3 Ways the Decline of Local Newspapers is Undermining Democracy

by Alex Webster

11 September 2015

Local media is an industry in free fall. According to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), over 150 local newspapers have closed since March 2011. The NUJ even started a blog tracking local newspaper closures and job losses, which makes for grim reading.

Surviving newspapers are still affected by decreasing circulation figures and revenue, forcing downsizing and desperate scrambles to find sustainable digital strategies. Hundreds have been bought up by large local media groups, the four main ones being Johnston Press, Local World, Trinity Mirror and Newsquest. This has led to local papers becoming more and more homogeneous, not only in style and scope of content but also in terms of presentation.

As an Institute for Public Policy Research report points out, this has resulted in an unusually concentrated media landscape with local issues being underreported. Although hard to measure, such trends are undoubtedly having a negative on democratic and civic life.

Here are 3 ways these effects are being felt:

1. Citizens’ voices are getting quieter.

The decline of the local media industry has led to a shrinkage in staff, meaning newspapers are becoming less attached and embedded in their local areas. Fewer reporters (if any) are carrying out what were once understood to be vital practices like being out on the beat talking to people and finding stories. By no means are we missing out on the next Watergate or MPs’ expenses scandal, but what we are missing are the little stories of everyday life, people’s grievances and concerns and the zeitgeist of the community.

Such stories can still be covered (technology and social media playing a huge helping hand) but it’s much harder to achieve with a limited number of overworked journalists, who are increasingly expected to produce more. This is leading to a breakdown between local media and the communities they represent. Fewer stories being told and in less detail, creating a situation where citizen’s voices are getting quieter as their traditional platforms shrink. Sure, voices can still appear in the ‘blogosphere’ or ‘twitterverse’ but they often lack the authority or clout to demand to be heard; either that, or they are simply lost in the void.

Detachment is a problem local newspapers are very much aware of as it means a lack of content at their end. Take for example one of my locals, the Yorkshire Evening Post. Recently the parent company Johnston Press oversaw the restructuring of the newspaper’s newsroom, splitting it in two. On the surface the purpose was to create a team that could focus on breaking news online and another which could focus on in-depth stories regarding the community. However, the restructuring has occurred in the context of Johnston Press asking for voluntary redundancies for 17 jobs it plans on axing across Yorkshire. It is not yet clear just how many of these were at the Yorkshire Evening Post.

2. Who will hold the bastards to account?

With a lack of journalists to pursue stories, the role of local newspapers is often reduced to mouthpieces for the local council, police and businesses.

This raises some serious concerns regarding the potential for investigating and criticising these now key sources of content, as there is a vested interest to toe the line. There is great democratic value in having journalists who are able to turn up to council meetings and hold local politicians accountable for their actions; journalists who can champion the voice of the community and report back any wrongdoing. Without such, key decisions can lay hidden within the countless pages of council meeting minutes. All publicly available, but all mind-numbingly impenetrable.

With the local press becoming less able to investigate or even cover such issues there is a trend for this job to be taken up by small, independent bloggers. Such blogs are plentiful, yet they are not thriving. A quick search round for local news and current affairs blogs in the Leeds/Yorkshire area throws up more than a few amazing contributions. An example that springs to mind is a blogger named ‘Bill’ who discovered Leeds council were misrepresenting data regarding open space in planning applications for new housing.

However, the problem is work such as Bill’s has a tendency to get lost in the vastness of the internet, never making it to the eyeballs of the people who matter: the local community. Without a direct line to an audience many blogs stay hidden or even burn out.

3. It’s not a lack of talent or interest; it’s a lack of resources.

With this in mind it’s clear that there’s not a lack of talent, or a lack of people willing to take on this type of work. What is lacking however are resources, primarily those of infrastructure and money. This is reflected in the New Left Project’s farewell editorial, stating:

“The technology now available has made publishing, promotion and collaboration cheap and efficient; with no resources, we have been able to commission and publish serious, original analysis of vitally important political issues over the past half-decade. Our overriding conclusion, however, is this: sustainable alternative media takes time and costs money. If we want a more diverse media landscape – and at this point few things are needed more – we had better start figuring out how to fund it.”

Although the New Left Project’s scope was political their points still directly relate to local media. Even with willing writers, journalists and editors, along with all the advantages of technology, new media projects are still brutal time sinks that are in desperate need of funding.

What we are seeing is the logic of capital creating a deficit in democracy. People want decent local journalism but the quest for profits has constantly forced it out of its traditional platforms. Figuring out how to work round this is going to be no easy task.

Perhaps some hope can be found in the handful of success stories that are out there. On a national level STRIKE!, a radical politics magazine that started in 2011/12, managed to financially break even on just its second issue, “proving you don’t have to eat the corporate shit to survive in independent publishing.” And on a local level Wales seems to be where it’s at for finding models for independent local newspapers that actually work, with three new papers launching in recent years.

Let’s hope for the sake of democracy these aren’t just flukes and there’s still life in local and independent journalism yet.

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