In the United Kingdom local journalism is in trouble. Since 2005 more than 200 local papers have closed and the number of regional journalists has halved to around 6,500 as of February 2018.
This is in part due to a falling interest in local newspapers, who in 2016 saw an average of a 12 per cent drop in readers according to the Press Gazette. Advertising revenues have slumped in correlation. TV appears to be following suit: in 2015 ITV reduced its regional news coverage from 30 minutes to 20 minutes.
This may have consequences for British democracy. Journalism is an industry like any other, but it is regarded as a democratic necessity. The fundamental tenets of British democracy include: accountability for decisions made by those in government; the representation of citizens’ interests; and the existence of an electorate that is informed so as to make independent decisions at the ballot box. Journalism has been described as the “watchdog” which provides the necessary bridge between the citizen and the decision-makers.
In a well-publicised speech in 2017, broadcaster John Snow linked the Grenfell Tower tragedy in part to the failure of British journalism to report the dreadful and fatal housing conditions. “The completely man-made Grenfell disaster has proved beyond all other things how little we know, and how dangerous the disconnect is,” he said.
Snow referenced the blog that highlighted the dangers of the building months prior to the fire and the disconnect between the tenants and the landlord. He lamented the lack of local journalists available to report the residents’ anger. The borough of Kensington and Chelsea, home to 156,000 residents, has just one dedicated newspaper, which at full strength has one reporter who also works in other boroughs. A former journalist at the title in the 1990s asserted that twenty years ago the newspaper would have “one-hundred percent” picked up on the issue. The horrors of the Grenfell Tower could have been prevented by a healthy culture of local journalism.
Journalism as “watchdog”
Accountability is also under threat. Increasingly, local councils are producing their own publications to justify decisions made and policy direction. This diverts potential advertising away from other forms of journalism. It is also illegal, contravening government regulation that prevents councils from producing more than four publications per annum.
Finally, such literature is funded by taxpayers. Self-publication of content by a political body by definition negates its impartiality. For example, in 2014 Greenwich Time, produced and funded by the council, was found to have been significantly lacking in balance. It was published 50 times a year and ceased in 2016. Hackney Today remains published fortnightly.
As reported in the Financial Times, the self-publication of local policy decisions is more “cost-effective” than having a relationship with local media. This is explicitly damaging for democratic accountability. Reporters used to be present at council meetings and court hearings. These key areas of public interest are no longer receiving the same coverage and decisions are taken in empty chambers.
In the Press Gazette, Mike Gilson states that the decline of local journalism is causing a “profound democratic deficit” and fundamentally undermining its “watchdog” function. It is difficult to see how the public can be critical of local government if a significant source of information is published by the very same government. In the words of former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, “Putin would be proud” of councils publishing their own information, going on to call it a threat to “robust and independent scrutiny” of public institutions.
A lack of impartial reporting on local politics widens the disconnect between citizens and decision-makers. The government has begun to crack down on the practice, Communities Minister Marcus Jones stated in December 2016 that, “councils shouldn’t undermine local democracy by publishing their own newsletters, more often than quarterly. I’m offering the small number that aren’t playing by the rules this last chance to put their publishing houses in order or I will use my powers to require them to do so.”
This government action has been in response to what the BBC has coined “news deserts.” The broadcaster estimates that 58 percent of Britain is not covered at all. With such poor representation of more than half-of Britain, it is little wonder that many take issue with the Westminster bubble and London-centrism on the news.
Furthermore, many regional newspapers are controlled by a small group of wealthy owners, such as Newsquest and Trinity Mirror. Journalists are sceptical that large conglomerate media organisations care about closing down or reducing the frequency of local news outlets that are not running a profit. Revenue generation is perceived as incompatible with journalistic merit.
Internet Fuels Change
The decline of local journalism fits into a wider mediatic trend. The internet has made news free, instant and increased its dependence on advertorial content to rebalance the revenue losses from the decline of the subscription model.
Newspapers in particular have taken a battering over the past decade or so with The Independent ceasing its print publication in 2016.
The significance of established brands online is limited. According to research conducted by the Nieman Lab, only 47 percent of those surveyed could recall the news source two days after accessing an article from social media. In contrast, 70 percent could recall that Facebook was the social media platform on which they found the story.
“The finding that people are more likely to remember the platform where they found the content, rather than the news source, will be troubling for many publishers,” Antonis Kalogeropoulos and Nic Newman concluded.
The apparent decline of the news source online makes it very difficult for local news organisations to make themselves heard in the violent competition for attention. Unfortunately for local sources, attention in the form of click-throughs is essential for attracting advertisers. This places great weight on the citizen journalist who can act as publisher in the democratised digital landscape. Some argue that the digital age provides society with the means of increasing accountability and closing the democratic deficit between politicians and citizens. Others argue that Silicon valley media giants – the Gods of digital media – either do not understand journalism or do not care to.
As the Grenfell Tower case demonstrates, individuals’ voices are often lost in the internet. Local authorities have even tried to ban bloggers or Twitter users from covering public council meetings in the past. One citizen was arrested in Carmathen after filming proceedings.
Local journalism is the first port of call for informing citizens of the happenings in a representative democracy. According to a recent poll approximately 40 percent of voters stated that they feel poorly represented or unsure as to their representation in government.
Many attribute the Brexit vote in part to a disillusionment with the political and economic elite concentrated in the capital, and the media is being considered as part of this elite. Paul Atkins asks in an essay for Open Democracy, Can we make our media less London-centric?, “The stories of our nations and regions are far too complex and multi-faceted to begin and end in one place.”
Re-energising local journalism
Representation begins with news, and there are measures being taken by several projects and organisations to bolster regional news. In 2017 The BBC pledged £8m per annum to fund 150 local reporters across the country to cover council meetings and events in the public interest.
Projects such as The Bureau Local, a branch of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, are set up and there are several well-respected and well-read publications such as the Manchester Evening News, which was widely praised for its coverage of the 2017 bombings at the Ariana Grande concert.
In order to reduce political, regional and social polarisation and hold those in power to account, it seems that a recourse to healthy local journalism might present an answer.
But the question remains: in the digital age, how can local journalism be made financially viable? Commentators on both the left and right speak of a “broken” British democracy, and local journalism is very much a part of it.