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11 November 2023

Zombie news: the strange resurrection of the local paper

The ghosts of regional journalism are being used to sell ads and score political points – but there are also signs of revival.

By Will Dunn

People in the Peak District awoke one August morning this summer to find copies of the High Peak Reporter waiting on the doormat. The paper delivered local news, all of it refreshingly positive: the front page led with the announcement of an upgraded rail line, while other headlines reported “More police on the beat” and “Extra skills investment”. But its presence would have come as a surprise to many readers. No one had subscribed to the Reporter since it closed, after more than a century in business, in 1998.

It was not a real newspaper but a zombie – a piece of promotional material created for the local Conservative MP, Robert Largan, by a company in nearby Manchester. As such, it was just the latest example of how the local newspaper industry, which has been all but destroyed, is now being replaced. Freed from the oversight of local reporters and editors, businesses and politicians have begun to create their own information networks – they look like local news, but report only the things their owners want the public to see.

On 8 November, journalists at the UK’s biggest commercial news publisher, Reach, joined a web meeting in which the company’s CEO, Jim Mullen, announced the latest wave of redundancies: 450 jobs would go, of which around 320 would be journalists. In what seems to have been a technical oversight, staff were able to comment on the livestream; as Mullen spoke, anonymous commenters asked why Mullen (whose experience lies mainly in the gambling industry) couldn’t spare some of his £4m salary, 174 times that of a typical reporter, and why his pay was so high when the company’s share price had fallen significantly. Another simply asked: “How long until we are all unemployed?”

While Reach continues to make a profit (more than £100m in 2022), its titles account for all ten of the biggest falls in print circulation among the top 30 local papers. The steepest decline is at the Manchester Evening News. The Manchester Evening News was founded by a campaigning politician, Mitchell Henry, who stood for Manchester in the general election of 1868 (he came sixth), but was established as a business after the election, becoming the country’s biggest regional newspaper. In 1945, it was the first newspaper in the UK to report the Nazi surrender. In the first six months of 2023, its circulation fell by 59 per cent.

But while the newspaper synonymous with Manchester is gasping for breath, another title seems to have been resurrected. Google “Manchester newspaper” and the second result is the Manchester Gazette, a masthead not seen in the city since the original Gazette closed in 1829, but which once more has a website and a significant social media presence. On Facebook and Twitter, it has tens of thousands of followers, and is accompanied by separate accounts for the Bolton Gazette, Salford Gazette, Rochdale Gazette and Wigan Gazette, all of which use the same logos and link to the Manchester Gazette’s website. Like the High Peak Reporter, the Gazette reports local news, but appears to use a newer and less transparent business model.

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Late last year, I received an email from another business near Manchester, a Warrington-based public relations company called PR Fire, which offered guaranteed placement of stories on a number of websites, including the Manchester Gazette and Business Manchester. Ads could be placed for as little as £95.

Posing as a prospective advertiser, I asked PR Fire if it would be possible to run local politics stories on both sites. I stipulated that I would have to have complete control over the text and pictures in the stories, and that they would not be marked as advertising. To any editor, such a request should be taboo – but one of PR Fire’s directors guaranteed that my ads would run unedited, “not marked as sponsored or ad”, and that I would also have control over how the stories were presented on social media.

In further emails, another PR Fire employee described how the pieces would be syndicated by news aggregators. Because these aggregators regarded them as news, published by an editorial website, these paid-for articles would receive “guaranteed syndication to Google News, MarketWatch, Reuters, DowJones & LexisNexis”, they wrote, as well as to “reputable news sites” including Microsoft Network or MSN, which is, at 750 million visits per month, one of the biggest websites in the world. Being featured on a site like this costs an extra £200, and also helps advertisers to move their narratives further up in Google search results. “MSN will look like editorial,” one email assured me.

In one email, PR Fire listed previous campaigns that the company had placed on MSN.com, including articles that encouraged readers to invest in digital assets such as cryptocurrencies and NFTs. No indication was given that this advice was paid for and written on behalf of the people selling these investments. When I referred these examples to Microsoft, the company responded that “as our Publishing Guidelines clearly state, advertising and advertorial copy is prohibited”, and that “content submitted for publication that does not meet these standards will be taken down and removed from our platforms”.

[See also: The psychological trauma of reading the news]

However, PR Fire insists this practice is normal. When I asked for an explanation of the offers made to me by the company, its founder and CEO Sam Allcock, told me: “We submit press releases to these publications just like any other PR agency would and they are subject to editorial approval,” and that “the final decision on whether it gets published lies with the owner of the publication”.

This did not accord with what I had been told by salespeople, who claimed unedited publication on a network of “partner websites” was guaranteed. And it is hard to see how distinct editorial control can be maintained when some of the “partner websites” with which PR Fire works, such as NewsAnyway, were registered by companies of which Sam Allcock is a director.

At the time of writing, the leading item on the Manchester Gazette homepage was a story about the impending Black Friday sale of a “renowned brand” of “top-of-the-range massage chairs”. This story could not have been more obviously a press release – and was published on seven other websites, which all presented it as editorial news ­– but it was syndicated on to MSN.com and Business Insider without being flagged as paid content, varying by at most a few words.

These companies have not broken any law, and while the Advertising Standards Authority described it to me as an “interesting situation”, it is not one in which it can intervene: press releases are exempt from advertising regulation. For a newspaper to uncritically publish a press release is not new, but this was something that a real local newspaper would do occasionally, and by accident. Their primary purpose, like any news organisation, was to report and critique without fear or favour.

At the recent Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth, a company called Election Workshop offered a new product: Tabloids, a political leaflet of up to 12 pages or more, printed on newspaper stock and designed to look “like a traditional tabloid”. Election Workshop is a subsidiary of Letter Workshop, which is registered to an office in central Manchester; the company’s director is Charles Glover, who has worked for the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors since 2005.

Self-publishing newspapers is not a new practice, but it is expanding; earlier this year, voters in Brecon and Radnorshire were delivered what appeared to be local papers – the Gazette and the Chronicle ­– that were actually promotional material for the local Lib Dems and the Conservative MP, Fay Jones, respectively.

Again, what Glover offers MPs and candidates is perfectly legal, and there is little appetite for regulating the practice. The Electoral Commission has said it has no powers to do so, while the Cabinet Office told the media website Hold the Front Page that such publications form part of “a tradition of robust political debate and freedom of speech” and “should not be regulated”, although the fact-checking organisation Full Fact has set up a petition against the practice, which has now been signed by 6,000 people. Again, titles like the West Berkshire News (another paper paid for by the Lib Dems) show what happens in the absence of local news: a format trusted for generations to hold power to account now gives a voice to those that can afford it.

Watch: Ash Sarkar and Ian Dunt join the New Statesman podcast to discuss the balance of access, trust and lobbying in the age of digital media.

For generations, it was an arrangement that worked. A local paper could be bought for small change; the reader got relevant information very cheaply, and the paper got a large but local audience, which allowed it to make its real money selling advertising space. The wider community got a team of people whose job it was to scrutinise local government, public services, crime and business.

Years of academic research have gone into calculating the benefits of local newspapers: they promote voting in local elections, improve social cohesion, reduce the waste of public money and prevent corruption. Regional journalism has been shown to reduce local government borrowing costs and cut air pollution, among other things.

In the autumn of 2007, however, that arrangement came to an abrupt end. In September, customers of Northern Rock took part in the first run on a British bank for 150 years, and in November the first iPhone went on sale in the UK. These two events would all but destroy the local media.

The financial crisis was the first to hit, wiping out the advertising budgets of small businesses. “Classified advertising disappeared from the regional press almost overnight,” says Dominic Ponsford, editor of journalism’s trade publication, the Press Gazette (which has the same owner as the New Statesman).

At the same time, a background regulatory change – the “unbundling” of telephone exchanges – had allowed a wave of competitive new broadband companies to enter the market, bringing cheap, fast internet connections to more than half the country. Combined with the arrival of the smartphone, this allowed the fast-growing digital advertising companies, Facebook and Google, to appropriate the biggest portion of local newspapers’ revenue. “Small and medium businesses now do all of their advertising on Facebook and Google,” Ponsford tells me, “with the result that those two companies take in about £15bn a year in advertising. The whole national and regional press, including magazines, makes £2bn-£3bn.” While the advertising market continues to grow, publishers have been excluded from almost all of the profits by overseas technology companies.

In this sense the lay-offs at Reach are a double betrayal: as Jim Mullen told his staff, the company is cutting its workforce because Meta, Facebook’s owner, is withdrawing from news and ending what little revenue it did allow to trickle through to the people who actually report it. Meta has removed the news tab from Facebook and its fast-growing Twitter alternative, Threads – which is “not going to do anything to encourage… politics and hard news”, according to its leading executive, Adam Mosseri, because such subjects are “too risky”. The tech giants may have feasted upon the news media, but they have no interest in cleaning up the mess.

In the decade since Facebook and Google gobbled up the news, most journalists in the UK simply stopped reporting. A British workforce that comprised around 14,000 journalists in 2007 has been reduced to fewer than 5,000, says Ponsford. There are now large areas of the UK, he explains, where there is “no professional journalism at all”. This is not just a rural affliction; whole London boroughs, home to hundreds of thousands of people, are now covered by a single reporter, if that.

“All news starts with local media, all democratic accountability starts with local media,” says Ponsford, who cites the uncovering of the mid-Staffordshire NHS scandal (which came to public attention through the reporting of the Wolverhampton Express and Star) as one example. Without the paper’s reporting, patients might have gone unheard – as the residents of Grenfell Tower in west London did when, years before the 2017 fire, they complained about the safety issues in their building.

“When there’s no one asking these sort of questions, stories don’t really go anywhere,” says Ponsford. “There’s always a power in a newspaper masthead – politicians and other people in power are quite scared of appearing underneath it. I think we’re in uncharted territory, in terms of what happens to a country where there’s not really any democratic oversight at local level.”

Not everything that grows on the bombsite of local news is a weed, however. Back in Manchester, the Mill, an email newsletter of local news launched during lockdown, has grown into a business currently turning over around half a million pounds a year from 77,000 subscribers, about 5,500 of whom pay around £7 a month. The Mill has grown quickly, launching newsletters in Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham, and recently raised £350,000 from investors including the new CEO of CNN and former director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, and the Axios publisher Nicholas Johnston.

The Mill’s founder, Joshi Herrmann, runs a team of ten staffers who write or commission what he describes to me as “explanatory journalism, investigative journalism, narrative journalism”. Herrmann says he doesn’t see it as the job of new media companies to put local news back together: the sports results and cinema listings that people once got from local papers are now available from other dedicated websites. But the part that mattered for local democracy is a service for which people are still prepared to pay. Already, the Post – Mill Media’s Liverpool title – has reported on the money being wasted by the city’s combined authority, which includes a £950,000 investment in a luxury car company and a £700,000 bet on a delivery app that made a total of 58 deliveries. In Manchester, the Mill’s journalists are increasingly contacted by sources, as writers at a trusted local paper should be, with stories about life in the city’s hospitality industry.

Herrmann tells me he see this as important to his mission: in a city one of his writers described as “good at writing press releases and bad at writing cheques, there is very little checking of the hype… We see part of our role as examining and scrutinising some of the claims that are made.”

Such purpose will only become more important as a surge of content generated by chatbots floods the internet – though this could have the benefit of making the difference between real human reporting and AI gunge more clear. A chatbot can only reformulate what’s already on the internet; it cannot knock on a door, gain a source’s trust over time, or sit in a long meeting waiting for the right moment to ask an awkward question. In a future of junk news, real local journalism may yet tell its own story.

[See also: WeWork’s fall proves no one wants to work in utopia]

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