Media commentator and journalism professor Roy Greenslade has said he predicts that all local journalism will be online-only within fewer than 30 years.
The former Daily Mirror editor said there is “no reason why a totally online newspaper serving a big audience shouldn’t work,” but that local news needed a new funding model.
“We are never going to raise enough money through advertising alone,” he said. “We have tried subscriptions, paywalls, so far that hasn’t worked at a local level.”
Greenslade said a possible solution could be funding via a public service subsidy, similar to the TV licence fee that pays for the BBC.
The BBC is currently funding 150 local democracy reporters to plug the so-called “democratic deficit” left by newsroom cuts and title closures across the UK regional press.
Greenslade said: “I want to see public service journalism stay and to make it stay I feel we are going to need a subsidy.
“It could be arms-length from the Government, the Government doesn’t need to interfere, we set a licence fee and that can be spread out across publishers across Britain.
“A lot of people would say that you’re still seeing it in corporate terms – you’re handing out money to corporate people to make money – but I’m looking to a future where there won’t be that much money to be made.
“I’m looking for a future where you sustain non-profit public service journalism. If we are going to save journalism – journalism means public service journalism – we are going to need to think otherwise.
“Philanthropy is a possibility but I don’t see many philanthropists stepping in and saying: ‘I’m funding this local paper’. But I do think we could think of mixed economy [solutions]: partial subscription, asking readers to donate – like the Guardian does.”
Asked what he thinks local journalism will look like in the future, Greenslade said: “I think it will be all online – and much sooner than 30 years.
“If I look at the trends illustrated by the three big publishers by Newsquest, by Trinity Mirror and by Johnston Press – all of them in fringe areas are gradually going much more online-only.
“Daily papers are becoming weekly papers, weekly papers are becoming much more reliant on very small staff numbers, mainly concentrating online, because that’s what the audience wants: online.”
Greenslade said local newspapers had been hit hard by the shift to online news, but that the real threat came from social media – namely Facebook.
“I think the growth of Facebook is the biggest shock we’ve faced,” he said.
“We’ve faced the internet, and we’ve seemed to reach an accommodation with it, we knew where the situation was going and that eventually there would be a switch, but Facebook changes everything.”
He said it wasn’t just young people who “read everything through a screen” but that middle-aged and older people were also in touch with their friends on Facebook and get their news through the platform.
“They get their little newsfeeds [and] they don’t feel the need to do anything else,” he said.
“Facebook is like my newspaper. It’s a personal newspaper – which is really what we always wanted to do. We wanted really to create papers that reach the individual.
“Of course that was impossible then, but now social media gives you your personal paper.”
Greenslade began his career on east London weekly the Barking and Dagenham Advertiser in 1964 and stressed how much the news industry has changed since then.
“When I started at the Advertiser there would be people lined up outside of the shops desperate to get hold of the papers – not necessarily of the news, but many of them were desperate to get hold of the small ads.
“Small ads were, of course, the lifeblood of newspapers, they were the rivers of gold that really paid for our journalism.
“Advertising, but very much small advertising, made it profitable, ensured that we could have three reporters in our little place selling three-and-a- half thousand copies a week and you could make a profit selling 3,500 papers on a weekly newspaper.
“If you wanted to sell a bike, if you wanted to rent a property or buy a car you did it through your local paper. It meant of course it was very restrictive because you could only see it in the area.
“People were engaged in their community.”
It is now well documented that local newspapers are struggling in the face of declining print advertising revenues and falling circulations as readers migrate to digital – and mobile – in their droves.
Since 2005 nearly 200 local UK newspapers have closed, according to Press Gazette research carried out last year.
Greenslade said he feels quality has suffered as a result of the move to digital. He said: “I believe that more journalists means more time and more time, generally, should mean better quality.
“I totally understand and listen to publishing managers that say, if you look back the quality wasn’t always that great. There were a lot of lazy journalists about. They only did one story a day and now you can do six a day.
“I do understand that… especially in my early national newspaper days, we lived in a golden time. We did get drunk a lot and work was almost like a kind of playtime.
“That has passed, and probably for the better, but quality still demands human input and it is important to have collective input – you need to be able to throw it around the office a bit.”
He added: “With the coming of the internet we faced a structural threat to the existence of newspapers, I think it took a long time for publishers and journalists and everyone connected to the industry to realise the enormity of threat to news print.
“And a long time, I think, to realise they needed to invest in new technologies before they could start to gather an audience on the net.”
Greenslade is to step down from his teaching duties at City University, and said he was thinking of finally putting pen to paper for a work of fiction.
Picture: Sean Smith for The Guardian