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18 February 2021

What we lose when local news disappears

Residents of 23 local authorities in the UK have no local news provision, creating a democratic deficit with real-world consequences.

By Dominic Ponsford

A battle is being played out in Australia that will determine the future of news. It pitches old media stalwarts, including Rupert Murdoch and the Guardian, against the new media giants.

Australian lawmakers want to force the likes of Google and Facebook to pay publishers for copying and indexing their links, headlines and story snippets; the proposed legislation is due to be debated in parliament this week. In response, Google has threatened to leave the Australian market altogether, which would make everyone’s lives more difficult (have you ever tried to find anything on Bing?).

And Facebook has already come good on this threat, banning news from its pages in Australia in a petulant bid to punish the country for challenging its might.

Why should we care about the fate of a few newspapers most of us do not use, as opposed to a company whose search engine and suite of other free services have become indispensable to most of us?

Press Gazette: Facebook blocks news content in Australia to dodge News Media Bargaining Code Part of New Statesman Media Group

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What’s going on in Australia matters because it is an attempt to fix a digital media ecosystem that is killing local media, meaning large parts of the UK and other countries are now without dedicated local journalism for the first time in centuries.

Billions that were once spent with news media, and local news in particular, now go to Facebook and Google, which together take around 80 per cent of the £14bn spent on digital advertising in the UK annually, or nearly half of all advertising spend. Money once spent with local businesses that provided reporters covering courts, councils and local events now goes to US-based technology companies.

The UK’s local newspaper industry has been in cataclysmic decline since 2005. The loss of advertising for cars, jobs and houses to online competitors has been the main source of damage. The general economic collapse caused by coronavirus and its disruption to print newspaper distribution during the pandemic have resulted in a challenging climate.

If you are lucky enough to have a local newspaper in your area, it is likely to be run by one of four big companies that dominate the scene: Reach, JPI Media, Archant and Newsquest. It has been the same story at all four companies: office closures, redundancies, editors covering multiple titles, ever more junior and lowly paid staff.

Archant only avoided going out of business by coming to voluntary arrangements with creditors, and JPI Media was bought for the fire-sale price of £10.2m at the end of last year. Reach and Newquest continue to run by ensuring that cost cuts outpace falling revenue. There remain some handsomely produced flagship titles, such as the Yorkshire Post and Manchester Evening News.

But many local newspapers, and their associated websites, are put together on drastically diminished budgets. This matters because in most local communities the local newspaper and its associated website are the only providers of democratic accountability.

Press Gazette: What two decades of digital disruption did to the British press Part of New Statesman Media Group

Last year a government-backed report found a direct correlation between voter turnout at local elections and local newspaper circulation. And it identified 23 local authority areas where there is effectively no local news provision, and therefore no journalistic oversight of huge amounts of public spending. Print appears to be a dying business model for the provision of local news.

Most local newspapers have busy websites that reach strong audiences. But it is tough to monetise these sites because of competition from two low-cost competitors that can undercut local news providers in every community: Google and Facebook. This duopoly means that income from advertising – the great democratising influence that has brought journalism to the masses for hundreds of years – is no longer enough to underwrite the provision of local news. Publishers are experimenting with new business models such as paywalls, per-article payments and donations, none of which is yet working.

It seems inevitable that if local newspapers are to survive, some form of state intervention is needed. And there is a certain logic to the Australian proposition that Google, Facebook and others should pay something back to content producers as the price of their success. The alternative is that these two companies, which have effective monopolies when it comes to advertising on social media and search, grow ever larger, while professionally produced local news is allowed to die.

Press Gazette: Local press would have “picked up Grenfell fire-safety concerns in pre-internet era” Part of New Statesman Media Group

To find out what happens when large local authority areas are transported back to the media dark ages, you do not need to look further than Kensington and Chelsea. Thirty years ago the London borough had more than a dozen journalists working on the patch. Today there are none. This meant that when residents of Grenfell Tower began to raise concerns about fire safety in November 2016 on a blog, there were no local journalists able to pick up this story and push the council for answers. In June 2017, 72 residents were killed when a fire ripped through the tower block. They died because they did not have a voice.

Grant Feller, a former journalist on the now defunct Kensington and Chelsea News, is convinced the paper would have picked up on that story. “We would have known about that local group’s concerns because we were very much in the local community,” he told Press Gazette. “We would have pored over the council meeting agendas and asked questions of the councillors and the officers. But today there is no one there.”