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Local journalism’s decline: Bad news for democracy

Editorials 2023-03-08, 10:40pm


Jehangir Hussain

Jehangir Hussain

The lack of reliable information not only weakens communities, but allows disinformation to flourish

There are probably fewer local newspapers in Britain now than at any time since the 18th century. More people get local news and information – or misinformation – from social media. A long-term decline has accelerated: more than 320 local titles closed between 2009 and 2019 as advertising revenues fell by about 70%. The pandemic was another blow. At least as serious as these disappearances is the hollowing out of titles that have seen staffing, resources and pagination slashed, and coverage thus diminished. It is harder to quantify when court reporting is replaced by write-ups of press releases, or generic national stories topped-and-tailed with a little local colour, but it is obvious to readers.

Publications are less and less likely to be owned by proprietors with a stake in their communities, and more and more by big conglomerates prioritising the extraction of cash. More than two-thirds of UK titles are held by the three largest publishers, leaving about 400 independents. Now production costs are rocketing and businesses are cutting back further on advertising. While individual reporters and organisations still do remarkable work, they do it against the odds.

This is a global problem. Newspapers in the US are closing at the rate of two a week. Local newspapers were never perfect: they could reflect community prejudices, or cosy up to authorities and businesses they should have challenged. But the social costs of losing coverage genuinely rooted in communities is profound, and “news deserts” – without a reliable source of local news – tend to be places deprived in other ways.

Local news organisations encourage people to use businesses, go to theatres or join campaigning groups. They inform people about rights and services. They promote accountability and democratic oversight – even more important when power is devolved. But they also sustain communities in less tangible ways. They make people feel part of society. They allow them to assess what they read in the context of their own experience, and encourage them to see news as a source of practical and helpful information, rather than a matter of theoretical discussion and emotional reaction. Margaret Sullivan, the US media critic (and now a Guardian US columnist) warns that their erosion is a danger to democracy itself. It allows disinformation and emotive political rhetoric detached from fact to flourish.

There is plenty of evidence that people value local news and its many benefits. There is less evidence that they will pay enough to make it sustainable. Some hope can be found in newer independents such as the Bristol Cable, a cooperative, Manchester’sthe Mill and sister titles the Post (Liverpool) and the Tribune (Sheffield). Run on a shoestring, they provide a valuable service, but to relatively niche audiences. January’s report on the sustainability of local journalism from the Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee offered helpful suggestions. The local democracy reporting service – under which the BBC funds journalists at other regional organisations – has proved more effective than anticipated in pursuing public interest reporting, but could be expanded and given more bite.

The government’s new tech regulator, the Digital Markets Unit, should make sure that small publishers are fairly paid by the big digital platforms. And the pilot news information fund set up after the 2019 Cairncross review of the sustainability of journalism should be much expanded and made permanent. There is no single easy fix. But public funding is a crucial part of the mix.