EVIDENCE GIVEN TO APPG ON CRISIS IN LOCAL NEWSPAPERS – 4 July 2012
We are a non-party political membership organisation representing the interests of journalists and media workers both in the UK and abroad. We also have a trade union arm which supports members through workplace disputes and tribunals.
The demise of local newspapers is something the Institute has been campaigning on hard for some considerable time. Many of our members have been in the industry for upwards of 30 years, and none of us can recall a time of greater job losses and title contraction.
Twenty per cent of the UK’s 1,100 local newspapers have closed in the last seven years, that’s more than 240 titles. This is arguably the greatest crisis ever to hit our profession. It is a silent cancer which will have far-reaching effects long after Lord Justice Leveson has put down his pen.
Johnston Press has announced that its present 2,000 employed journalists jobs will be cut by half by 2020, when content will be produced 50/50 by journalists and ‘community contributors.’
But this is not just a question of journalists losing their jobs. If we lose our local papers, it will be a loss for the community, a loss for society and ultimately a loss for democracy. Democracy is not only the right to vote, but the right to know. Our councils and courts need to be covered, authority needs to be challenged, press offices need to be bypassed – this cannot be left to so-called ‘citizen journalists.’
Both the Local Government Association and the Magistrates Association have expressed concern that local courts and councils are no longer being covered properly by their local papers. This is because they simply do not have the qualified staff to do these jobs.
In the past our industry has relied on its journalists and the quality of its editorial content to pull it through the difficulties. But this requires experienced journalists to provide the content which newspapers need, to maintain the trust and loyalty of their readers.
Little doubt, then, that local newspapers are under attack as never before. The reasons for this are many, but main factors include:
- Fall in advertising revenues due to the economic situation
- The rise in use of the internet with a resultant expectation of free content and a migration of ad revenue from print to net
- The advent of local authority newspapers, who are using tax-payers money to fund publications which take ad revenue away from local newspapers and affect their circulation. Many have been flouting Govt guidelines on the frequency and type of publication. At the Chartered Institute of Journalists, we have been campaigning on this issue too.
- The merging of many local independent newspapers into big newspaper groups, resulting in cost-cutting on an unprecedented scale. Often this is a result of the desire to return higher dividends to shareholders, or to pay off huge debts accumulated by mass-buying of titles
- Poor management at senior level, with decisions too often being taken by people with no real experience of journalism. These managers see qualified journalists and investigative journalism as an unnecessary expense. They are using the economic situation as an excuse to take a filleting knife to our newsrooms. They are systematically denuding our local papers of the very people the industry vitally needs.
There is an important distinction to be made between local and national newspapers. Local journalists are much more likely to adhere to a code of conduct, because they live in the communities in which they work, and are accountable to them in a way which the national papers are not. Local papers are not just in the community, they are part of it. It should be remembered too that many older people or low-income families cannot afford access to the internet and rely on their local media to be kept informed.
GOING FORWARD – SOME SUGGESTIONS
Local newspapers are the training grounds for the top-flight national journalists of the future. Their duty to educate, inform, entertain and campaign, sits well with a possible approach to give them charitable status, providing they can demonstrate a genuine commitment to their community as well as fulfilling an educational role.
Major groups proposing to reduce publication frequency or title closure, should first be required to offer those titles for sale at a fair market price for possible purchase, for example by a locally-formed consortium, to take over the title. In that situation, Government would have to provide some funding by means of loans, and in some circumstances grants, as a means of returning a local paper to its locality under local ownership and management.
One example of this has already come from journalists made redundant when the Scarborough Evening News went weekly last month – they are to help launch a new title for the town. The three-day-a-week Scarborough Voice will be launched in September. It will sell for a quarter of the price that Johnston Press are charging for their evening-turned-weekly paper.
It is worth noting that those newspapers which are still independently owned and operated are not saddled with huge, crippling debts. They may be experiencing some difficulties, but not as severe as those of the larger groups, nor have they dispensed with their main stock-in-trade – their journalists and quality editorial content.
One example of this is the South London Press, which in the last month has been split into a series of hyper-local titles and overall circulation has increased by 35 per cent in one week. This shows that if you give readers what they want, they will still buy.
In the light of what is happening in the major publishing groups, we feel that the conditions for approving future newspaper merger proposals should be strengthened by requiring the taking-over group to provide a statement of intent incorporating guarantees for the maintenance of the taken-over titles and that any future departure from this pledge should require the permission of the Government for the change to be made.
As things stand, a newspaper can be taken over one year and closed down the next, without anyone being able to do anything about it.
The Chartered Institute of Journalists feels this is a massive betrayal of both the journalists and their readership, for a purpose which only benefits the publisher.
We support Jonathan Edwards’ call for local papers to be designated community assets under the provisions of the Localism Act 2011.
The Chartered Institute of Journalists has campaigned long and hard on many of these issues. But we now call on people in government like yourselves to act, because without your support, self-interest will prevail, and our local newspapers will be lost.
We ask you to do your utmost to ensure that quality local newspapers do survive, so they may continue to provide a valued service to their communities, well into the future.