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The rise and fall of local newspapers

The local newspaper, which prized truth and accountability, was once the best training ground a journalist could possibly have.

Ten years ago, while writing a series about places for the Financial Times, I visited Barrow-in-Furness, a most unusual town. I quoted a few disparaging comments about the place (“the arse-end of the Lake District”) but then marvelled at the continuing sense of old-fashioned community. Especially one scene: kids playing after school on a sunlit terraced street and a girl walking down it carrying a bundle of evening papers. People were almost snatching them out of her hands.

Soon afterwards, that same paper, the North-West Evening Mail, ran the splash headline: “Fury at slur on Barrow”. This was accompanied by a picture of the author of the slur, looking devilishly handsome, if I may say so. All week the Evening Mail monstered the slurrer: in the news pages, the leader column, the letters column. Only two readers rose in his defence. One said: “If the guy said Barrow’s a dump, it’s because it is a dump.” Another said she had actually read the original piece and thought it very balanced. Finally the fuss died down. I have even been back to Barrow. Discreetly.

A decade later it is unlikely I could generate such a response. The Evening Mail’s entire editorial budget would now barely cover the four quid necessary to buy a Saturday edition of the FT. And it is improbable that a small paper would now employ anyone with the wit, skill and imagination to confect such a classic how-dare-he furore. And the saddest thing of all: nowhere, even in a town as neighbourly as Barrow, does anyone stand on the street clamouring for the evening paper. The game is up.

***

When I was six or seven, I happened to be walking past the office of my home town newspaper, the Northampton Chronicle & Echo – which dominated the north side of the Market Square – when an upper-floor window (in the sub-editors’ room, I think) spontaneously shattered and rained straight on to my head. Luckily, I was wearing my school cap, as small boys did, and was shaken, not lacerated.

I was, however, infected. About 15 years later, I found myself upstairs, next door to the subs in the almost windowless reporters’ room, armed with the then tools of the trade: a notebook, an ancient typewriter, a pile of carbon paper, small scraps of copy paper (A6 I think), a packet of fags and a box of matches. And, on payday, 14 quid a week in my pocket. I was the newest, keenest, most naive, most overweeningly ambitious reporter on the dear old “Chron”.

Near deadline, the copy would be snatched by the subs to be fed into a network of pneumatic tubes that whooshed the story through the building to endure the convoluted old process that turned words on paper into hot metal and then back into words on paper again. Eventually, when we hacks were usually down the road in Shipman’s having our first pint, the building would begin shaking as the presses in the basement burst into life to produce 50,000-odd copies of the newspaper. Years after that, when I found myself in a major San Francisco earthquake, the rumble-and-shake felt exactly the same. It probably explains the broken window.

It was only after I left Northampton and made it safely to Fleet Street that I wished I had revelled more in the joy of working on my home town newspaper.

It was an education: far more useful than anything I learned anywhere else. It was a privilege: not long after wearing my school cap, I was a player in Northampton life, mixing with the people I wrote about. It was a responsibility: the words I lightly chose to use or omit could change people’s lives for the better, or much worse. I still believe that a journalist who has worked on a local paper has a more complete understanding of the trade that anyone – however brilliant – who has not. Because you learn, often painfully, the powerful effect your words can have on people, for good and ill. People you might well meet the next morning.

I was also very lucky: the Chron was liberal-minded in the sense of allowing its writers to flex their muscles, however underdeveloped those muscles were. The editor rather encouraged my urge to add fancy touches to sports reports and features. And thus I discovered the limits of a free press. You know nothing about journalism until you’re confronted with the hulking great full-back you flippantly slagged off the week before.

Soon the idea of learning the trade in real time went out of fashion. Gone were the sparky 16-year-olds, making the tea and clawing their way to stardom. Even graduates like me had disappeared. They were all superseded by people who had done postgraduate journalism courses and could spout theory and jargon from Day 1. They were not necessarily impressive. “Most of them aren’t even nosy,” one editor sighed to me years later.


A good local: a reader of the Liverpool Echo gets the latest on the kidnapping of Kenneth Bigley, 2004. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Originally, provincial newspapers  were hyper-partisan rags (like the Pioneer in Middlemarch) competing with each other, and often owned by a local grandee. As the 20th century took shape, the weakest closed and the survivors acquired monopolies, whereupon they scrapped the partisanship and began to look like the old Daily Telegraph with the opinion taken out: turgidly designed, often turgidly written, run by skinflints. But indispensable, full of news, and profitable.

Note that last word. In 1978, provincial journalists went on a national strike to protest about their feeble wages: the pay that once seemed munificent to me was dire for young marrieds, and would get worse. Because the strike had perverse consequences. The papers still appeared, brought out by executives and scabs. And their circulation did not fall. They had to be printed earlier, without much news, but that allowed more selling time. The conclusion drawn by most managements: journalism? Overrated!

By then the owners were starting to strike gold with their monopoly of classified advertising and its holy trinity of cars, jobs and homes. This was not part of the old model, which depended on saturation sales. Remember: few people had cars until the 1960s; they changed jobs infrequently until the 1970s; and a home was primarily a home, not a store of wealth, until the 1980s.

There followed what the press specialist Douglas McCabe of Enders Analysis calls “the 20-year heyday”, 1985 to 2004. These were good years for national papers too, thanks to the Murdoch-led crushing of the print unions (which had pushed their luck way, way too far). But they did have competitors.

For the locals, it was easy-peasy. Start-up freesheets began to nibble at the monopolies, but the big groups could buy them out or squash them by starting their own. And new aggressive players came to dominate the market. The archetype was Johnston Press, whose rise and fall may be taught in business schools as a cautionary tale. For nearly 150 years, it contented itself with owning the Falkirk Herald. But it inched out of its stronghold in the 1970s and then stormed south, like Bonnie Prince Charlie marching on London. It went on a debt-fuelled spending spree, buying newspapers wherever it could.

Then, in the 1990s, in jumped the American giant Gannett (pronounced Ga-nett, though they gobbled up small fish just like a gannet) which had earlier started a similar process in the US. A well-known American editor, Paul Janensch, once told the story of attending a Gannett management training seminar: “A corporate executive asked us, ‘If you are a Gannett publisher, what is your first priority?’ Serve the public, said one of the attendees. Sounds noble, but no, said the executive. Add new customers, I volunteered. Nope, said the executive. Make money, said another. You’re on the right track, but not quite there, said the executive. Then he told us the right answer: ‘Your first priority is to make more money.’” And for decades Gannett did just that. This philosophy came to Britain, under the blander name of Newsquest – though questing for news was the least of its concerns.

In the meantime, the UK’s local papers themselves changed, becoming more downmarket. They changed shape, until they were almost all tabloid. The pictures became bigger, brighter, colourful. The reporting became breathless, in the supposed style of the Sun or Mail.

For a Guardian article in 1993, I subscribed to four regional evening papers for a month. More often than not, each one splashed with a 999 story. And if the headline did not include the word HORROR, it was probably SHOCK, SCARE, ANGER, PANIC or, as after my visit to Barrow, FURY. The morning calls to police, fire and ambulance had always been a staple of local journalism. But as time went on there was very little else.

What the new, predatory owners failed to understand was that the successful national tabloids always blended the horror, shock and fury with fun, wit, sex, occasional malevolence and empathy with their readers’ concerns. The locals were dumping or driving away so many journalists, they were increasingly unable to produce any stories at all other than slightly rewritten press releases (mostly put out by their own ex-employees, promoted to PR pay-scales).

Already, circulation figures were heading down. Long-term, readers noticed the poor quality and their reading habit faded, exacerbated by societal change. The upside of social mobility for local papers was the property advertising; the downside was that the incomers rarely knew their neighbours and put down the shallowest of roots – even football became less local.

Big city life was becoming especially anonymous. In 1963, Birmingham and Leeds were among the last British cities that still had competing evening papers. The following year the Birmingham Evening Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post revelled in their monopolies: the Mail had a daily sale of 408,000; the Post 314,000. By 1984, these figures were down to 284,000 and 156,000 respectively. By 2000 they were 136,000 and 76,000. And that was the heyday.

Those great pillars – cars, jobs and property – were about to tremble, then crumble, then collapse.

***

In 1815, the week before Waterloo, the Carlisle Patriot was founded as a weekly – and, as the name implies, not one with radical views. Fifty-three years later, a young man called John Burgess took over as editor. And John Burgess begat Robert who begat another John (who became Sir John after being chairman of Reuters) who begat Robin.

Along the way, the paper morphed into the Cumberland News, which ceased taking sides politically but became one of Britain’s most admired local papers – all the while with a Burgess at the helm, until Robin Burgess stepped down as managing director in 2016. And the group grew into Cumbrian Newspapers, with two evening papers in Carlisle and – yes – Barrow, and various other media interests, few of them far from the Scottish border.

Robin’s younger brother Charlie, an old friend of mine, did not join the family firm, but remained a director during a long career in executive roles at the Guardian, Independent and Mail. “It was run as a proper business, a capitalist business,” he said. “But we didn’t make a 30 per cent return on capital, which the new companies were achieving. It would have been brilliant but we didn’t want to run it that way. We were happy to make a profit and run good papers.”

In 2001, the Cumberland News was named regional newspaper of the year for its coverage of the foot-and-mouth crisis, which had its epicentre in the county.  But as the infant century began and the internet moved from novelty to ubiquity, all print media started to struggle with their response. Especially the local papers. Could they make people pay to read their journalism online? The response increasingly was, “What journalism?”

There is evidence that papers that still invested in news – especially those in rural, neighbourly areas – did hold up better than the more cynically run operations: the Wolverhampton Express & Star is a notable example. Good swimmers can survive a storm. But this wasn’t a storm, it was a tsunami.

As the drift away from print accelerated, advertisers also jumped ship. Estate agents turned to Rightmove and Zoopla; motor dealers to AutoTrader. Cumbrian Newspapers had some residual loyalty, but the 2008 recession was a further blow. And then the tech giants started hoovering up the other ads.

Robin Burgess died earlier this year, aged 68, shortly after Cumbrian Newspapers was sold to Newsquest. The board finally concluded that, without economies of scale, the pension fund could be in jeopardy. Last month, the new owners announced another round of redundancies: “the Christmas cull”, as one employee put it. 

The Northampton Chronicle & Echo is now a weekly, housed in a distant business park. It may be printed in China, for all I know. It is owned by JPI Media, the remnant of the once hubristic Johnston Press, now in administration. Its circulation is pitiful even though – or perhaps because – the area’s population has more than doubled. The Barrow Mail, in a much smaller but more homogeneous town, clings on – just.

And what about Birmingham, England’s mighty second city? The latest sales figure for its last daily paper, from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, is 13,606 – 3 per cent of its 1964 figure. In Leeds, the Evening Post has similarly shrivelled: 8,951. Yes, there would be more readers online but not that many – and the sites are nowhere near good enough to make a paywall feasible. A quarter of British journalists’ jobs have already gone; an entire industry is withering.

People are now starting to grasp the scale of the crisis. There are a few initiatives of various kinds, a few start-ups (good luck with that) and much talk about the need to hold councils to account, as though local papers were ever any good at doing so. That’s not the way provincial life works.

But the papers were at least trustworthy: they would report more or less accurately what was going on around you. Without the local press, we are heading back towards the Middle Ages. Worse, really, since falsehoods travel faster now.

Last month, Enders Analysis issued a detailed report which concluded that regional publishers had to rethink. “The critical issue is simple,” wrote Douglas McCabe. “Publishers have not put the citizen – and community – centre stage. This approach worked for more than a hundred years but has been steadily dismantled since the 1980s.”

More surprisingly, there was a speech from Tracy De Groose, head of the news industry’s marketing body, Newsworks. “We’ve been selling our advertising space and not our journalism. It has lost us about one billion pounds of ad revenue over the last decade,” she said. In other words, the soppy old journalists were right and what she called the “bullshitters and propagandists” were wrong. Well, well, well. But I fear this may be 20 years too late.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special