In praise of regional journalism

Will we miss it when its gone? I think we will.

I've been accused of being a little unfair towards journalists in the past, which is somewhat ironic given that I laughably call myself one -- but let me put it right anyway.

Most journalists I've met, and worked with, and known, are hardworking, diligent, decent folk. They mostly come from good families, and god knows their parents tried -- but for some tragic reason, their offspring at one time or another came to the sad conclusion that they'd be better off writing or broadcasting things for a living.

It's not their fault. You don't choose journalism as a career: it finds you, whether you want it to or not.

You don't really want to be doing what you're doing for a living, but sooner or later, you just seem to have ended up doing it -- and by then, it's too late. You're doomed. It's somewhere warm to go during the day, and people don't bother you too much -- except for when those rude folk from the general public dare to use the telephone to try and contact you -- so it makes for an acceptable lifestyle.

Better than sitting around the park with a three litre bottle of cider, anyway, or whatever it is that we'd be up to otherwise. It could be worse, couldn't it.

I have spent most of my career working in the regional press, which is a curious thing, a world of residents up in arms, old ladies complaining about their boilers and old Jaff from down the dominoes club wondering when his bloody league tables are going to go in the paper.

It's a world where, when they get a letter from the PCC, editors are actually dismayed and worried about the consequences, rather than shrugging it off as a gnat-bite inconvenience. It's a world where, more often than not, people really care about what they write, because they can see the consequences.

You're actually working right next door to the people you're writing about. There isn't that level of detachment; you know that what you say and write can really upset someone, and they're often within walking distance of your office - even if, as is often the case nowadays, your newspaper has been relocated to some faceless industrial estate in the middle of nowhere rather than the middle of town. You can't hide when people come calling with complaints -- and if they're legitimate, you're left feeling ruined about what you've done to them.

I say all this for few reasons.

Firstly, as I say it's to right a perceived wrong, in that I may appear to have seemed to be anti-journalist or anti-newspaper in the things I've said and written, whereas the reality couldn't be further from that. Secondly, these hardworking, underpaid, undervalued hacks at local rags -- and "local rag" really is a term of affection among readers, no matter what wafer-thin-skinned editors might tell you otherwise - are dwindling in their numbers, not because they're actually no longer needed, but to prop up the profits of their huge parent corporations.

Just this week, more job losses appear to be on the way, at Johnston Press in Yorkshire. Other newspaper groups are doing the same -- or will be soon. Journos at the place where I learnt my craft, the South London Guardian, has been out on strike this week, complaining about an entire sports and leisure department being told they're at risk of redundancy.

And even as I was writing this, news came through of more jobs under threat, this time in Newcastle.

Wherever you live, the people who are writing about your local city, town or village are becoming fewer and fewer in number, and the decline is, if anything, accelerating.

Yes yes, blogs and hyperlocal sites will fill some of the void, but not all of it. Now is the time to value those local journalists more than ever, perhaps unfairly bundled in along with the worst extremes of the red-tops.

Will we miss them when we're gone? I think we will. People trust regional papers more than other news sources; they don't approach the local rag with the same jaded cynicism they might reserve for a national. But, whether they think that or not, the memos about "difficult trading conditions" and "tough choices" will be sent out in more and more newsrooms in the coming weeks and months.

Something has been started that isn't going to be stopped, I am afraid. And the impact it has on what news we get about where we live is only just beginning.

The readers aren't stupid; they've noticed the difference already. And it's only going to get worse as time goes on.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.