Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Safeguarding the future of the local press

The Chartered Institute of Journalists continues to campaign in defence of local newspapers. We recently took part in a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on the crisis in local newspapers. Amanda Brodie, who chairs the Institute’s Professional Practices Board, spoke at the meeting, telling MPs (including Culture Minister Ed Vaizey) that local papers “are facing challenges as never before” and that the Government must act now to help safeguard their future.

She told the meeting: “We supported MP Jonathan Edwards’ call, made in 2012, for local papers to be designated community assets under the provisions of the Localism Act 2011, and gave evidence to an APPG which he organised on this subject. Much has been said since then from inside and outside the industry about the precarious state of our local press, but little has been done to support it.

“There has been enough debating, we are all only too aware of the problems – it is time to take some positive action. The Chartered Institute of Journalists has campaigned long and hard on many of these issues. But we now call on people in government to act, because without your support, our local newspapers will be lost.”

Addressing the Minister, Ed Vaizey, she said that during a Westminster Hall debate in 2012 Mr Vaizey had spoken of the “passionate support” of the House of Commons for the local press. “We now ask you to make good on that support and 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.”

The meeting was attended by a wide variety of representatives from the media industry, including the Society of Editors, Newspaper Society, and local newspaper editors, as well as by John Whittingdale, Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

Crisis

After the meeting Amanda Brodie presented Ed Vaizey with a briefing document from the CIoJ which described the closure of local newspapers as “arguably the greatest crisis ever to hit our profession. It is a silent cancer which will have far-reaching effects long after the current debate about press regulation has died down.” It added that the “furore over phone hacking has become an unwelcome diversion to the issue we should be tackling – whether local papers can survive in the current economic climate.”

One of the UK’s biggest local newspaper groups, Johnston Press, had only recently announced that it would be halving its journalistic workforce by 2020, with content bring produced 50/50 by journalists and “community contributors”.

“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.”

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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