There is hope in the wreckage of the local press

There will always be local news, except that it is a less attractive investment. Perhaps that’s best

The decline of the local press continues. Last Friday, my local paper, the Bristol Evening Post, announced that 19 jobs (out of 56) were at risk.

It’s right across every news group and every publisher. Sales are dropping, advertising revenue has slumped and it still seems elusive to make profit from the digital offering. Daily papers are going weekly, and this won’t be the end of it.

Going, going, gone. Time was, when you got your foot in the door of a newspaper, you had a job for life, or could move on somewhere else, to better things. Now, you might have a job for two or three years at best in a "platform-neutral" newsroom where you’re expected to churn out multimedia content for the web as well as the ink editions – and then you’ll kicked down the Jobcentre with a paltry pay-off and no prospects.

When I worked at the Bristol Evening Post (soon to be renamed as simply the Post), the ominous invitation to a Friday afternoon “boardroom presentation” invitation was a relatively new development; the email from the editor-in-chief telling us what was happening was even written in the jolly Comic Sans font to try and soften the blow. Now it’s happening with more and more inevitability.

For years, newspapers milked their readers and advertisers for every penny they could make. Try placing a death notice in your local paper and you might be almost as traumatised by the price as you were by your bereavement: you might even be paying more for a tiny box in the classified section as a local business would have been for a quarter-page ad somewhere else.

When times were good, local papers made an absolute fortune. There was nowhere else to go to advertise a car or house or thing for sale; there was no ebay, no internet, no other forum – so prices went up, and up, and up, and the punters had to put up with it. A lot of people got very rich, and well done to them. Now the golden teat is running dry, there is no emotional attachment to the business of providing news.

To maintain the glorious era of ever-increasing growth over the short and medium term, something had to give. That something turned out to be that journalism bit of the publications that went above the adverts; the "non-revenue department" as editorial was sometimes referred to. It’s no surprise that when managing directors of the newspaper groups I used to work for visited the offices, they didn’t bother stopping on the editorial floor. They weren’t interested.

What a waste, what a bloody waste. What a waste of all the talent and skill of all those good people who worked their hardest, for miserably low pay, working well over and above their allotted hours just because of some naive sense of professionalism, because they believed in the job they were doing, even if their bosses didn’t. What a waste of it all.

There’s hope, in the wreckage. Some independent journalists are trying to start up small publications and websites, and some are succeeding, just as the print behemoths come crashing down around them. There will always be local news, except that soon it won’t be as attractive to invest in as it once was. Perhaps that’s best for everyone.

The Bristol Evening Post's offices. Photograph: © Lewis Clarke, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.