Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, this week said local news needed to be supported, or “corruption and inefficiency” would grow as scrutiny lessened.
Rusbridger backs a plan to give public funding to Britain’s national press agency to allow it to provide news from public authorities and courts as local newspapers withdraw because they can no longer afford it.
But this overlooks the key issue; local news is already failing to scrutinise local democracy, with news sidelined in favour of advertorial and churnalism. Making council and court news available will not make it of interest to profit-driven local papers. The decline of local news is the result of proprietors who for decades have merged titles, cut staffing levels and reduced the actual news content in search of astronomical 40% profits.
Council freesheets have, for the most part, stepped in to fill the news vacuum in areas poorly-served for local news. This is especially true in poorer areas, which present a poorer target for advertisers and as such often get no local news at all.
This is certainly the case where I work. As well as cutting newsroom staff, distribution has been streamlined so less-well-off areas only get a paper one week in three.
The solution, though, is not to artificially prop up the local newspaper industry, but to recognise that the era of the local parish pump journalist is over. The emergence of things like Talk About Local, which trains activists to produce their own hyper-local websites, means people who genuinely care about the local area can produce, collate and comment on their local news themselves. A similar initiative by the Young Foundation launches later this year.
The result of years of under-investment in local newspapers means that with a few exceptions they’re made up largely of press releases, printed almost word-for-word. As a council communicator, this suits me pretty well, but it’s hardly indicative of a healthy local press performing its normative function as the fourth estate in a democratic system of checks and balances.
As more councils and other organisations send out their press releases using RSS, you can – if you really want – read and analyse them yourself. So do we really need traditional newspaper journalists to dissect them for us?
Many local blogs, such as Kings Cross Environment, have a higher readership than many traditional news outlets in their local area. So what were seeing, then, is not simply the decline of local news, but its democratisation, with the future of local news and comment in the hands of people who simply seek information, not profit.