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Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

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September 14, 2018updated 24 Sep 2018 10:23am

Press Gazette tells Cairncross: Time may have come to compel Google and Facebook to support local news

By Dominic Ponsford

This is Press Gazette’s response to the Cairncross Review’s call for evidence.

The Government review is examining the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the UK, prompted by industry-wide decline in print circulations and ad revenues.

If Google can invest in balloons to provide internet access to remote areas of the world perhaps it can be persuaded to divert some of its huge profits towards subsidising news in areas of the UK which no longer have it.

Such a move would, Press Gazette argues, be enlightened self interest for a digital media company which relies on the news industry for a large proportion of the free content its vast profits are based upon.

It is also a moral imperative for a business which takes billions of pounds in advertising every year which previously paid for journalism jobs in the local and national press.

In 2005 (at around their high-water mark commercially) UK national and local newspapers together made around £5bn a year in advertising revenue. Back then the internet accounted for around £1.4bn in advertising spend, according to Advertising Association figures.

In 2017 the UK advertising market grew to a record £22.2bn, according to the same source.

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UK national newspapers declined by 5.6 per cent year on year in 2017 to £1.032bn in advertising revenue and regional newspapers and their websites accounted for £887m (down 13.1 per cent year on year).

Meanwhile, by Press Gazette’s conservative estimates, at least £1bn in UK advertising revenue went to Facebook and £5bn to Google last year.

Such is the dominance of Google and Facebook over the UK advertising market that in April 2017 we launched a campaign to highlight the concerns we had about the impact of this Duopoly on the media ecosystem.

The commercial lifeblood has flowed out of local newspapers and into these two digital giants. Thousands of jobs have left the journalism industry as a result.

I would urge you to ask Google and Facebook how much money they make out of advertising in the UK and also how much of their users’ time is spent with professionally produced journalistic content.

Our research suggests that there has been a net loss of at least 228 local newspapers in the UK since 2005.

Those that survive do so with a fraction of the staff they once had.

In 2006 there were 13,000 journalists employed in the local press according to the Newspaper Society.

Today Press Gazette believes the total is considerably less than half that.

The big regional dailies have contracted to their city centre cores, whereas previously they employed journalists covering a vast hinterland. In 2016 former Derby Telegraph editor Keith Perch told Press Gazette his title had contracted from 120 journalists in 2006 to 32.

Hundreds of local weekly newspaper offices have closed meaning titles are often now produced remotely, far from the patches they serve.

Courts and councils are no longer covered in anything like the depth they once were meaning there is a growing accountability gap.

Press Gazette’s research has found that the problem is most acute in London where half of the boroughs have just one dedicated reporter and two have no weekly newspaper at all.

In July 2017 the local newspaper for Kensington closed leaving the London borough with no dedicated title.

In 1990 the Kensington and Chelsea News had ten reporters. Former journalist on the title Grant Feller told us he was convinced local journalists in the better-staffed pre-internet era would have picked up the concerns about fire safety raised by Grenfell Tower residents in advance of the June 2017 fire in which 72 people died.

Such stories are bread and butter to local newspaper journalists. But with so many of them gone many are no longer being told.

In 2010 we dubbed Long Eaton in Derbyshire “the town without a voice” following the closure of its long-standing weekly newspaper the Long Eaton Advertiser.

It is a town of 45,000 which had no dedicated local reporters on any platform. From fundraising for the local carnival to getting witness appeals out for local police – the Advertiser performed a vital service.

Such a role is now performed by Facebook in many places.

In my own village in East Sussex where there is no local paper someone was able to set up a fake Facebook page in the run-up to a local planning referendum to spread misinformation.

It was a microcosm of the far more serious issues around secret unregulated dark advertising which was rife on the platform during the UK referendum on leaving the European Union.

The billions spent on newspaper advertising paid for national newspapers to cover war zones and for local newspaper journalists to trudge out to parish council meetings, heroic endeavours in different ways at both ends of the spectrum.

Today both foreign correspondents and local council reporters are an endangered species.

The hope had been that new online models would evolve to replace print journalism and to some extent they have. At the top end digital subscriptions have been the salvation of titles like The Times and Financial Times.

But all the evidence suggests that only a small minority will ever pay for online news in the UK– such is the ubiquity of free content from the BBC.

At a local level there is very little evidence of sustainable online-only journalism models emerging to serve local people in a post-print world.

Ultra-local news websites have sprung up all over the UK, but very few are able to pay professional journalists.

Since the tabloid hacking scandal journalism has had a pretty dire reputation in the UK.

But most journalists are honest toilers who do an incredibly important job.

When ordinary people have nowhere else to turn they provide them with a voice and ensure that those in power are held to account.

This is what we stand to lose from the loss of local news jobs in particular.

While the news media spends hundreds of millions gathering original content, verifying it and publishing it – Google and Facebook profit from that work for free. The digital giants are insulated from the threat of privacy and defamation actions, passing on that liability to their users.

Press Gazette would argue that what the news industry deserves is fairness: a fair share of the revenue which is made on the back of its content from the US-based digital giants.

We would also argue that as a society we should take a close look at where the decline of local professionally-produced journalism is going to take us. We should think about what it will mean for the cohesiveness of local communities and the accountability of politicians and public services.

If a way can be found to siphon some of the billions in revenue made by the US digital giants into supporting high-quality local journalism we argue that would provide a huge social good.

Up until now we have argued that the Duopoly should do so voluntarily because it will benefit both media giants to have high quality local content on their platforms. But if they do not choose to do the right thing then perhaps they should be compelled to do so.

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