The collapse of the local press: A disaster facing local democracy

Grenfell_Tower_fire_morning

Grenfell Tower: The next morning Pic credit: Wikipedia

I recently wrote a piece for the National Union of Journalists campaign,Local News Matters fighting to keep local newspapers alive. While much time has been devoted to the plight of the national press losing swathes of staff, not enough attention has been given to the almost total collapse of local news reporting.

The catalyst was the appalling Grenfell Tower fire which erupted with a huge loss of life, and why ,until then, nothing had been written about it. The fire not only destroyed a community but exposed the appalling lack of local reporting in the months leading up to the fire.

The local residents association – the Grenfell Action Group – had been warning of fire safety issues in Grenfell Tower and other blocks of flats as long ago as 2013.

But they had been ignored and when their blogs got too critical they were threatened by  the solicitor to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with defamation proceedings unless they took down the critical posts.

The reason why their concerns went unreported was entirely due to the state of the local press. As Grant Feller, a former reporter, wrote in Press Gazette
In 1990 there would have been two rival papers the Chelsea News and the Kensington News and a team of ten reporters looking at everything in the borough.
“But today there is no-one there. There is a newspaper that cares for Londoners, reflects London and does its bit for London – and that’s the Evening Standard. But it doesn’t do these types of stories.”
Indeed there are only two on line papers Kensington Chelsea and Westminster Today and the Kensington and Chelsea Times. Both are mainly life style and leisure publications. The KCWT contained just one article on the Tower disaster culled from coverage already broadcast by the BBC. The Kensington and Chelsea Times had one original story by a named reporter when the fire had taken hold and one story on an appeal for the victims.
This is not unusual. A damning submission from the NUJ to Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, gives details of the parlous state of the capital’s papers and their reporting abilities. It warns that events are not being properly covered, staff have been slashed to the bone, pay is appalling with many journalists not able to afford to live in London in rented accommodation yet alone get a mortgage. The situation is similar in the rest of the country.
Ex editors feel the same. Mike Gilson, who has had a stellar career in regional and devolved national journalism from the Portsmouth News to the Brighton Argus and from The Scotsman to the Belfast Telegraph, recently quit the Argus after trying to revive good investigative local journalism.
In article in the Press Gazette quoting from an essay he wrote for a book Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? he says :
“In Brighton searing images and accounts of the Shoreham Air Show tragedy last year, as an out-of-control vintage aircraft sped from a clear blue sky into unsuspecting motorists on the A27, were online before journalists, photographers and writers, had even made it to the scene.
But we still need journalists with the time, training and passion to avoid this ever-increasing deficit. No amount of digitally empowered bloggers, many of them diligent thorns in the side on a range of issues, will make up for the loss of professional reporting.
In some towns courts, council meetings and trust boards are all going unreported now.”
Now some of the slack has indeed been taken up by the growth of bloggers and citizen journalists. But however good these people are they are not a substitute for a well staffed paper with ten fully paid reporters covering a local community.
Bloggers just like the Grenfell Action Group are also vulnerable to being picked off by powerful people and threatened with defamation if they criticise wealthy powerful individuals or even public bodies. The case of the Camarthenshire blogger,. Jacqui Thompson, who was threatened with losing her home after a bitter legal dispute between her and the chief executive of her local council, Mark James. is an example. He used public money to sue her and fight a counter claim despite criticism from the National Audit Office in Wales. She is still left with paying out £25,000 over a dispute that began with her filming the council.
Frankly this means that people in powerful positions are beginning to realise they can get away with things that ought to be investigated by an independent press. Whether it is local corrupt deals, appalling child sexual abuse claims or people being bullied and harassed by the wealthy, those in authority and criminals knowing they have a 90 per cent chance of getting away with it.
The conclusion is obvious. If we don’t do anything to stem the collapse of local reporting we will have a democracy in name only, with no substance because nothing will be reported.

15 thoughts on “The collapse of the local press: A disaster facing local democracy

  1. On the other hand David, some of the local press needs to disappear, My local Stoke on Trent newspaper “The Sentinel” isn’t fit to wipe my arse with and is totally biased towards the Tories, to the extent that it ran an issue before the general election asking readers to vote for them. There’s not much sign of unbiased reporting from what I hear from people daft enough to buy it. Personally I don’t hand my money over for such drivel. Real news and local issues seem to be an anatherma to the editor.

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  2. We don’t seem to get many local press whistleblowers. I’d suggest that plenty of “footsoldiers” working on the ground are happy to be flexible and to bend to the desires of their crooked, whip cracking owners and managers, whilst grumbling and continuing to collect their salaries.

    I say this after watching the Wirral rags – what’s left of them – closely since I was driven out of the local council back in 2003, for speaking out and becoming a “troublemaker” .

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  3. Mmm. Speaking as a ‘digitally empowered’ blogger, I have to say I think some of this piece is rather patronising, and fails to address one of the central reasons for the long, slow death of local journalism – and that is a decline in standards of journalism by both editorial staff and reporters.

    Of course there is a background of huge cuts in staffing levels, but the truth is that there is an element of laziness, and lack of vigour, among too many local journalists – and editors.

    The loss of local newspapers is partly due to management policy, and cuts in staffing, but some of the blame, in many cases, must lie in the failure to do the job properly, and to expect news to come to the paper, rather than go out and look for it. If you can’t produce something worth reading, why would anyone buy your paper?

    Now in too many areas we see the repeated and unchallenged use, for example, of local authority spin, and a failure by local newspapers to investigate important stories.

    Perhaps it is partly a question of a decline in standards of training, as well as an institutionalised fear of competing with social media: but the warning signs have been there for many years – adapt or die – and now … the end is nigh.

    It doesn’t have to be so: papers like the Ham & High manage to survive, and to produce a well written, intelligent and popular local paper, with an additional digital version. Perhaps it survives by bucking the trend, and reminding us of what a local paper should be, rather than what most of them have become.

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    • I don’t think you have grasped how serious the situation is for local newspapers and how difficult it is for some reporters to do their job. The owners of many London newspapers – who want maximum profits – are cutting them to the bone so nobody could do a proper job. I have forwarded to you the NUJ submission to Sadiq Khan in an email which describes in detail the dire situation in London. One extraordinary additional fact is that 94 pc of newspaper reporters are white – suggesting the proprietors are not hiring many black reporters. This is hameful for such a diverse city as London.

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      • Thank you: I have indeed ‘grasped’ how serious the situation is for local newspapers – we are well aware of the problem in my area, as one local paper has just closed, and the other is reduced to one edition. In both cases staffing has been reduced, and of course this has a huge impact on the ability to cover as wide a range of issues as there should be. But within those limitations it is perfectly possible to write a good article, and one that is fair, well researched, balanced – and interesting. Sadly, this is no longer the standard of work we see generally in local papers. There is also a dearth of any investigative journalism – except by local bloggers.

        You may argue this is a result of poor training: that then is a matter for the NUJ and the profession.

        Incidentally one should not assume that bloggers are not NUJ members, or have not had any training or background in journalism.

        The other issue which I think is a national one is the tendency in some areas for local papers to bow to political pressure and shape content accordingly, putting advertising profits before independence and interesting content.

        Perhaps if more local reporters and editors showed some of the courage and enterprise of bloggers like Jacqui Thompson, and dared once more to try to ‘hold power to account’, and stop recycling the churned out spin of local authorities, their papers might once more become worth reading, and their circulation increase – as well as advertising revenue from a wider range of sources.

        The other issue is that rather than dismissing the model of hyperlocal websites and blogs such as ‘Inside Croydon’, the Brixton Bugle etc, local papers should learn from their success and adapt to the harsh reality that most people now go to social media for news, locally and nationally. Interactive media is the way forward, and the days of local print newspapers, with a few exceptions …. are over. Sadly.

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  4. You tell him, Mrs Angry. Don’t think Mr Hencke has grasped that things have moved on since 1947, when he was a boy reporter on the Berkhamsted Bugle, licking the end of his pencil & knocking out a glowing review of the Womens Institute’s xmas panto. Cheers. Vernon.

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  5. Vernon – your reference to the Berkhamsted Bugle reminds me of a question I have been meaning to ask for some time. Was Mr Hencke trained at any stage by Ed Reardon, another famous writer from that town?

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    • Well, yes, Paul: I can see where you are coming from, on that one. Berkhamsted is the natural home of curmudgeons, I believe. But of course whereas Ed Reardon and I are flesh and blood, and men of the world, Hencke appears to be a figment of his own imagination.

      That beard, for example: clearly fake.

      And Mrs Angry: on the subject of training, you might like to give him a few lessons on blogging – he missed out half the text of this one when he first published it. Amateur hour.

      I much prefer your own efforts, which are better spelled, and have better jokes. Also, I like a woman who knows what a question mark is, and when to use it?

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  6. Nicholas Shaxson has added this comment on the post via email :
    Crucial issue. One answer (not the only one) to this is to look at the tech companies like Facebook and so on: the winners of ‘platform capitalism.’. They don’t create the content but they cream the profits. Regulate them like utilities in the public interest, and make sure that the advertising and other revenues make their way to the people who create the content – including local newspapers. More broadly, start getting serious about, and understanding, monopoly capitalism. It’s rampant.

    Also, I wonder if it’s possible to think about a “Spotify for news” model where you pay one subscription which can then access you any media – and if you want to read someone’s article you pay (e.g.) 10p a read, or you pay a monthly subscription for the lot, or something. Again, this platform would have to be closely regulated, in the public interest. There are models out there pointing in this direction but nothing’s been a big success yet.

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