Newspapers

The motives for the review into the sustainability of local news are suspect but we should grasp the chance to put it at the top of the political agenda

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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.

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Death of a newspaper – action needed now to stand up for our communities

Oldham-Evening-Chronicle-FRONT-2-1-e1504193829315The 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.

Crisis, what crisis? says Johnston Press boss on the state of the newspaper industry

News Media Association Chairman and CEO of Johnston Press, Ashley Highfield can’t see what all the fuss is about when the NUJ talks about a crisis in the newspaper industry.

That was the message he delivered as keynote speaker at the Westminster Media Forum seminar on the UK local media sector on April 21st.

In fact,  newspapers are in fine fettle, says Ashley. “There’s currently 1,000 plus local newspapers and 1700 associated websites in the UK,” he pointed out. “Yes, a few titles, mostly free sheets, have closed, but nowhere near the grim numbers that were predicted a few years ago, thanks, in part, to publishers recognising the strength in industry collaboration.”

I think there are a fair amount of local communities which have seen their papers disappear – at least 97 in England since 2008 – or shrink from dailies to weeklies, or journalists who have seen their newsrooms shrink and colleagues disappear, who would take issue with that.

But Highfield was in optimistic mood. He continued: “I don’t believe the industry is in crisis, far from it, in fact our audiences have never been greater, around 40 million people now read local press in print or digital each week, but the migration to digital is a perilous journey and every day publishers are facing unnecessary distractions which are putting their businesses under even greater strain.”

The NMA’s discussions with the BBC was a key feature in his address most notably the bid to raid the BBC licence fee to fund the provision by the regional press to the BBC of a comprehensive public service reporting service which would primarily cover local authorities.

The National Union of Journalists, in it’s response to the government’s White Paper on the future of the BBC has challenged the top slicing of the licence fee to fund the activities of companies making huge profits whilst cutting its commitment to serve local communities.

Meanwhile, there were no doubt hyperlocal providers listening to Highfield, who would understandably be a little miffed that if public money is to be used in this way – and whether it should is questionable – the tone of the discussion seemed to point towards cutting out those hyperlocals which have shown the most commitment to their communities.

I jotted down a few thoughts on the subject, which was included in the seminar transcript, and at the forum I asked Highfield for some more detail on the deal and whether he thought hyperlocals were “tanks on his lawn”.

He said he didn’t want to go into details for fear of appearing to negotiate in in public and suggested I might get more out of David Holdsworth, controller of the BBC’s English Regions who also addressed the forum.

So I asked David whether hyperlocals could get anything out of the deal. He said: “I certainly don’t want to stand here and rule anybody out here, I am conscious that this is a bit of work that needs to be done by our sort of friends in both the legal and fair trading side. So I certainly would not rule anything out as I am standing here today, no definitely not.”

So that’s fairly emphatic. Nothing ruled out. I wonder why I’m still not convinced about a) the sincerity of a pledge to include “reputable hyperlocals” in these discussions and b) the case for using BBC licence money.

I’m all for public money funding community journalism, but I’m not convinced that it should be at the expense of BBC journalism. I’m still less convinced that it should go to the profit hungry Big Media companies who have ripped the guts out of a great many local newspapers.

In the case of a), maybe it’s because as a hyperlocal provider, but I have yet to receive my invitation to discuss this deal and I don’t know anyone who has.

 

 

 

If public money is to be used to fund journalism, hyperlocals and new start-ups must not be left out

Short article written for the Westminster Media Forum seminar on the UK local media sector

As discussions continue about a deal between news providers and the BBC to subsidise the reporting of local authorities and courts, many independent hyperlocal news operations will be left wondering what is in it for them.

More importantly perhaps, local communities which have seen a decline of coverage may well be grateful for any public sector support which keeps them informed and helps them keep local power held to account.

It was encouraging to hear the BBC’s controller of English Regions David Holdsworth say no-one would be ruled out of the scheme, which has so far been reported in the trade press as a discussion between the Corporation and regional publishers represented by the News Media Association.

Nevertheless, hyperlocal providers could be forgiven for being sceptical about such assurances, given the sentiment that “we can’t just let anyone in on this. There have to be rules.” It is of course understandable that the BBC, with its emphasis on high ethical standards and quality, will not want to forge partnerships with untrained journalists ignorant of the law.

However, it would be wrong to assume that independent news providers always fall below the quality threshold or that established regional news publications necessarily always meet it. As a tutor in media law, I know there are plenty of examples of newspapers and websites getting it wrong, and there is work being done, particularly by the Centre for Community Journalism in Cardiff, to ensure hyperlocal journalists are equipped with the tools needed to do their work to high standards.

It is difficult to argue that there shouldn’t be a quality threshold in determining which organisations should be supported by public money, but why not have a public interest or community commitment threshold as well? Many of the former regional news journalists and community activists who have shown a commitment to their communities by establishing news sites simply because they want to plug a news black hole left by newspapers closures, or coverage decline because of cuts in staff, may not take kindly to the larger publishers getting their hands on BBC resources while enjoying profits in excess of 20 per cent.

There is an argument for saying there should be no top-slicing of the licence fee at all to fund any external news provider, but if public money is to be used, is it right to direct it at companies which closed 97 titles in England between 2008 and 2015, and have, according to the National Union of Journalists, cut more than 5,000 jobs in the last decade?

If the democratic deficit is to be fully addressed perhaps consideration should also be given to directing support from public funds to areas of social deprivation that have suffered newspaper closures and have so far not had a hyperlocal site established to fill the gap.

The preliminary findings of research currently underway in Manchester and Cheshire has found some correlation between cuts in news provision by large for-profit publishers and social deprivation and raises questions about whether independent sites can fill the gap in these communities without external help.

The research appears to support findings in the USA which suggests the existence of a digital production gap based on social class (Schradie 2013) and that social deprivation is a factor in the evidence of engagement with hyperlocal news. A study of coverage of the 2015 General Election in North East Manchester, encompassing some of the most deprived areas in the UK, within the constituency of Blackley and Broughton and Wilmslow in the constituency of Tatton, containing some of the least deprived, shows a stark difference in coverage.

Hyperlocal news sites, which have already shown commitment to the areas they serve, must be allowed a fair share of whatever public money is made available to support community journalism. In addition to that, a resource stimulus is also desperately needed in areas of social deprivation to create new news enterprises, if areas like North East Manchester are to avoid being sucked permanently into news black holes.
Dave Toomer

 

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. (more…)