I have banged on in this blog a number of times about Nick Davies’s excellent book Flat Earth News in which he describes the death of journalism as we have known and loved it for centuries. His is not a lone voice crying in the developing wilderness. Several thousand jobs in local journalism have disappeared in the last twelve months alone – 1000 last week from the Daily Mail’s regional/local organs. The response to the outcry from journalists against the loss of their jobs and the death of their newspapers has mostly been some version of:’ What’s so special about journalists anyway? They just have to cope like the car workers, financiers and everybody else who is finding the world has changed, but not in their favour.’
In today’s Guardian Polly Toynbee hits the nail on the head when she exposes what is happening to notions of ‘local belonging’, of which for generations local newspapers have been vital agents. She writes: ‘The government talks piously of community engagement – and a newspaper with real journalism is the most vital local forum of all. Before the end of the year, every local paper will be into heavy loss: money unlikely to return in the good times. So how can they be saved, in print and online?’
She goes on at the end of her article to say: ‘Bring in the money available from awful ITV local news. Add in some BBC money: their local news is shamingly bad too, partly because the area covered is too wide. Then oblige local councils to stop wasting money on their own Pravda sheets, and to buy space in clearly defined zones in their local news trusts. It might need a small subvention from council tax, too. Roll all this into a local trust with an obligation to good reporting, fair rules and open access, and you could have independent local news across web, print, radio and television offering a genuine community service. It is on the table.’
She ventures a final appeal: ‘But this is an emergency. Battalions of journalists with local knowledge are being sacked and newspaper expertise lost. Does the government have the imagination and capacity to create an environment where small, locally run independent trusts could flourish?’
Local journalism has until relatively recently provided the main way in which local people could find out what was happening in the place where they live. Local newspapers would be filled with names and faces and the possibility that ‘you’ might be in the news. But these same newspapers have increasingly become ‘scandal rags’, playing the same games as the tabloids in the search for sales and revenue. Here in Croydon we sometimes wonder if the local newspaper can ever bring itself to celebrate anything here rather than knock it or pick out the dodgy stuff.
But the loss of the local newspaper also takes with it the loss of local accountability. Councils can be slagged off for their spending or inconsistencies, but rarely is the local council meeting fully reported and decisions analysed intelligently. So, the loss is more than jobs and paper; it is also a serious loss of accountability and informed opinion forming.
It will be argued that this role has been overtaken by online journalism. But this is not the case. Internet journalism is usually driven by motivated individuals who bring their own subjective ‘spin’ to their comment (which is what a blog is, surely) – there is no wider accountability involved and ‘information’ can be recorded as fact when there is no check on it and possibly no foundation to it.
Several years ago I heard a national newspaper editor confidently predict the end of newspapers as we know them. He claimed that within five years no newspaper would be paid for, but that newspapers would be free in paper format as they advertised the online content which would be supported by online advertising. He might be right. But it seems to me that we are now going through yet another revolution which could have unintended consequences: not just a shift in the way ‘news’ is brought ot those who wish to hear it, but the potential loss of a common sense of place or belonging or community or accountability.
I strongly warm to Polly Toynbee’s suggestion that local money is put into local news organs with local accountability run by local trusts set up to ensure good reporting of things that matter to a community. The money that currently goes into councils providing their propaganda to every household could go into local newspaper communication, thus encouraging local people to read it (the main source of such information) and demonstrating local commitment to it (subsidised through Council Tax).
The idea of the ‘local’ might have to be redefined and rediscovered in the next couple of years. It must not be lost.