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March 31, 2017

The decline of local journalism is a far greater threat to media plurality than Rupert Murdoch

By Dominic Ponsford

Many politicians are acutely concerned about the effect on media plurality of Rupert Murdoch buying the 61 per cent of Sky that his company does not already control.

There are at least four other 24-hour rolling news channels serving the UK at a national level as well as a ten non-Murdoch national daily newspapers, the BBC, ITN, Press Association, Reuters and whole plethora of news websites.

Yet in most towns and cities across the UK there is just one news organisation covering local events in any detail. And in many there is none.

As Helen Goodman MP told Parliament yesterday, this is the real crisis which our politicians should address and which the NUJ has been highlighting this week with its Local News Matters campaign.

Estimates vary, but at least half the UK local newspaper journalism jobs in the UK are believed to have gone over the last decade.

There has been a net loss of around 200 local newspaper titles since 2005 (around 1,000 are left).

In some areas, typically the poorer ones, there are no professional journalists at all left to hold politicians and others to account.

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Many of the newspapers that remain do not have a dedicated editor, or even dedicated reporters, instead drawing content from a pool of journalists who post directly to online.

A shift in emphasis away from paid-for print journalism, to free online content, means journalists may have to focus on stories which will generate high-levels of clicks over the community journalism which which was previously seen as a vital part of the print package.

The fear is that in parts of the UK, injustices which once could have been righted by local newspapers will go unchallenged.

The NUJ reports that the BBC is also withdrawing from some areas by closing district offices. And ITV local TV news nowadays covers vast regions having also retreated from more localised reporting.

Council notices, an unofficial subsidy once worth around £70m a year to the regional press, are – in some cases – being placed in publications which provide the cheapest price, rather than the best service to the community.

All this gloom must be tempered by acknowledging that Britain still produces astonishingly good local newspaper journalism.

These recent online projects from Trinity Mirror’s Manchester Evening News and Wales Online show just how high that standard can be:

Local newspaper journalists work harder today than they have ever done before and do a fantastic job with the resources they have. They are, in my view, the heroes of our industry. But they need help.

The BBC-funded project to create 150 local democracy reporters is a great start. But I believe more state intervention will be needed if robust, independent local journalism is to be protected.

This could include:

  • Ensuring that council and Government advertising is spent on newspapers and websites which provide the biggest contribution to society in terms of their journalism
  • Providing enticements in the tax system to invest money in local public interest journalism
  • Providing direct grants in areas where the local advertising market is no longer able to support professional journalism
  • Diverting more of the BBC’s £3.7bn licence fee income to support local newsgathering.

Internet giants Google and Facebook have a role to play in this too.

They helped destroy the old business model of local newspapers by first taking their classified advertising and then the display.

They are two alpha predators who threaten to wipe out other media companies by gorging themselves on all the available advertising income.

Google and Facebook should start giving something back to local media now because it is the right thing to do and because we all benefit from a healthy and diverse news ecosystem.

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