The fact that one in three nurseries could shut in a year is front page news in one of today’s national newspapers.
But the death of the Oldham Chronicle, one of the country’s oldest daily local newspapers – the latest in a depressingly long list of closures – has had scant coverage outside the trade press.
And yet news organisations, whether they are in print form or online, are vital to local communities. They are as important as schools, transport and hospitals.
That statement might seem a little over the top to some people. Surely hospitals are more important. They save lives, for heaven’s sake.
But as was observed in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the fire safety concerns of residents would have found a voice before the decline in London’s local press. Lives could have been saved.
Of course, the Chronicle wasn’t perfect. It may not always have been the powerful defender of the voiceless we would have liked it to be, but does anyone doubt that the communities of Oldham will be worse off as a result of its demise?
Politicians and “industry” leaders lament when something like this happens, but we need an action plan to turn around this situation, rather than simply shrugging our shoulders and saying “it’s sad but the paper wasn’t a viable business”.
The Chronicle was not viable as a business according to the existing business model for news which is now broken. The appetite for news has never been greater, but newspapers are shackled by an outdated formula of serving up news consumers ie communities to advertisers. Unfortunately that formula doesn’t compute any more.
Online is where the eyeballs are but a significant portion of the advertising revenue still comes from print, and digital revenue is being hoovered up by Google and Facebook which are strangling the industry.
We urgently need a public inquiry into the state of local news with a view to tackling the “duopoly” and coming up with new business models, which in my view has to include the use of public money.
This might sound distasteful is some, but the News Media Association is already gratefully accepting BBC cash to fund “democracy reporters” to cover court and public affairs. My gripe with this move is that whilst independent community media may benefit to some extent from this, I can’t help thinking that it is the likes of Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and Newsquest who will benefit the most, having closed titles and slashed jobs.
Maybe new media ventures will emerge in Oldham to meet the needs of local communities there in the same way that Altrincham Today and Wimslow.co.uk are meeting needs in their communities. But it is a lot tougher for hyperlocal ventures like this in areas of social deprivation where it is harder to sell communities to advertisers. The excellent Salford Star and Manchester Meteor has managed it fuelled by the imagination and passion of the people who run them.
But as the closure of sites like the Port Talbot MagNet and Pits and Pots has shown, passion will only get you so far. What is needed is a plan and cash. That is why we need an inquiry now resulting in concrete proposals to help preserve the vital service news brings to our communities.