Trinity Mirror chief executive Simon Fox claims there is no "democratic deficit" in local news.
Of course there is, and it is a situation which is worsened by his company (the UK's largest local press publisher) sacking journalists and closing newspapers. Compared with 30 years ago, as Granville Williams notes today in an excellent blog, communities do not have the in-depth level of journalistic coverage that they once had. Press Gazette research suggests that over the last decade perhaps half of the UK's regional press journalists may have gone.
It is a situation which is worsened by two mistakes I believe some regional press companies are making.
Johnston Press and others are scrapping the age-old system of district patch reporters in favour of pools of journalists filing for multiple titles over large areas. Local newspapers need people who are passionate about their local areas and embedded in them, building up knowledge and contacts over years. The pool system sacrifices much of that, as does Newsquest's brutal out-sourcing of sub-editing to distant 'hubs'.
- Regional press groups are chasing high traffic numbers as a way to make the transition from print to online. This can manifest itself in clickbait-style stories which have little or no local angle but which drive up the figures. In my view these titles' long-term survival lies in being true to their roots, focusing on quality over quantity and burrowing down into the details of local news rather than favouring content which attracts national traffic.
While the big picture for UK regional newspapers remains a challenging one, there are growing signs that the longed-for ground-up renaissance of local journalism may be on its way.
Example number one is Alan Barnes, a former Daily Star sub-editor who has nearly tripled his old salary by launching his own Home Handbook local publication. The print booklet comprises a series of paid-for advertorials showcasing local businesses. Whilst not really journalism, it requires journalistic skills and shows there is money to be made by those who are willing to focus intensely on covering their local community in a way that the bigger players perhaps no longer can.
Example number two comes from Merseyside where experienced journalists Mark Thomas and Emma Gunby (pictured above) have launched an ultra local website called West Kirby Today.
Like the Local Handbooks, West Kirby Today is a franchise model created by a journalist. In this case it is the branchild of David Prior who has proved it can work by launching Altrincham Today last year and turning it into a going concern.
West Kirby is an affluent seaside town but pretty much uncovered by existing local media nowadays. The new site will be mobile-first and news led and make its money from a mixture of display advertising, listings and native content.
The big players like Newsquest, Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror have to deliver high profit margins to shareholders, pay down historic debts, support pension funds and keep the boardroom fatcats fed.
Owner-managers like Barnes and Prior don’t have to worry about any of these overheads. They can simply focus on providing a good service for the area they love whilst making a reasonable living.
If Barnes and Kirby can make decent living doing this (and I understand they are) then why can’t anyone else?