Three-D Issue 27: Local journalism under threat

It is clear that for regional and local journalism these are troubled times – with many titles facing crises which threaten their existence. Morale amongst journalists is demonstrably low – as editor of the Press Gazette Dominic Ponsford has pointed out, at least half the jobs in local newspapers have disappeared in the past decade and sales and revenues continue to decline. The major regional groups Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press and Newsquest are engaged in a sustained programme of cost cutting and reorganisation. The bottom line is that these private news agencies are primarily engaged in the business of making money – not with fulfilling a civic duty. The effect of the digital economy is ravaging the traditional industrial landscapes and journalism is no different.

So it’s against this background that we must view the recent October strike action by journalists working for Newsquest’s South London operation. According to the NUJ , Newsquest, which is the second-largest local and regional newspaper publisher in the UK, answering to its US parent company Gannett

is driving down standards, terms and conditions for journalists and making their life a misery while continuing to maximise profits for bosses and shareholders. 

To place the industrial action into more a specific context, the strike was called in reaction to Newsquest’s intension to strip back the number of journalists producing eleven newspapers and eight websites to twelve reporters and four editors, to dispense entirely with professional photographers and to mine the local communities for written and pictorial content. These are measures, bear in mind, in an environment where the Croydon Guardian has no designated reporter for an area of over ٣٨٠,٠٠٠ people and most of Newsquest’s journalists have not had a pay rise since ٢٠٠٨. 

It’s this continuing atmosphere of pressure and uncertainty that was presumably behind the departure last week of Mike Gilson, editor at Newsquest’s Brighton Argus. He was, in the opinion of Brighton resident and media commentator, Roy Greenslade, the best editor the paper had had in many a long year under the ownership of a profit seeking company that doesn’t care about journalistic quality. 

Gilson is evidently somebody who cares a great deal about his profession and the future of local journalism. Writing in the newly published, Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? Gilson writes emotively and with examples of the democratic consequences of systematic weakening of local journalism. 

For him, in the age of the citizen journalist and the “digitally empowered blogger” journalists with time, passion and training are needed more than ever. This is an age where court sessions, council meetings and trust boards are going unreported and where press officer’s outnumber reporters. The debate about is about society itself and not just journalism.

But Gilson has ideas to alleviate the despondency. He calls for a cohesive unified effort in order to demonstrate what will be lost if local journalism’s decline continues. He recognises the evolutionary demands of the digital age but also sees a place for print where journalism “eschews the helter-skelter 24/7 news cycle”. This new model would see a shift from a daily to weekly model, with a premium cover price targeted at audiences in a much more strategic way.

So what’s to be done? On a civic level, the rise and success of community journalism and hyper local media has meant that, as Damian Radcliffe has illustrated, in a number of instances local authorities and those in power have been held to account. Where traditional local media has faltered, often “citizen journalism” has emerged to fill the gap. Issues of sustainability aside, this is undoubtedly a good thing.

But the inescapable fact is, to quote Jeffrey Dvorkin, journalism is being “Uber-ized” – and not just at a local level. Dvorkin argues that content isn’t created by salaried journalists anymore. Instead, it comes from freelancers, “citizen journalists”, bloggers and vloggers – and the use of their product occurs at the expense of older, more experienced journalists.

In this environment, existing journalists may become little more than collators of content, chained to their desks compiling listicles to satisfy their bosses who demand stories that generate more than 1,000 clicks and attract advertisers. This is considered the cheapest way to generate revenue. As I say, private news agencies are primarily engaged in the business of making money – not with fulfilling a civic duty. Some critics are especially dystopian – Tim Crook of Goldsmiths sees catastrophic possibilities in our “digital indebtedness”. Business failure, he argues, could easily result in the eradication of whole swathes of online journalism as we abandon the practice of reading newsprint. For Crook, Orwell’s terrifying world of 1984 – with centralised information and memory holes is coming to fruition.

But there are other views. David Higgerson, responsible for the regional websites within Trinity Mirror, argues that the regional press has a greater sense of purpose than ever. He points to record audiences online, thousands of people engaging and downloading apps so that their local news brand is among their most-used tools on their mobile phone. Higgerson’s blog is is filled with examples of regional newspapers fulfilling civic duties.

But the shared consensus is it’s impossible to overstate the importance of local journalism and the people who provide it. Local papers should keep the community informed about key issues while their big stories have always found an audience when followed up by the national press. As the Welsh Executive Council of the NUJ suggested a couple of years ago, regional and local journalism should be seen as community and national assets – their fate is too important to be left to the whims of media conglomerates.

In 2011, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) suggested a number of proposals which, with some modification, could be workable. Amongst these are tax breaks for local media who meet clearly defined public purposes and direct government support for genuinely local media organisations.

The challenge is for all those involved – Newsquest, Trinity Mirror, its fellow regional publishers, journalists and government – to find a way to keep local reporting alive. As Gilson illustrates, we’ll all be worse off if they can’t.

Posted by Einar Thorsen