Pic: Jeff Eaton cc
Since 2009 there have been numerous probes into the crisis in local news which have included: a DCMS Select Committee inquiry; a parliamentary debate in 2012; another one in 2015 led by the then NUJ parliamentary group rep, John McDonnell; and yet another in 2017.
There have also been a series of reports and studies – the latest notable one, commissioned by the Media Reform Coalition, revealing that two thirds of Local Authority Districts in the UK have no daily newspaper coverage.
So why is our democracy-loving PM so keen on delving again into the state of newspapers after successive governments have paid scant attention to butchering of the industry with the inevitable devastating effects on our communities?
We’re now in a position where newspapers have disappeared from our communities, and there are fewer journalists attempting to meet the needs of those communities against the backdrop of a hunger for clicks because of commercial decision made by their corporate bosses.
Roy Greenslade suggests the sudden apparent concern by Theresa May for the sustainability of local news is a smokescreen aimed at putting part two of the Leveson Inquiry on the backburner.
Or maybe the sudden conversion to saving our newspapers is down to the growing pressure coming from Big Media who now realise that a business model which once amounted to printing money has now been junked by the rise of Facebook and Google.
Gone are the days when the likes of Trinity Mirror, former owners of the Salford Advertiser and current owners of the Manchester Evening News; Newquest owners of the Bolton News and Lancashire Telegraph; and Johnston Press owners of the Lancashire Post and Yorkshire Post; could demand profit returns of 30-odd per cent.
Those were the days – when a former manager from Gannett – Newsquest’s US parent company – recounted a management training seminar when a senior executive rebuffed a view that the company’s mission was to make money with the comment: No. “It is to make MORE money.” They were the Lehman Brothers of the media industry and they didn’t care.
In the murky waters of the news ecosystem they were the sharks gobbling up the minnows, and their CEOs and shareholders couldn’t have been happier. They adapted to the internet with new ways of delivering news which included many impressive digital innovations combined cost cutting in the form of title closures and redundancies to keep the shareholders fed.
The strategy was simple – print advertising would migrate to the web and news businesses would just need to produce effective digitally focused products with fewer print titles and and fewer journalist and their digital ad revenue would grow.
But it didn’t quite work out that way, did it? Now of course, in the hunt for clicks, the Big Media sharks have been replaced at the top of the food chain by bigger monsters – Google and Facebook who are devouring the digital advertising market – and Big Media doesn’t like it.
The pressure which has inevitably come from from the likes of TM, NQ and JP as well as of course Murdoch’s News UK and the owners of the Daily Mail (hence the the fawning support for May’s speech), probably accounts for this grand plan for a review.
But what impact with this inquiry have on the communities – particularly in areas – which have been blighted by news blackholes. What if the conclusion is that local news is not sustainable? What if we arrive at the inconvenient conclusion that public cash is needed to support the industry or that Google and Facebook need their wings clipped and their profits diverted to hyperlocal news?
Will there be public investment in news organisations where there has been “market failure” and who will benefit from it? Journalists understandably get twitchy about public money funding journalism because of concerns about conflicts of interest. But Big Media doesn’t seem to mind taking cash from the BBC licence fee to fund “democracy reporters”.
I care deeply about a free press, but I don’t have problem with public money funding news organisations, because a mechanism can always be worked out to ensure independence. However, I do object to TM, NQ and JP getting their hands on public cash. Why should they, when they have slashed jobs and abandoned communities when the people who run the excellent Salford Star, the Manchester Meteor, and Bristol Cable are left to fend for themselves?
Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, says nothing is off the table in this review. Public money to support existing community print and online organisations as well as start-ups in news black holes should definitely be on it. So should practical support for alternative business models including co-operatives and membership schemes.
The mechanisms currently exist to allow this to happen with recent formation of the Independent Community News Network which represents print and online publications doing amazing work, sometimes in very difficult circumstances.
Cynicism about this review and its motives is probably justified but if we are to allow its findings to end up in a drawer in a civil servant’s office we will have missed an opportunity to put the provision of news at the top of the political agenda. It’s an opportunity which should be grasped.