry so it can continue to invest in the journalism we all want to read.”
The National Union of Journalists have been lobbying government to look at their plan to help the industry, which includes policies in the short-term such as a windfall tax of 6% on the tech giants, using the Digital Services Tax, to fund a News Recovery Plan, and free vouchers for online or print subscriptions to all 18-and-19-year olds.
In the longer term they want to see the establishment of a government-funded Journalism Foundation – as recommended in the UK’s Cairncross Review into the media – to invest in local news and innovative journalistic projects, and to confer “asset of community value” status on local newspapers, as happens with community pubs, helping preserve their ownership.
NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: "This research underlines the relationship that exists between a healthy local press and the engagement of communities in local democracy. “Undermine, diminish or obliterate local news and see the impact come election time. Quality journalism gives communities a voice and ensures citizens are informed and able to engage and fully participate in issues that shape their lives.”
On the windfall tax for tech giants she said: “it’s high time these global entities pay their fair share”, saying journalists are not seeking handouts but investment to improve local democracy and serve the public good.
In response to the report, the media Minister John Whittingdale said: “This government has always recognised the importance of a free press to our country and democracy, but our new research shows just how vital it is.
“The direct correlation between local newspaper provision and electoral turnout proves that a healthy democracy, even at a grassroots level, needs high quality local journalism to thrive.
“In response to the Cairncross Review, we committed to helping put our news media on a stronger footing. Now the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing news publishers in what was already a changing landscape.
“With misinformation out there about the virus, the reliability of information is now more important than ever and it remains my absolute priority to ensure we do all we can to support local news outlets during this crisis.
“The long term sustainability of the local and regional press is vital so they can continue holding decision-makers to account.”
DCMS pointed to measures such as designating journalists and newspaper employees as key workers at the start of the pandemic so they could keep doing their jobs, as well as fast-tracking the removal of VAT from digital newspapers, and launching the “All-in, all together” advertising campaign which saw £35million spent across approximately 600 titles, with more than 60% to to local and regionals.