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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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