SOS for local journalism

Should you care that competition from the internet is causing devastating damage to the financial viability of your local newspaper?

And would you care enough to join a group of local business people to take control of the paper?

If you think your local rag is just another business fighting for its place in the market your answer will be no.

But if you value the benefits an independent local news service brings to communities the answer should be a resounding yes to the first question and a “definite maybe” to the second.

The bottom line is, without revenue from advertising and copy sales there will be no money to employ trained journalists on local newspapers as we know them or even on their online equivalent.

Citizen journalism, that much vaunted free substitute, is at best a useful provider of extra information and at worst a spiteful and wildly inaccurate confusion. It cannot be relied on to provide accurate scrutiny of the courts, councils, police and other powerful institutions that affect our lives.

But how are professional journalists to be paid for if, as seems inevitable, the internet destroys local newspapers? Could local business people have a part to play in the revival of local news, either on paper or online?

There is a big problem in talking about this because the newspapers themselves, which should be the prime forum for discussion, are reluctant to cover it.

The industry is dying in silence. Politicians and the national media talk only about ethics, which are of great importance, but as Neil Fowler says, “if there isn’t a news industry to be ethical about, we are somewhat missing the point”.

Mr Fowler, former editor of Which? magazine and the Western Mail and ex-publisher of the Toronto Sun, has spent the past year at Oxford University researching the crisis in the regional press and what he calls the real issue facing journalism – “the current and future funding of general news”.

You can read his findings at the Society of Editors on this link. His most radical suggestion is that local businesses should be encouraged to take over newspapers, in the same way that most professional football clubs outside the Premier League are owned by groups of local business people.

He says the three biggest regional press owners – Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and Gannett – should be helped to make “an orderly default on their debts”.

“They are stuck in a no-man’s land of inertia,” he says. “Their shares are all very low. The individual parts of their companies are clearly more than the present sums … but their debts are holding them down. They are having to pull as much cash as possible out of their businesses to service those debts – which is in turn causing those businesses long-term damage.

“They have futures as news business brokers, providing print, back office and technology services to the industry ­ but I believe a way of returning titles to local ownership is required.

“The case must be made for the return of the locally-owned news business, supported by local enterprises, so that local engagement is maximised.”

This sounds great in theory, but I can see little prospect of government bailing out the big regional press owners, especially in the light of their monumental errors.  This clearly needs to be put into the public arena before the situation spirals beyond rescue.  We need politicians to take more interest in the local press, look at ways of preserving the independent local news service and start investigating possible forms of ownership.


– GARETH WEEKES, Deep South Media Ltd.