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James Curran: Local Journalism and Democracy

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Local newspapers are closing, and journalists are being fired. This raises two questions: Does this matter? Should anything be done about it?

To which some people give a resounding NO. Thus the radical environmentalist, George Monbiot, writes of local papers. ‘This lot is not worth saving’ because they ‘do more harm than good’. A similar line is taken by the American press historian, John Nerone: ‘The biggest thing to lament’, he writes, ‘about the death [of the old order of journalism] is that it is not there for us to piss on anymore’.

The second part of this resounding ‘NO’ argument is that there is a self-correcting mechanism at work. The death of local papers is creating opportunities, it is claimed, for new green shoots to emerge. A legion of online citizen journalists will fill the space vacated by tired, dead wood professionals. The current crisis is a blessing in disguise because it will lead to the renaissance of journalism in a new, more inclusive, more participatory, self-generative form. In other words, things will get better because they are getting worse.

I think this argument is misleading because we are faced not with Armageddon, not with a Schumpeterian purge, but merely a continuation of a cumulative process of decline.

Traditional journalism

The nature of this decline is illustrated by the Hunts Post in the 1960s.

A local weekly, it was a fat broadsheet that was very widely read.

 It offered a mirror in which the local community could see itself reflected, in a slightly idealised way. It provided a seemingly comprehensive listing of births, marriages and deaths, which were avidly read. It gave full accounts of local sporting and community groups. Almost everyone, it seemed, featured at some point in its pages. It thus strengthened a sense of belonging to the local community, and in doing this supported local political participation.  You don’t bother to vote locally unless you feel part of things.

Secondly, it reported extensively local councils. It thus enabled people to make an informed opinion about their performance. It also conferred status on councillors, helping to make them prominent members of the local community.

And thirdly, it mediated between social groups. In particular, it facilitated discussion about two key local issues – whether more people from London’s slums should be re-housed in local market towns, and whether Europe’s largest airport should be established in the neighbourhood - on which large numbers of people, with different values and hopes for the future, were ranged on either side.

In brief, the paper was good because it strengthened a sense of community, reported extensively local government, and supported local debate and the functioning of local civil society. These virtues, and the strengths of local journalism more generally, were weakened by a succession of changes:

Decline

The Free Distribution revolution of the 1980s gave rise to low budget, often editorially poor local papers. I saw a copy of the free distribution Hunts Post in the 1990s: it was thin, tatty, offered negligible coverage of local government and indeed very local news of any kind. It was a sad apology for its former self.

The TV deregulation of the 1990s greatly weakened local TV journalism. Researching for a book on culture wars, I was struck by how just good Thames TV local current affairs programmes in the 1980s were. This genre of programme has virtually disappeared.

And now a Tsunami is sweeping through local journalism as a result of the rise of the internet as an advertising medium. The net is very good at selecting people with a predisposition to buy (which is why search advertising is its largest category). It is cheap, and now reaches a large number of people.

Net advertising overtook commercial TV advertising in J-J 2009, threatening the future of local TV journalism.

The web siphoned off local classifieds. Between 2000-2008, net’s share of classified advertising expenditure soared from 2 to 45 percent; that of the local press slumped from 47 to 26 per cent in the same period.

106 local papers folded between Jan 2008 and Sept 2009. More will follow.

Wider Context

These developments need to be viewed in a wider context. Firstly, local government has been enfeebled. During the Thatcherite 1980s, local councils lost financial autonomy. In the 1990s, under John Major, local government lost key functions in a dual process of privatisation and fragmentation. And in the New Labour era, local government remained emasculated.

Secondly, there is a general turning away from politics. Party membership is in freefall. Turnout at local elections has been declining significantly. And turnout at national elections, never below 70% before 2001, is now running at 59-61 percent. It has dropped to a lower plateau, and may decline still further in a few weeks time.

Multiple Decline

The decline of local journalism, decline of local democracy, and growing disaffection with politics, are all taking place at the same time and feeding off each other.

In these circumstances, we should be seeking not just to arrest the decline of local journalism, but identifying ways of regenerating local journalism.

The major political parties do not seem likely to provide this. Whether in the form of Labour’s Independently Funded News Consortia or Roger Parry’s proposed Local Multi-media Companies [Conservative], the parties are opting for greater local media concentration, without proper public service safeguards, as a means of sustaining local journalism.

But there are alternatives to these impoverished ideas. And in the next 90 minutes or so, you are going to hear what they are, and be able to discuss them.