In London the ever more bizarre fallout of the hacking scandal kept the media classes chattering as winter turned into spring. But away from the capital a far more worrying and important story is unfolding for Britain’s media. It is the collapse of the regional press as we know it.
It was pretty much unreported outside specialist websites (like Press Gazette) but figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations at the end of February revealed that the UK’s 80-odd daily newspapers typically lost between 5 and 10 per cent of their sales in last six months of 2011.
The Nottingham Post lost a frightening 17.2 per cent.
The UK’s 368 paid-for local weekly newspapers are losing sales at a slightly slower rate, although a small number – 25 – actually managed to grow their sale last year.
All this matters because, if you are worried about a dangerous road, if you feel that the police are ignoring your pleas for them to deal with anti-social behaviour on your estate or you are fed up with the local children’s playground being covered in dog shit – you don’t call The Times or The Sun, you call your local paper.
But more and more people are unable to do that. If you live in Port Talbot in Wales, Long Eaton in Derbyshire or Cannock Chase in the Midlands – there are no journalists routinely covering courts and council meetings, holding local politicians to account, celebrating local successes and exposing minor scandals, because the local newspapers have been closed.
The high water mark of print newspaper circulation in the UK was around 1955. But the high point of local newspaper profitability was around 2005.
Back then regional press giants like Johnston Press were banking incredible profit margins of around 40 per cent. At that time there were around 12,000 local press journalists in the UK.
Today, I would be surprised if there are many more than 8,000.
The bedrock of local newspaper ad revenues were jobs, cars and homes advertising which have disappeared to low-cost online competitors (cheap because they don’t have to bother employing journalists) never to return.
In 2014 ITV will renew its broadcasting licence. In a by then completely digital, multichannel world it will be able to argue – justifiably – that it should no longer have to subsidise its regional news provision to the tune of £50m a year as it does at the moment.
So we may be adding the 600 journalists it employs to the thousands who are going in the regional press. The Coalition Government’s proposed Local TV plans are likely to be largely staffed by enthusiasts and students – attracting public subsidy of just £5m a year in total.
Leveson matters, as does the hacking scandal and the corruption of public officials.
But for those who care about democracy, society and communities – the issues facing local journalism in the UK are a much more urgent problem.