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Small Town Newspapers Disappearing

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A loss of local papers damages democracy

By Jonathan Guthrie

Published: June 17 2009 19:41 | Last updated: June 17 2009 19:41

Dissent is the essential business of journalism. Journalists justify their platform with news and opinions that the powerful would prefer were kept private. The hack’s theoretical role is that of the curmudgeonly Jacques in As You Like It, who said: “Give me leave to speak my mind, and I will cleanse the foul body of the infected world.”

It therefore matters that local journalism is crumbling under the impact of the internet and the civic apathy of the great British public. The grubby bloomers of aldermen and local business big shots need hygienic airing as much as the dirty underwear of MPs and multinationals.

A front page splash of the Birmingham Post, for example, this week told readers: “Council knew two years ago that library was not falling apart.” News that the library had collapsed with the council trapped inside would admittedly have been more eye-catching. Yet the story was instructive to Brummie council taxpayers. Councillors had justified plans for a new library costing £193m with claims that the old building suffered from something called “concrete cancer”. Paul Dale of the Post earned his corn by publicising a report from structural engineers that showed no such thing.

We may not see Mr Dale’s like again. Local and regional newspapers face the same attrition from changing lifestyles and economics that have ground down pubs, corner shops and post offices. During a jolly little evidence session with members of parliament on Tuesday, Claire Enders, a newspaper industry expert, said: “We are expecting half of all 1,300 [local and regional] newspaper titles to close in five years.” The bosses of three big local newspaper groups, also present, did not demur.

So much that is sweet and silly would be swept away. No longer would the editor of the Giggleswick Gazette lay into US foreign policy in one paragraph and, in the next, publicise a mah-jongg evening at the Women’s Institute. No longer would Maureen, The Salopian’s star columnist, decry Russell Brand’s malign influence on the jeunesse dorée of Ludlow. No longer would off-duty shepherds mark the missing collie with an X in The Troutbeck Tribune’s Spot the Dog contest.

The battering that local papers are suffering is both cyclical and structural. A recessionary fall in advertising has hit national papers badly, but local ones worse. Ms Enders reported that their advertising revenue dropped 35 per cent in the first quarter. Her consultancy, Enders Analysis, predicts ad sales will weigh in at just £1.8bn in 2009, compared with £2.4bn in 2008 and £3.1bn in 2004.

That year, estate agents, car dealerships and recruiters bought newspaper ad space like it was going out of fashion. It was. The government signalled the structural shift by placing more job ads on the net and fewer in local papers. Classified advertising has been moving wholesale to websites such as Rightmove, Auto Trader and Monster, where it is more immediate, flexible and cost-effective. So far, the impact has been less marked than in the US. There, a slew of big newspaper businesses have gone bankrupt. Here, we have lost just 60 titles, most of them freesheets as ephemeral as the fliers for pizza delivery that also pop through suburban letterboxes.

Sly Bailey of Trinity Mirror, Carolyn McCall of Guardian Media Group and John Fry of Johnston Press made a good show of casting themselves as hapless victims when they appeared before MPs. Yet bosses are partly responsible for their own downfall. Until recently, local paper groups generally produced strong profits. But proprietors invested too little in journalism, their stock in trade. In many local newsrooms pay is lousy, hours are long and press releases may be regurgitated, unchecked, as fact. It is hardly surprising that brands are exhibiting a weak grip on readers. The annual paid circulation of local papers has fallen by a quarter in five years.

The government should relax narrowly drawn antitrust rules to support consolidation among local papers, a move neither endorsed nor rejected by an Office of Fair Trading report on Tuesday. But the big newspaper groups must pay for better pricing control by making commitments to the volume of original reporting carried in merged titles. The government should meanwhile ban free council newspapers that crowd out commercial competition and with it democratic debate. Householders can do without mini-Pravdas eulogising the achievements of Councillor Sidebottom and his cronies, unless they have budgie cages to carpet.

Such measures can only slow rather than arrest the decline of local newspapers. Many will cling on, particularly when blessed with private owners tolerant of low margins. But where they disappear, no one else will convincingly don Jacques’s motley to purge the poison from Smallville’s body politic. More scandals will evade the notice of national media, which traditionally follows up good local scoops. Citizens’ cyber-journalism cannot replace the indefatigable local hack. As Ms Enders noted: “You don’t see [amateur] bloggers down at the courtrooms because they don’t ‘do’ hard work … they are not a replacement for 1,300 titles and a network of community space.” The public does not get what the public will not pay for. That includes scrutiny of local institutions.

Write to jonathan.guthrie@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/jonathanguthrie

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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