Local news is essential for our democracy. It is through local news that MPs get our messages across to our communities, but more importantly, it is the way that communities hold us to account. However, local news is not only about democracy and boring council meetings or boring court reporting, important though those are; it is about the way that communities are bound together. It is through local newspapers and radio stations that people know what is going on and identify with their local communities.today ought to have a much higher standard of living and the reason why this is not so is overwhelmingly down to poor government and, in recent years, an all too ready acceptance of widening the gap between rich and poor.
My local newspapers have not only covered issues that national outlets would not have been interested in covering; they have made a significant difference to the community. For example, the palace of the Bishop of Durham – the Church Commissioners wanted to flog off its paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, it was a campaign with The Northern Echo which put the paintings on its front page for several days in a row, that pushed the Commissioners back and made them realise that people wanted and loved those paintings. The upshot has been far greater than we could ever have imagined. The story came to the attention of a philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, who put £50 million into the castle, and we now have a whole regeneration project. That would not have happened without the initial support of The Northern Echo.
At the other end of the scale is a newspaper, owned by the sister of Lord Barnard, called the Teesdale Mercury. It has a small circulation of 10,000, but it has been running campaigns to save local village schools. In effect, it saved the Forest of Teesdale Primary School.
This applies not just to local newspapers, but to excellent local radio stations – both the BBC stations and the commercial independents, such as Star Radio, which operates from Darlington. One of the community satations, Teesdale Radio, was forced to close. Is it fair that community radio stations are not allowed to advertise? Every parish magazine has advertisements, but community radio stations do not. That does not seem right. Local news outlets make a reality of localism. Communities are diverse and different; they are not homogenous. This country is diverse, which is reflected in our local newspapers. They are the voice of people, but they also reflect back to people what their community is like.
The NUJ has published a piece of research, Mapping changes in local news 2015-2017, by Dr Gordon Ramsay, who is part of King’s College London’s Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power. He was supported in his work by the Media Reform Coalition, the Political Studies Association and colleagues from Goldsmith University. The research shows a continuing, if not accelerating, decline in the number of local newspapers. Some 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005. In the past 18 months, 22 have closed and 13 have been set up, which is a net loss of nine. Unfortunately, that involved the loss of 418 journalists’ jobs.
It is a matter of concern that 58 perccent of people in this country have no local daily newspaper. That hollowing out is dangerous. Newspapers are not really local if they are run by such a small number of journalists that, in effect, they are four pages of local news wrapped around centrally-produced content, which is mainly lifestyle articles and listicles.
Where real journalists are involved in the production of local newspapers, they are becoming exhausted. I had a meeting with people from the South London Press before Christmas who were campaigning against reductions to their numbers. Such journalists also suffer significantly from low pay. This is a profession, and they need to be properly rewarded for their skills, energy and efforts.
It is a vicious circle. If we hollow out the quality of the local newspapers, they become more boring, so of course the readership will fall, whereas if we maintain the quality, people will want to keep reading them. The absence of local newspapers is dangerous too. People will lack information and will not be able to hold local institution to account. Communities will suffer a loss of identity. That creates an environment in which fake news can flourish, because there is no real news. What we need, across the board, is good-quality information and journalism.
Another very interesting thing that came out of the research by Gordon Ramsay is the growing concentration in our local newspapers. That, too, is dangerous. I do not suppose many people are aware that four publishers are responsible for three quarters of the local newspapers in this country: Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and Tindle. One of the absurdities is that they take over local newspapers and then either close them or shed more jobs. Of the 400-plus jobs that have been lost, 139 were cut by Newsquest and 102 by Trinity Mirror.
Foreign ownership in this arena can also be quite dangerous. It means that decisions are taken about the way newspapers are run and the closure of newspapers in boardrooms in New York by people who have no idea that Sunderland and Newcastle are two different places. We need to get back better control of the way newspapers are run and restore the idea, most recently voiced by Harry Evans, that journalism is a sort of public service. It is not purely a commercial enterprise.
Why have we got into this mess? Obviously, technology is part of the reason. More things are moving online, and more advertising is moving online. There is a change in the readership and habits of the public. However, that is not the whole explanation. The problem from the newspapers’ point of view is that 80 per cent of their revenue comes from their print editions and some 12 per cent from their online work. Facebook and Google are expected to have a three-quarters share of the advertising market by 2020.
Technology is not the only explanation for what is going on. Some people might call it greed, and others might call it unrealistic expectations, but too much money has been taken out of local newspapers. By way of contrast, Tesco – one of the most successful supermarkets in this country – makes a 7 per cent return on its capital each year. These publishers are extracting between 20 per cent and 30 per cent each year. That is what they expect. If they cannot make that, they say the papers are uneconomic.
Of course, the papers are perfectly financially sustainable. They are making enough money to keep going and even to expand; they are just not making whopping profits of 30 per cent. If these people were content to make the kind of profits that our supermarkets are making, we could have a flourishing of local news across the nation.
We continue to require local authorities to put statutory notices into local newspapers. That is very positive, both financially and in terms of providing people with information. Newspapers have a VAT exemption as well.
The Government have done two things to try to provide direct support. The first was to set up local television franchises. Research shows that three quarters of those licensed areas sought a relaxation of the requirement for news provision. On every single occasion that relaxation was granted, so the initiative is not having the positive effect that was intended.
Now we have a new initiative: democracy reporters. The licence fee is being top-sliced, and the BBC is providing 150 local democracy reporters across the country. There is a question mark here. It is really important that there is a system to ensure that those posts are genuinely additional. We do not want the BBC to send two people into a local newspaper and for the managers of that paper think: “Fantastic! We can sack two of the people we were paying.”
Ministers must also ensure that the Government initiatives are not sucked up by the big four publishers. What we want is more variety, more diversity and more new ventures. We need to ensure that the things we do reach those people, not just the big multinational chains.
Helen Goodman is Labour MP for Bishop Auckland. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate