Greedy bosses to blame for local newspaper crisis, not the BBC

The BBC’s head of news, James Harding has hit back at claims that the crisis facing the local newspaper industry is the fault of the corporation.

In his WT Stead Lecture at the British Library, Harding said Home Secretary Theresa May was wrong when she claimed the BBC’s local coverage is undermining a newspaper industry in trouble.

Harding is right. The BBC were not to blame for Trinity Mirror ditching Port Talbot when they closed the Guardian,  leaving the area without a paper, or for Johnston Press shedding 44 per cent of its full time journalists in five years.

I happen to believe local news has a future, but only if journalists, activists and communities fight for it. If local newspapers do die, they won’t have been killed off by the BBC or by Google for that matter – but by the vandalism of newspaper owners who were quite happy to see profits roll in during the good times, demanding margins of 25 to 35 per cent, building up massive debts to fund acquisitions and failing to invest in the future.

In the “good old days”, newspapers were seen as  “cash cows”  with media bosses tolerating falls in circulation when profits continued to be made. The decline predated the internet. The aptly named Gannett were like the Lehman Brothers of the media.  FT columnist, Matthew Engel, recounts in the British Journalism Review how a former Gannett manager, Paul Janensch, attending a management training seminar encountered the company’s philosophy:

“A corporate executive asked us, ‘If you are a Gannett publisher, what is your first priority?’ Serve the public, said one of the attendees.

Sounds noble, but no, said the executive.

Add new customers, I volunteered.

Nope, said the executive.

Make money, said another.

You’re on the right track, but not quite there, said the executive. Then he told us the right answer: ‘Your first priority is to make more money’.”

Pursuit of larger profits led to cost cutting, which led to a downgrading of the product, leading to a lack of engagement from readers, and then a fall in circulation and advertising revenue, leading to more cost cutting. The decline worsened as the economic crisis deepened, and the internet accelerated the process.

Growing numbers of newspapers have gone from daily to weekly, from evening to overnight, and from paid-for to free. Local and late editions have been cut, as well as supplements and specialist journalists. Research by Press Gazette has reported  at least 242 local newspaper closures between 2005 and the end of 2011, with 70 launches. In some of these areas (Eg.Rugeley in Lancashire, Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, Leominster in Herefordshire and Long Eaton in Derbyshire) “news gaps” have developed, leading to some communities left without coverage by professional journalists.

BBC bashing is not going to solve this crisis. Journalism needs to be seen for what it is – a public good, which is as important in its own way as every other public service.  The National Union of Journalists has quite rightly been lobbying for newspapers to be protected as local assets with public money.  Local newspapers need to be saved from the profit hungry corporations. Journalists and communities fighting together are the only forces capable of doing this.

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