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Losing local papers means a loss of local democracy

March 29, 2009 at 10:38 pm / by

I’ve written about the threat to our local papers on the Labour List website. If you can’t be bothered to navigate away from this webpage, here’s my piece –

They say all politics is local, but can it be so without a vibrant local press? This week I attended a meeting hosted by the National Union of Journalists in Parliament ominously entitled ‘Future of local news under threat.’

The main complaints made were about the thousands of media jobs losses in the regional press sector. Today it is estimated that up to 50 titles may be on the verge of closure and major houses are making plans to centralise operations.

Pages in local newspapers are diminishing and the advertising revenue is declining. There’s been a notable reduction in editions of local papers. Self employed journalists have been hit badly as 25% of journalism is done through freelancing. Fancy a career in journalism? Forget it. The latest batch of fresh graduates do not have jobs and are effectively working unpaid by engaging in ‘work experience.’ (If you’re reading this while stuffing envelopes as part of your unpaid internship for a Labour MP, I feel for you. Social justice hmmm…)

This comes on top of significant structural changes made in the local newspaper offices over the past decade, which have seen many titles bought up by larger publishing houses. This is not just a UK phenomenon, but also one which has caused worry in the United States – the pressures of the recession have speeded up a process already underway.

There were strong concerns expressed at the NUJ meeting that losing local and regional papers will hurt local democracy.

Local papers are one of the only forums where residents can raise issues, large and small, which impact on their everyday lives.

There’s the public service element – these newspapers are the only independent vehicle that elected representatives have to get their opinions, views, questions and achievements across to constituents. Local press also helps to show the good (opening of a new hospital), the bad (poor housing or crime) and the ugly (expenses for second homes).

In my area, the independent Camden New Journal is the place where the voices of small independent groups can be heard. The paper has a strong commitment to covering politics in the borough – not always favourable to the Labour Party – but the community certainly respects its independence and it is a strong part of our civic life.

Along with other residents, I view the CNJ, the Ham and High and similar papers as trusted sources of information. By losing their right to express their opinions or lose their sense of community identity.

Furthermore at election time, candidates standing for council from the borough only get grilled by local papers. (Yes – been there, done that, but didn’t get the council seat unfortunately!) However if residents don’t have the chance to learn enough about the choices in front of them, local democracy will be under threat.

The loss of these papers will also have a wider impact on community safety and community cohesion. The declining support for smaller newspapers means that they don’t cover court cases anymore so there’s no more ‘naming and shaming’ leading to increased perceptions that criminals are ‘getting away with it.’ Sure, the crime gets reported when it happens but there are fewer reports of court cases when they reach sentencing.

Local reporting plays a key role in keeping parties like the BNP in abeyance. Additionally strong papers help fight ignorance and extremism through the oxygen of information and debate.

At a time of economic instability these papers are especially important as they are an important showcase to the local economy. Losing them will also stop local advertising for high street businesses.

So how do we help local papers? Polly Toynbee suggests setting up local community trusts to support the local press.

Today taxpayers’ money is being used for council-run papers, like the one Andy Slaughter MP brought to the meeting. It’s produced by the council in his area – essentially an infomercial for council services posing as a local paper.

Andy Burnham MP alluded to this just a few days ago when he said that many council ‘freesheets’ had “overstepped the mark.” Instead, why don’t we develop Toynbee’s idea and see how communications budgets at Town Halls can be better spent on advertising in local papers, through inserts or commissioning sections?

There’s no need for councils to reinvent the wheel by producing a newspaper. I know most people would see that as a luxury but if we used public money more intelligently, we could preserve the local press and all that comes with it.

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1 Comment

  1. Matthew says:

    This is very worrying news. We could soon be left without any local newspapers within the 12 months…

    Not sure if Councils would be able to contribute to local papers without compromising the freedom of the press that is vitally important