Two daily papers in towns in Australia were closed down in what has been reported as the first systematic closure of paid-for titles Down Under. To which I can hear your reaction: why on earth should we care? True, set against the more pressing issues we all face today – from job insecurity to global warming – it doesn’t really register on our personal Richter Scale of concerns. And while we in the industry may, in some small part, mourn the passing of the Coffs Coast Advocate and the Tweed Daily News, I am not really advocating (if you’ll forgive the pun) that you should spend too much time worrying about the shortfall in information that’s about to hit the citizens of New South Wales.
However, this story is relevant as it has important parallels with what is happening much closer to home. The demise of the local paper in Britain is something we should all take seriously. There is no central register of closures, but titles such as the Belper Bugle, the Spalding Target, the Abergele Visitor and the Westmorland Messenger have been among the dozens to have disappeared in the past few years and a respected media analyst told a committee of MPs that up to half of the UK’s local papers could close by 2014.
According to the Newspaper Society 146 local papers have closed down over the last five years, many of them freesheets. There have been launches, including paid-for titles, but many of those that remain have reduced staff resources. According to evidence given to the Lords Select Committee on Communications’ inquiry into the future of investigative journalism, half of all editors of local newspapers say that their papers scrutinise local authorities less today than they did ten years ago. The loss of a local paper may not have the day-to-day impact on a community of, say, the closure of a butcher’s shop or a hardware store, but the gap it leaves behind is a very serious one.
The need for printed media may be waning, replaced in part by the many other, freely available sources of information. But the need for independent news is as great as ever and the desire to hold local politicians to account and businesses to scrutiny, is arguably more intense in this age of supposedly open government and commercial transparency.
Up and down the country, there are a few public-spirited individuals who are doing their bit, through websites, blogs, newsletters and the like, to make up this democratic deficit. One of those, the website Pits n Pots, aims to boost political engagement in Stoke-on-Trent by reporting on local politics. Pits n Pots is an early beneficiary of support from The Journalism Foundation due to the important work it is doing for the local area. The website’s editor, Mike Rawlins, is committed to reporting on political issues in Stoke-on-Trent applying the same degree of scrutiny that all good news journalists apply to their own work.
In many areas, however, there is a great big vacuum where reporting on local councils used to be, hence the poor turn-out in regional elections. In the worst of all worlds, this shortfall is taken up by the council itself with the sort of publication that would give Pravda a run for its money in terms of objective reporting.
I live in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and part of my council tax goes to the publication of a free “newspaper” called Royal Borough, which is little more than council propaganda. Cutbacks are referred to as “shared services”, and stories tell of the council’s “good planning” and of schools delivering “a first-class education”.
One thing is for sure, from Coffs Coast to Kensington: journalism may have a bad reputation at the moment, but we’ll miss it if it’s not there.
To read more about how The Journalism Foundation is supporting local journalism click here.
A version of this article was originally published in The Independent, 24 November 2011