Lamenting the loss of local news

By Michael Burton and Sam Clayden | 30 August 2017

The circulation of local newspapers has plummeted since the dawn of the internet, and just this week the Oldham Evening Chronicle announced it has gone into administration after more than 150 years of reporting.

Mobile technology and tablets are the primary source of news consumption today, while social media threatens to kill off paid-for local news. At the same time, online networks soak up advertising revenue that was formerly the lifeblood of local news organisations. In the case of Oldham's local paper, a growing pension deficit also played a role.

Small papers struggling to adapt to the fast-changing world are grappling with dwindling resources, limiting their ability to cover council meetings and court proceedings, hold authorities to account and properly scrutinise decisions.

A report published by the London Assembly last week, The fate of local news – read all about it, warned the knock on effect of stunted profits has been negative for the news industry as publishers ‘cut costs to maintain titles’, leading to ‘job losses and downward pressure on wages’.

‘While free access to news is welcome, it has created problems for an industry whose business models have not always kept up with the need to change to take into account the rise of digital news sources,’ the report says.

The paper found that the rise of hyperlocal newspapers and blogging news sites show there is still ‘strong demand’ for local news and that, in London at least, most publishers have so far held strong. However, there is now real concern that the resilience of London’s local newspapers is waning.

‘The cumulative effect is the potential for a democratic deficit as local newspapers scale back their campaigns, coverage of courts, and scrutiny of council activity,’ the report read. ‘This matters because if the local press is not carrying out its democratic functions there is a risk people will be less engaged and less informed about their local community.’

But aside from the democratic deficit caused by the decline of local newspapers, their demise is cutting off vital channels through which councils can engage with residents, leaving a gaping hole in communities.

LGcommunications chair Simon Jones told The MJ: ‘The decline of local papers not only brings a democratic deficit, it also threatens to reduce community identity in the places we serve. A good local paper should be the lifeblood of the community, an information hub and champion of our towns and cities.

‘In terms of the ability to engage with residents, we are only in the foothills of really understanding the impact of the gap that is emerging. I fear the connection between local government and our citizens will be far weaker [with a reduced local media].’

The crumbling local news industry provokes the resurrection of the long-fought debate about statutory notices, which councils are required to published in local papers – at high cost. The MJ understands the Local Government Association, as part of its Budget submission, will be pressing the Government to reassess the requirement and instead leave it to council judgement about where best to place them.

Some will argue statutory notices would be better located in council publications – a trend that has emerged in part in response to the deteriorating local media industry. Many councils continue to put out their own publications, much to the dissatisfaction of local government minister Marcus Jones.

The London Assembly report said in some cases local papers had been ‘negatively affected’ by the newsletters, sometimes dubbed ‘town hall Pravdas’. ‘While these newsletters have their place, they should not be a substitute for local news,’ the paper says. ‘The Government’s intervention to clamp down on how frequently these publications are produced will help local newspapers. Local authorities should not be afraid of their critics and should instead choose to support local newspapers by advertising and making announcements through them.’

The lack of a vibrant local press monitoring its council means local government’s own internal scrutiny function must increasingly fill the gap, says former chief executive and Whitehall mandarin Lord Kerslake.

Commenting on the London Assembly report on the decline of local media, Lord Kerslake, chair of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, tells The MJ: ‘The decline of external scrutiny via the local media means we have to emphasise the importance of building a robust system of scrutiny within councils.’

Lord Kerslake recalls arriving as chief executive of Sheffield City Council in 1997 to find a thriving local media while his own leader was an ex-journalist, saying: ‘When I came to Sheffield there was a significant reporting team from the local press that attended all the main committee meetings and the full council. A large proportion of the local population in Sheffield only bought the local daily paper – even for national news.’

He adds: ‘I don’t deny relations between councils and their local press have been sometimes fraught. I remember the local press campaigning about our plan to outsource benefits, But if you felt annoyed then it meant the press was having an impact.’

‘A lot of council business gets limited coverage from the press. Although we now have FoI [Freedom of Information] and the regular publication of councillor expenses, what’s lacking is a local media properly investigating an issue.’

As communities secretary from 2010-2015, Eric Pickles tried to ban councils from producing weekly or monthly papers, which he called ‘town hall Pravdas’. In fact, many councils, such as the London boroughs of Enfield, Hackney, Lambeth, Newham and Waltham Forest, as well as Wirral MBC, continue to produce their own regular titles, and the Government continues to crack down on them.

Lord Kerslake however argues that in-house papers are not responsible for the decline of a local press, which he claims is down to ‘economic issues’.

He says: ‘Personally I think council newspapers play a role as there’s a need for them to inform residents and, in some cases, a borough may not be covered by local media. The core issue isn’t about council papers but about the economic shift in readership and advertising habits.’

The London Assembly report also wants councils to continue advertising in the local press, especially through statutory notices – a source of irritation for the sector, which argues they are a waste of money and could easily be placed online at far lower cost. Again, ministers have constantly rejected removing the insistence on notices having to appear in print locally. The Department for Communities and Local Government issued in 2014 ‘an invitation for councils, newspapers and others to express an interest in piloting innovative ways of improving statutory notices’ which was withdrawn in June 2016.

Lord Kerslake agrees that while the revenue from statutory notices is useful for local papers ‘the media can’t rely on that long term’.

He adds: ‘The fact is we need to look at a new economic model for papers such as tax changes like Gordon Brown introduced for brewing which led to a flourishing of micro breweries.’

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