The following is the first in a series of responses to the government inquiry into the future of local and regional media. We will be submitting the whole – along with blog comments – to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. This post, by Alex Lockwood, looks at the first:
“The impact of newspaper closures on independent local journalism and access to local information”
The final views of the committee will depend on how much the inquiry sees local newspapers responsible for local journalism – a little, a lot, or completely.
Writing in the Observer on Sunday, Henry Porter pretty much called them the same thing. For many who work there, the death of newspapers is disastrous for access to local information, not least due to the historical positions those papers have held.
The closures of the Glasgow East News and Ayrshire Extra, the Black Country Mail Extra, Wolverhampton AdNews, Daventry Post and Ashby Herald, the Lincoln Chronicle, the Northallerton, Thirsk and Bedale Times, and dozens of others that have either closed or felt the swingeing impact of mergers and office cuts, are devastating for their communities. These papers have been the homes for ‘hard’ journalism – reporting of the essential court and council stories that really matter to local lives.
Los Angeles Times reporter, Joe Matthews, quoted widely on this, has made clear the dire implications for democracy of the loss of quality journalism. Matthews wrote: “Much of the carnage of the ongoing media industry can’t be measured or seen: corruption undiscovered, events not witnessed, tips about problems that never reach anyone’s ears because those ears have left the newsroom.”
Those trained ears may have left the newsroom – but are they the only ears open to the whispers of local corruption?
Active participants, not passive recipients
The problem for existing traditional newspapers is that it is not part of their business model to innovate ways for local people to engage directly with the democratic process. The newspaper model is one of a journalist doing the work – being the eyes and ears of the local community. But the online model is one of seeking out direct democratic action. Of having direct access to information, rather than waiting for someone else to report on it. To report on it yourself (not simply to have an opinion, but to fact-find, and fact-check).
Other (and often better) ways to access information within local communities, including news and issues of local democracy, already exist. It was not a local newspaper that developed www.theyworkforyou.com, which, with its team of volunteers and email alerts, is perhaps the best way to keep track on what your local MP is saying and doing.
And every day innovators are opening up access to information – just last week, MySociety launched ScenicOrNot, which took a crowd-sourced image project and put it to local democratic use.
One impact of the closure of local newspapers could be to open up the space (and revenue opportunities) for media organisations based, from the outset, on community engagement and crowd-sourced gathering / production / distribution. Where the local community are active participants in, rather than passive receivers of, the local information that matters to them.
Does that explodes the idea that a patch has no ears if it has no ‘newspaper’ journalist? People are on that patch. Innovative, passionate and entrepreneurial, and nosy. The people for whom that information matters – a geographical community who wants to hold local powers to account over planning decisions, education provision, bins and holes in roads.
Some of them will be journalists. The future of local journalism is so pressing that it’s persuaded Roy Greenslade to go back to basics and cover his neighbourhood – Kemp Town in Brighton – for the local paper, as a community reporter.
Most of his fellow community reporters won’t be trained journalists. But all of a sudden they are all in the same category: the people who want access to the information and who are willing to work for it. In this, and many other cases, such as the award-winning Teesside postcode hyper-local sites, the community reporters are producing local – quality – journalism.
Journalism need saving, not newspapers
What is important here is not the newspaper’s historical position. It is not the paper’s brand that make this local journalism worthy of the stamp ‘quality’. It is the standards of journalism itself, which can exist independent of the structures of a local paper: the fact-checking, the transparency, the reporting for the public good. And that can be done by Roy at No.53 on his own blog, or by a crowd-sourced MySociety project. (So what about the money…? There’s a post coming on that, this Friday.)
What is important is that it offers a structure to innovate and create community. Although, very little of what the community contributors produce actually gets printed on paper itself.
This new-newspaper activity must be supported. One of the worst impacts of the closure of local newspapers would be the end to this support of hyper-local communities, the empowering of engaged citizens with tools, in local democratic action. It would be a blow to the work done in encouraging journalists to see news as a conversation with readers, rather than as a one-way flow.
Where this work is developing, local newspapers should be given as much support as possible to survive. That’s because journalism is crucial to local communities. It needs saving. Whether in the form of large organised publishing groups is up for debate.
Local newspapers hold a privileged position. As the guardians of democracy and access to local information, but also as established competition to potential new initiatives, new ways of approaching democracy in local communities. If their demise is to be seen as a disaster, it will be because they found ways to make sense of journalism as a participatory process, engaging with and opening up access to information, and not a static product.
What are your thoughts on the future of local journalism?