What with the situation in Greece, the election of a new leader for the Lib Dems and fierce debate over Labour’s position on welfare, it’s hardly been a slow week for news. And hidden in the noise was news about news itself – a quiet announcement that the Government is consulting on giving local publishers relief on business rates in an attempt to halt the decline in local newspaper profits.
Leaving aside the slight irony that it is the Conservatives – the party of small government and the free market – who are considering propping up a struggling industry, there are important questions that need to be asked about the role of local press.
As the Government’s consultation document on the matter says, local newspapers have been a central part of civic life for hundreds of years, are an important source of information and can play a vital role in healthy democracy. However, while different sources quote different statistics, there seems little doubt that sales of local newspapers are declining rapidly. A few outlets are bucking the trend, but the majority are struggling to compete with changes in corporate advertising strategies and the rise of volunteer-run online community forums.
If we accept that the image of people all sitting down to read the local newspaper every morning is nothing more than an old-fashioned dream, what can be done to ensure local news is not consigned to history? Here are two potential suggestions:
Firstly, the industry could accept that times have changed. Yes quality journalism is important and yes we all want local press to uncover local scandals and fight for justice for residents. But we also want to talk to real people about everyday issues, to get advice on the best classical music to play at weddings and to share tips on how to fix technological problems. Instead of treating them as competitors, publishers could embrace the community-led approach and consider how they can work with local online platforms to give people the best of both worlds.
Alternatively, the Government could accept that tinkering about with tax relief is unlikely to be enough to keep local newspapers alive and adopt a more radical approach. Rather than reviewing the BBC with a view to shrinking its size, it could make a commitment to public service broadcasting at a local level and specifically invest to increase the corporation’s regional presence. It could encourage the BBC to re-use the best elements (and potentially best staff) of local newspapers in order to reinvigorate engagement with local media around the country.
News about the newspaper industry is unlikely to generate front-page headlines in the national press or be top story on the 10 o’clock news. However, this is not simply a debate over publishing business models; it is fundamentally about the role of media in society. Action is needed, or local newspapers may not survive to see the next decade.