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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.