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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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.