Local newspapers are contradictory things. They are dismissed as “rags” and yet their familiar names are are part of the glue which holds communities together.
This contradiction between sentiment and utility is often overlooked by those working in or researching local media. Indeed, the national press is given more attention by both academia and industry – despite regional titles dominating in terms of local readers and profits for much of UK newspaper history.
Local titles may draw on their relationship with communities for prestige, but they also rely on advertising from them for their income. The link between these elements is far from clear. In good times it has been a moot point. When, like now, times are bad, cracks begin to show. As resources are stripped out of the business to maintain profits, those functions associated with community benefit, like covering courts or councils, fall by the wayside.
Echoes of the past
Since 2005, some 198 local newspapers have closed in the UK. Others have moved online, been merged, or are now produced by relocated teams, who are sometimes miles from the location printed on the masthead.
Still, this is not the first time the regional media has experienced such a decline. Similar concerns prompted enquiries from the Royal Commission on the Press in 1947, 1961 and 1974.
The reports and evidence left by these examinations confirmed that local newspapers were expected to act as a watchdog on behalf of the communities they served. But, just as Canadian businessman Roy Thomson, of Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN), famously proclaimed that editorial content was “the stuff you separate the ads with” the current corporate model views editorial as a cost. One that is to be controlled alongside production, advertising, distribution and administration. The model gives no special attention to content, and is one in which quality editorial can be sacrificed for cheap words, “churned out”.
In 1971, TRN’s managing director, John Davis, made a prescient comment about the impact of continual cost cutting on the performance of Cardiff newspapers the Western Mail and South Wales Echo. In his June report that year, held by the National Library of Wales, Davis said:
Behind this pursuit for urgently needed profits lies the concern for the long term prosperity of the papers and the fear that by selling over hard, increasing our charges too readily and investing too little in the quality of the product we may be sorting up for ourselves an even greater problem for as little as five years ahead.
More than 50 years on, reductions in people and titles in this sector have been extensively documented, most recently for the NUJ’s Local News Matters campaign. Yet, despite the precarious position, service to the community continues to be the raison d'etre for the vast majority of those who work in the local press.
That local news reporting brings benefits to society is officially recognised. But the debate on how to reconcile revenue and public need seems to have moved on little from the first enquiry 70 years ago.
Making community relations pay
Profit and community benefit are not incompatible. Indeed, by focusing on monopolistic circulation areas at the turn of the 20th century, numerous local newspapers maximised advertising revenues, and cemented themselves in this particular role.
Now, with cost cuts, digital editions and other concerns, it can be just as easy to forget about this community role which local newspapers have made their own – but equally, it needn’t be a choice between revenue or serving a community.
The future of the local newspaper lies in it working in a way which supports its role as watchdog. By investing financially in and articulating clearly that it provides a service to the community, local newspapers can weather any changes.
Equally, however, if these titles want to draw on public subsidies, then they should be called to account for their ability to walk the walk of serving the community, rather than just talking the talk.
This new generation of “socio-local” newspapers would put community benefit on an equal footing with metrics such as circulation.
It is not some distant dream or academic hypothesis: socio-local newspapers are already serving UK communities, and thriving. Titles such as the family-owned Isle of Wight County Press and cooperative run West Highland Free Press have written this relationship into their business model, and are working to preserve community values while turning a profit.
The socio-local newspaper model is not a cure for local media’s problems, but it helps start the conversation about how the value of local media is quantified, and what titles which benefit communities might look like.
If these newspapers are to have a sustainable future, they need to be rescued from the tug of love battle between profit and community which has beset them for 70 years.