Things are bad in regional media, but does that mean the government should step in to provide life-support?

The National Union of Journalists thinks so, and has taken proposals for public funding and protection from closure to culture minister Ed Vaizey. They argue government support is needed for papers that pass a public benefit test to ensure communities are not left bereft of “quality journalism, informed citizenship and local democracy”. 

It’s a compelling argument for anyone who has seen the impact of cut after cut on the regional media’s ability to support their communities. The NUJ has the stats to back up quite how dire the situation is:

— Closures: In the last decade, 20 per cent of the UK’s local newspapers have closed.

— Jobs: Analyst Claire Enders estimates that in the five years prior to 2011, 40 per cent of jobs in the UK regional press had gone. 

— Advertising: Between 2008 and 2011 the regional press lost £1 billion in advertising since 2008.

Despite these frightening figures NUJ General secretary Michale Stanistreet argues: 

The model is not bust: local papers need to rediscover their local roots, so that local advertisers know they are reaching their market and readers can see that reporters are working on their patch as a watchdog and friend. 

Stanistreet is wrong. If the model isn’t yet bust, it’s certainly very badly broken and there’s little prospect of fixing it in its current form. 

Advertising hasn’t abandoned the regional media because local newspapers aren’t local enough, it’s because they web provides a far more effective way to deliver the classified advertising that supported the regional press in its hey day.

Readers aren’t abandoning local newspapers because they think local journalists aren’t their “watchdog and friend”, it’s because they are consuming news about their area from multiple sources, or no longer cast their net of interest narrowly within a few miles of where they live.

Even if government money papered over the gaping holes left by the flight of advertising revenue, would that reverse the shift away from local papers towards other media?

Newspapers aren’t the same as journalism

Alongside public funding, the NUJ is also proposing that local newspapers be designated “community assets” under the Localism Act 2011, providing protection from closure without consultation or the consideration of a sale. It’s a suggestion that is both disingenuous and revealing.

The NUJ’s statement makes no mention of the fact that the act explicitly and repeatedly defines community assets as land and buildings. Including newspapers  – whether you define them as a medium or a business – would be a massive departure from what it was intended to do. 

More importantly, the attempt to co-opt this legislation shows the NUJ is mistaking the existing structure of newspapers – including it seems the buildings they work from – with the public service they provide. 

As examples of that it wants to protect, the NUJ lists: “reporting council meetings, courts and providing a forum for the local community”. But these are all journalistic activities done by journalists. Newspapers aren’t the only arena in which that can be done.

Commerce vs service

I want local newspapers, with the jobs, community service ethos and tradition they provide, to survive. But the bulk have are and always have been commercial enterprises. That should be a source of pride, a guarantee that despite all their troubles, they can at least claim to be truly independent of the institutions they cover. 

But making them dependent on government subsidy would both undermine that tradition and dull their desire to follow changing consumer trends and provide the services their communities need, in a format they want. 

That is, of course, what regional media companies are trying to do. Across the industry there are attempts to shift the emphasis from merely offering advertising space to delivering localised marketing services. There are also attempts to come up with completely new revenue streams, such as Archant’s incubator programmes

The NUJ is right that, in a search for a profitable model, local newspapers may neglect the public service elements that have characterised much of their previous activity. But couldn’t money spent propping up those activities in an environment they no longer suit be better spent elsewhere?

Local startups

There are plenty of unpaid bloggers, many of them former hacks, who are covering the issues important to their communities effectively, intelligently and with integrity. There are also many unemployed young people in the regions with the skills and desire to develop new ways of helping their communities. 

Few of these endeavours are going to be profitable at any scale, so are unlikely to attract private investment. But with government grants targeted at those with a clear public service ethos, that pass exactly the sorts of tests the NUJ wants to see applied to newspaper activities, they could provide focused and dedicated services designed to serve their communities that would also create a small but not insignificant number of jobs. 

The NUJ meant to support journalists, and at a pinch, journalism as an abstract concept. It is not there to support newspapers, which should be able to look after themselves.

Inevitably those local papers that aren’t able to reinvent themselves will close. But there are many other ways to protect local journalism that the government, and even the NUJ, can help with.