Only 17 per cent of London’s local newspapers are based in the community they serve and around half have just one reporter for each borough they cover, research by Press Gazette has found.
Five newspapers had just one reporter covering several boroughs.
The South London Press has one reporter covering six boroughs, while its sister title the Mercury covers Greenwich and Lewisham with only one reporter.
Often several journalists jointly cover multiple boroughs for different newspapers. As a result, more than half of London’s local news titles have an average of one reporter per borough.
The 32 London Boroughs average around 200,000 in population.
Most boroughs are served by a single local newspaper.
Two boroughs, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, now have no weekly local newspaper following the closure of the Kensington & Chelsea News, Fulham Chronicle, Hammersmith Chronicle and Shepherd’s Bush Chronicle.
The titles’ owner, Capital Media Newspapers, went into administration in July and a buyer has not yet been found.
The papers, which covered an area that included Grenfell Tower, had one reporter for all three titles at the time of the flat block’s fire disaster that claimed up to 80 lives.
A journalist who worked for the Kensington News and Chelsea News 30 years ago previously told Press Gazette he was certain the paper would have picked up on residents’ fire safety concerns when it had more staff. At that time, the two titles had an editorial team of ten.
Eric Gordon, editor of the Camden New Journal, agreed. “A good local paper in Kensington may have helped to swing it,” he told Press Gazette.
“There was a blog warning there was going to be a disaster in Grenfell. If that was a local newspaper other people would have taken notice and it could have been in a national within hours.”
However, fewer staff means fewer resources to scrutinise local government, he said. “With fewer reporters it’s impossible to get to council meetings and dig deeper to cover issues in depth because it’s too time consuming.
“But the more you cut staff, the more news stories reflect those who hold power. You can smell a story which is based on a press release. It doesn’t ask questions. People sense that and stop buying the paper. And so cutting staff exacerbates the problem because it affects sales.”
Another challenge is that most local newspapers are no longer based in the borough they serve.
Tom Oxtoby, editorial director of City Matters, a weekly newspaper covering the City of London, which launched last year, said: “It’s a significant advantage for us to be within a ten minute walk of the heart of the City.
“You want to be able to pop round and see someone face-to-face. You want that association between reporter, salesperson, director and the residents, readers and the business community.”
Gordon, whose newspapers are based on patch, added: “Ideally you would be local, but rents are so high. We’re almost like a citizens’ advice bureau. People come into the office and reporters can go out and talk to people.”
A recent London Assembly report warned of a “democratic deficit” if local newspapers continued to scale back coverage of local councils. The Economy Committee report also highlighted evidence of less “on-the-ground” reporting and investigative journalism.
Hannah Walker, former editor-in-chief at South London Press, told the committee: “We have to make informed choices… I cannot afford to lose a reporter for three days not being productive. I need some copy because we have deadlines and we need to get papers out.”
Just a month before the report was published, Tindle announced the closure of three weekly newspapers in north London – The Enfield Advertiser & Gazette, the Haringey Advertiser and the Barnet Press.
Despite the closures, Oxtoby is optimistic about the future of local news in London.
“I think there is strength in grass-roots journalism and whilst many larger organisations are swinging the axe and closing titles, there is a case for independent titles like ourselves to fill that void,” he said.
“Particularly in the digital age there’s a culture of mass spreading of misinformation that can be particularly damaging. There’s a reliability in print which I think will endure for some time yet.”