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Local newspapers had a golden age – but it was 150 years ago

This article will be no help whatsoever to Britain’s crumbling local newspaper industry. After 12 years researching the provincial press at its peak period, the second half of the 19th century, I have no answers for today’s business in crisis.

Here in 2018, the fourth largest regional newspaper group in Britain, Johnston Press, recently went bust (and was then “rescued” by a US asset fund). A quarter of the country’s local papers have closed in the last ten years. Jobs have been cut, print sales tumble, and profits dwindle (although many local papers still make money).

Fewer reporters staffing local papers mean fewer original stories, which makes the papers less attractive to readers, which accelerates the decline.

The industry itself blames internet advertising, and competition from Facebook and Google. Others blame local newspaper management, not known for its dynamism or strategic thinking.

It’s all very different from the world of local newspapers 150 years ago, whose proprietors had the gumption to lobby the government, persuading them to nationalise the private telegraph companies, then set up their own news agency, the Press Association, ready to exploit a new era of cheap, telegraphed news. I’ve come to admire the Victorians, for their progressive, dynamic, future-oriented thinking.

It was a fascinating time for the regional press. From the 1860s to the 1930s, the weekly local newspaper was the dominant form of mass media.

There had been more provincial papers than London-based papers since the mid-1700s, but each title only sold a few hundred copies. That all changed in the 1850s and 1860s, when taxes on newspapers were abolished, and a new era began. Karl Marx described it as a revolution – an “emancipation from London of the provincial press, the decentralisation of journalism”.

For once, Marx was right. In that period, hundreds of new titles were launched, lower prices led to increased sales, and by the early 1860s local newspapers as a whole outsold London-based papers, a situation that continued into the 1930s. Looking back from the London-centric 21st century, it is hard to imagine such a widely spread, decentralised Victorian media industry – although most other developed countries are far less centralised than Britain today.

Each town and city was the cultural centre of its own world, with the local paper at the heart of these cultures. Yet they were linked to each other, and to the wider world (local and global at the same time), sharing content and personnel.

Altogether, the Victorian local press was a national phenomenon, providing a more “national” news service than London papers such as the Times or the Telegraph, which were little more than regional newspapers for Southeast England. Indeed, the category of a “national” newspaper was only invented in the 20th century.

The lower cost of gathering news by telegraph after 1870 helped the provincial press, but the main reason for its popularity was … its localness. It seems obvious, but too many reporters, editors and managers of today’s local papers seem to miss this – that they are not inferior versions of national papers, but something qualitatively different. Local media can do things that national media can’t.

Bass beer traded on its origin in Britain’s brewing capital, Burton-on-Trent, and chose the local newspaper to symbolise local identity. Bass advertising card, 1909, Author provided

Victorian local papers understood this well, and made local patriotism very profitable. They reflected and reported people’s lives and the places they loved in almost comical detail, and that’s what readers wanted. Alfred Gregory, editor of the Tiverton Gazette from 1877 to 1930, recalled how one reader once said of the Devon town: “I love every stone in the place.”

From cradle to grave

Editors like Gregory celebrated local distinctiveness, using a whole set of techniques (dialect, local history, football rivalry and more) to give meaning to local lives. Victorian local newspapers were also the dominant publishing platform for poetry and history.

Media scholar James Carey has argued that our use of media is like a ritual, in which “nothing new is learned but … a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed”. This certainly fits what I have discovered of Victorian local newspaper readers, devouring a report of a football match they had attended, or an account of a public meeting at which they spoke.

Rituals that sustained local identity were central to how readers used the local press. The workhouse inmate who guarded his weekly copy as his only remaining comfort, or the exile who read a paper sent from his home town, to take his mind back to the places and people he was separated from.

Australian local media experts Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller argue that “place still matters in a digital world”. This connection between people and a particular place radiates from every page of a Victorian local newspaper.

In those days, the journalism was subsidised by advertising, but the internet has broken that source of income. The demand is still there, the question is how to make money from supplying that demand in a digital world.

But the industry has not attracted – or even welcomed – the innovators it needs to adapt to this digital age. Without the forward thinking and dynamism so beloved of the Victorians, I fear the local paper will soon be consigned to history.

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