Newspapers have issues

The problems facing journalism are urgent.

 

In London the ever more bizarre fallout of the hacking scandal kept the media classes chattering as winter turned into spring. But away from the capital a far more worrying and important story is unfolding for Britain’s media. It is the collapse of the regional press as we know it.

It was pretty much unreported outside specialist websites (like Press Gazette) but figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations at the end of February revealed that the UK’s 80-odd daily newspapers typically lost between 5 and 10 per cent of their sales in last six months of 2011.

The Nottingham Post lost a frightening 17.2 per cent.

The UK’s 368 paid-for local weekly newspapers are losing sales at a slightly slower rate, although a small number – 25 – actually managed to grow their sale last year.

All this matters because, if you are worried about a dangerous road, if you feel that the police are ignoring your pleas for them to deal with anti-social behaviour on your estate or you are fed up with the local children’s playground being covered in dog shit – you don’t call The Times or The Sun, you call your local paper.

But more and more people are unable to do that. If you live in Port Talbot in Wales, Long Eaton in Derbyshire or Cannock Chase in the Midlands – there are no journalists routinely covering courts and council meetings, holding local politicians to account, celebrating local successes and exposing minor scandals, because the local newspapers have been closed.

The high water mark of print newspaper circulation in the UK was around 1955. But the high point of local newspaper profitability was around 2005.

Back then regional press giants like Johnston Press were banking incredible profit margins of around 40 per cent. At that time there were around 12,000 local press journalists in the UK.

Today, I would be surprised if there are many more than 8,000.

The bedrock of local newspaper ad revenues were jobs, cars and homes advertising which have disappeared to low-cost online competitors (cheap because they don’t have to bother employing journalists) never to return.

In 2014 ITV will renew its broadcasting licence. In a by then completely digital, multichannel world it will be able to argue – justifiably – that it should no longer have to subsidise its regional news provision to the tune of £50m a year as it does at the moment.

So we may be adding the 600 journalists it employs to the thousands who are going in the regional press. The Coalition Government’s proposed Local TV plans are likely to be largely staffed by enthusiasts and students – attracting public subsidy of just £5m a year in total.

Leveson matters, as does the hacking scandal and the corruption of public officials.

But for those who care about democracy, society and communities – the issues facing local journalism in the UK are a much more urgent problem.

Newspapers have issues, Getty images.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war