When did you last pick up a copy of your local paper? Not recently? You’re not the only one. Britain’s local press looks to be on its last legs. Since 2005, almost 200 local newspapers have closed.
News was once a hugely profitable business, largely thanks to advertising.
With the technological advances of the 1980s and 1990s, the sector started to consolidate. Newsrooms started to merge. When the likes of Craigslist started taking nibbles out of the ad market, the enfeebled local press started to struggle. When Facebook and Google started to take bigger bites, it was there for the taking.
Now five publishers – Reach, Johnston Press, Newsquest, Tindle and Archant – control more than three-quarters of the UK’s local and regional press titles.
Their challenge is to keep making money from dwindling print revenues – even though it’s far from clear that this model is fit for the 21st century. Budgets have been squeezed and staffing cut to the bone.
Investigative reporting is usually the first to go. Hannah Walker, then editor of the South London Press, told a London Assembly inquiry in 2017: “I cannot afford to lose a reporter for three days not being productive. I need some copy because we have deadlines and we need to get papers out.” More often than not, that means being sat in a distant office scouring social media and pasting up press releases rather than the old craft of nurturing contacts and getting out in the community.
In 2014, Reach closed the Kensington & Chelsea Chronicle, the area’s only local paper, calling it “unsustainable”. When residents of a tower block started a blog about serious safety concerns, its replacement website, Guildford-based Get West London, was too distant to notice.
After 72 people died when fire destroyed Grenfell Tower, former Kensington News reporter Grant Feller wrote: “I don’t know whether a vibrant local newspaper staffed by idealistic young journalists would have prevented the catastrophe all of London has been indelibly scarred by. But it could have.”
If the local news scene as we knew it is dying, what will it be replaced by?
The BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter Service is funding 150 journalists to report on UK councils. While critics say the scheme is effectively subsidising the major companies that have cut back on local journalism, the BBC is making content available to rival providers too.
Bureau Local, an initiative from The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, links up journalists, technologists and others in studying issues locally that can be scaled up to make national stories. This year’s revelations about county councils suffering financial problems came, in part, from Bureau Local members looking at their local councils’ budgets.
And a host of hyperlocal and community newspapers and websites have set out to fill the gap – many coalescing around the Independent Community News Network, set up at Cardiff University to champion small independent news outfits.
I am part of that network as the editor of 853london.com, which follows civic issues in and around Greenwich, south-east London, and charltonchampion.co.uk, a community site for the Charlton area. It started as something I did in my spare time, but as other news coverage of the area faded, I started to take it more seriously.
I’ve broken stories of council bullying and incompetence and sat through endless meetings. In August, I beat all of London’s media to reveal plans to cut bus services that run to the centre of the capital – a story that affects many of the poorest and most vulnerable in my area.
For the past year, 853 has been funded by readers’ donations. I get an amazing amount compared with what other sites raise, but it still only pays for me to run the site on a part-time basis. I struggle to find other journalistic work to pay the bills that are creeping up on me.
Sites such as mine suffer from the same problem as the media giants’ legacy titles. Too much advertising money is going to Facebook and Google, while too few people appear to want to pay to support local news.
One independent south London community newspaper, The Croydon Citizen, has closed after just five years, with founder-editor James Naylor lamenting: “Advertising is no longer able to fund journalism; Facebook has won the battle for eyeballs.”
Local news is a market that needs a complete rethink, whether that involves news outlets being able to gain charitable status; the promotion of co-operative models; allowing residents to declare local papers assets of community value to save them from closure; state grants for start-up news outfits (as is being proposed in Wales); or the emergence of a charitable foundation to support civic reporting (such as the Knight Foundation in the US).
Whatever happens, something needs to change. Or communities will become even more disconnected from the decisions made in their name – with serious consequences for all of us.