Local media is a public service. It must not be allowed to wither
Local news revenues have been hit by the pandemic | PA Images
Communities will be left without a trusted news source unless government intervenes to ensure local papers and radio stations survive the pandemic
A couple of times a month I lock myself in my study and sit down to write for my local papers. Since my election last December, it’s become a routine I enjoy. “Don’t be political,” said editors in the Perthshire end of my constituency. “Be as political as you like,” said Clackmannanshire.
I get why some editors are reticent about politics. Nothing is more tedious than a dollop of party-political propaganda shoehorned into an article about the local flower show or whatever. As the First Minister said to me only last week, tree planting across Scotland exceeds all targets set by this administration.
But I digress. The feedback I get from constituents is that they like to read what’s on my mind and give me a fair amount of leeway, whether I’m writing about being the BBC presenter on air when the Twin Towers were struck, a long overdue ‘pardon’ for local miners convicted during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, or Covid disinformation.
Their role in combating fake news will never have been more important
On my day off each Sunday, I present a radio show. As with my newspaper columns, it’s often feedback that’s the best part. The late, great Jimmy Gordon offered me my first job – at Radio Clyde – straight out of university in the 1980s. And while the industry has changed dramatically in the intervening years, one central fact remains: it’s the intimacy with listeners which builds an audience. They feel they’re getting to know you. And, in times of crisis, they want to know you’re on their side.
All of us see how the pandemic has brought out the best and worst in people. There was much dismayed national head-scratching at the April Andrex frenzy. Dismay turned to despair as we saw pictures of the old and vulnerable wandering past shelves stripped bare.
But, as the pandemic stretched on, every community has discovered its heroes – people phoning neighbours to check they’re OK, shopping trips for folk unable to get out, and retired doctors and nurses returning to work to help out.
More often than not, these stories have been discovered by local papers and radio stations which have done so much in this crisis to bind communities together and keep people informed. And, crucially, they’ve been at the forefront of tackling Covid disinformation. As we prepare to roll out vaccines, their work in combating fake news will never have been more important.
Local papers are read monthly by more than 40 million people with a surprisingly high reach among 16- to 24-year-olds. And yet these hugely valuable community assets are vulnerable. Advertising revenues will have fallen by 17% this year due to Covid and thousands of jobs are at risk.
Already some papers have had to shut down their print editions. The County Down Spectator & Ulster Standard stayed its presses for the first time in 116 years. The Newry Reporter also paused production – it had been bringing local news to the public since 1867, but Covid forced it off the newsstands.
So how can we help? We can read and listen, of course. We can support advertisers. But with one-third of community radio stations facing closure, the Community Radio Fund average grant of £1,500 per station isn’t enough and crisis talks are due to be held with DCMS ministers as I write. The sector’s representatives want paid public health messaging placed throughout the rest of this crisis.
Let’s not pretend everything was hunky-dory before Covid. Local papers and radio stations have been facing long-term advertising decline. But in the pandemic, local journalism has been invigorated. Its value has been indisputable. It mustn’t be allowed to wither.
It seems I’ve written my next column.
John Nicolson is SNP MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson and member of the DCMS Select Committee