The crisis in local news – and the developing alternatives

Emma Hughes talks to journalists about the profiteering pushing local papers to the brink – and meets people producing their own community media

August 10, 2014 · 20 min read

local-media-1Illustration: Cressida Knapp

‘The best stories I’ve ever got started life scribbled on the back of a beer mat in a pub talking to some character.’ Peter Lazenby, who worked as a journalist with the Yorkshire Evening Post for 40 years, is telling me why he loved the job. ‘I interviewed the last professional mole catcher in Yorkshire in a pub in the market town of Otley,’ he says. ‘We used to dispatch a reporter and photographer on spec for three days to the Yorkshire Dales, or over to the east coast to talk to fisher folk and people working on the docks, just seeing what we could pick up – and the most wonderful stories used to occur.’ By the time Lazenby left, however, the job had changed almost beyond recognition.

In 1972, when Lazenby started at the paper, there were 200 journalists working across the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post; when he left there were 60. The result was that he was spending most of his time tied to the telephone or email, forced to rework press releases from the council or PR firms with less time to scrutinise or generate original stories. The voices and stories that made the Yorkshire Evening Post so popular were increasingly cut from its pages.

A profession in crisis

The situation for regional newspapers is grim. The industry has been under sustained pressure for several decades, and it’s no exaggeration to say that regional journalism is a profession in crisis.

Andy Williams and Bob Franklin, lecturers at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, have charted the decline of regional papers in South Wales. The Trinity Mirror-owned Media Wales company publishes several in the area: the Western Mail, and the South Wales Echo, as well as a diminishing number of local weeklies in the Celtic Weekly Newspapers series in the Valleys. In 1999 there were around 700 editorial and production staff on Media Wales titles; by 2011 this had been reduced to 136. A succession of restructures at the weeklies has left just six senior reporters and five trainees to cover the seven remaining titles in communities such as Pontypridd and Llantrisant, Merthyr, Aberdare, and the Rhymney and Rhondda Valleys. In 2009 the Neath Guardian (which also had a Port Talbot edition) shut completely, leaving these towns with no local newspaper. A similar story has been repeated across the UK.

Publications produced by local councils and national government have suffered an even worse fate. Susan Press, a regional freelancer, describes the loss of public sector titles: ‘The government closed down the Central Office for Information a couple of years ago, which put hundreds of journalists out of jobs across the country because the government had regional news offices all over England and Wales. There was consultancy work that local authorities used to pay out; that’s all gone because of the cuts.’

Why have regional papers faced such damaging job losses? It’s clear that revenue streams are falling. Newspapers have long relied on advertising to subsidise their product. But due to the proliferation of television channels and the dramatic growth in new media with the rise of the internet, both advertising money and sales revenues have decreased substantially. This has been exacerbated by the financial crisis. The Williams and Franklin study showed that advertising revenues at Trinity Mirror’s regional division fell by 43 per cent between 2003 and 2010, from £408.5 million to £222.5 million.

Company greed

The problem is not just a declining market, however. Local papers are still profitable, despite the fall in revenues. UK residents spend £690 million a year on regional and local papers; in 2007, 67.4 million copies of regional newspapers were sold (37.8 million) or distributed free (29.6 million). While there are worrying declines in advertising and readership, local journalism should not be on its knees. The reason for the crippling job losses is the greed of the companies who own our local press and their failure to invest in the papers and journalists. Over the past two decades newspaper proprietors have acted as if they were uninterested in the survival, let alone growth, of regional media. Their strategy has been to wring as much profit out of papers as possible before eventually closing or selling them on. It amounts to an industry gutting itself.

Since the 1980s, relaxed regulation of media ownership has facilitated consolidation on a huge scale in the regional media. It has led to fewer and larger companies buying up more and more papers. Four publishers now dominate the regional and local press: Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and the Daily Mail and General Trust (which owns Associated Newspapers and Northcliffe Media).

Newspaper proprietors have acted as if they are uninterested in the survival, let alone growth, of regional media. Their strategy has been to wring as much profit out of papers as possible before eventually closing or selling them on

These four have a 70 per cent market share across the UK and each has its own highly concentrated regional monopoly. The lack of competition has encouraged owners to savage editorial budgets by cutting jobs. At the same time the companies have been taking profits of around 30 per cent per year. When compared with average UK supermarket profits of around 7-8 per cent it becomes clear just how unsustainable this greed has been.

As Adam Christie, editor of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom’s Free Press comments, ‘Local papers were profitable for more than a century, but they were never cash cows and no one should ever have expected to get rich off the back of them.’ In recent years, though, instead of re-investing significant revenue into producing high-quality journalism, the main newpaper groups have preferred to pay out unsustainable dividends to shareholders.

The companies also accumulated unmanageable debts by borrowing large sums to fund newspaper acquisitions. In the second half of 2005 Johnston Press spent more than £500 million, most of which was borrowed, buying local papers. This included expanding into titles in Ireland. When the financial collapse of 2008 saw advertising revenue plummeting, Johnston Press could no longer pay the interest on the debt it had accumulated. The only solution was to sack staff. Thanks to the scale of its newspaper grab, the company still has a debt of more than £300 million. In December it confirmed it was selling off its Irish papers at a £157.8 million loss.

Yet the company continues to pay out huge bonuses. When CEO John Fry stood down at the end of 2011 he received a total remuneration package of £833,000, despite overseeing the disastrous acquisition strategy.

Breach of trust

Unsurprisingly the ratio of stories generated by PR and official sources has shot up. Susan Press says she was shocked at the working practices of some papers. ‘I was horrified at what was passing for a story. It was really just putting someone’s name on the press release and putting out puff pieces, free adverts.’ Journalists with Peter Lazenby’s impulse to get out there and talk to people are chained to their desks simply attempting to fill the increasing number of pages for which they are responsible.

As a consequence, some fundamental tenets of journalism are being undermined, in particular the ability of journalists to scrutinise. Regional journalists used to be responsible for ensuring a certain level of local accountability; they’d examine the activities of councils, courts, businesses and other organisations. Now there is barely time to check stories. Journalists have reported that the pressure to pump out news has led to potentially legally expensive errors going to print.

A central plank of journalism is that papers should serve both rich and poor within a community. Yet owners push journalists to appeal to a predominantly affluent audience in order to attract advertisers. This tendency is reinforced by those entering the profession. Journalists used to get trained on the job. Those with writing ability could get taken on as a trainee and learn while receiving a wage. Would-be journalists now have to shell out about £7,000 in fees to get on one of the top courses. As Susan Press says, ‘What is really shameful is that ordinary kids have been priced out of journalism because who can afford to fund themselves on a journalism course?’

The trust between a community and the journalists who serve it has been broken. Writers are increasingly removed from the places they write about. Newsquest is moving the production of papers in the north east of England to Newport in south Wales. This means the Darlington-based Northern Echo will be edited 270 miles away. NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet claims this is a key reason for readership decline: ‘Readers are not stupid, they can tell when their newspaper is being produced from a different county – and in some cases country. They can tell when they are served up rehashed, reconstituted fare.’

Fighting for the local

Through the NUJ, journalists have consistently fought these disastrous strategies. Union membership has remained high among journalists within the regional press, even when powerful printing unions were being destroyed. In 2009 there was a four-day-a-week strike against compulsory redundancies at the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post. It lasted two months and although the redundancies went ahead, it showed the resolve of the workforce.

Peter Lazenby, co-father of the NUJ chapel during the struggle, recalls management’s shock: ‘They thought we were a divided workforce but in fact the vote was 98 per cent in favour. It was possibly the biggest majority in the history of NUJ journalists voting for strike action in defence of colleagues’ jobs. We fought every redundancy and we saved some colleagues’ jobs by individual negotiations.’

Yet despite the fights put up by journalists, there is a sense that the speed and ferocity of job losses in a rapidly changing market has put the NUJ on the back foot. There are exciting ideas about how local media could be organised to ensure its viability – from public subsidies and co-operative models to stipends for young journalists to cover areas ignored by the big four companies. Some are fiercely contested – and not only by the big newspaper proprietors. Critics argue that they will lead to a further devaluing of journalists’ skills or an unwanted degree of state control, or simply that they lack commercial nous.

It is clear that journalists still have an appetite for writing about communities, listening to people’s stories and investigating important local issues. ‘The life of a regional journalist was an absolute joy, a job that I loved,’ says Peter Lazenby. ‘It combined a profession and my political beliefs, campaigning against fascism and racism, writing about environmental issues, housing, poverty pay, home workers.’ To fulfil their democratic role, local media can’t just be free – they need proper financing to function effectively. There’s no shortage of people who want to write, but they need to have the means to do so.

Is there another way?

The Leeds Citizen’s strapline is ‘Just another Leeds blog’. Don’t believe it – this WordPress site isn’t ‘just another’ anything. Established in 2011, the Citizen carries four or five stories a week about Leeds and the surrounding area. The topics are varied: a quick glance down the blog shows reports on the public being allowed to film council meetings and the campaign for a Leeds living wage, and a piece on the articles being carried in Leeds papers 100 years ago – just as the first world war started. One story of particular interest is the breaking of a tenants’ rent strike by the brother of Kate Middleton’s great-great-great grandfather.

What isn’t immediately apparent from this rigorously researched and engaging website is that it is the work of just one person: Quentin Kean. It began as a hobby for this semi-retired ex-journalist: ‘I started reading stuff that I don’t think many other people read – council papers, hospital board reports, university reports.’

local-media-2Illustration: Cressida Knapp

Once he started reading, Kean identified a gap: ‘In the old days people like Johnston Press had their municipal reporter and they would look at all the agendas and get stories out of them.’ With staffing levels cut drastically at local commercial papers, the journalists no longer have the time to delve into the machinations of the city council. As someone who spent 17 years at the BBC’s monitoring service, turning dry material into news stories, Kean was well placed to dig through the paper trail of Leeds’ civic institutions. There was a whole range of stories going unreported.

‘I’m interested in how stuff works when vested interests get involved in the democratic process,’ Kean says. One of the stories he’s most proud of was revealing the attempted hijacking of a key committee overseeing housing and regeneration in the east of the city by a group of developers and their spokespeople. While none of the commercial local papers would touch the story, the Leeds Citizen pursued it over a number of months and continues to follow the shady dealings of numerous developers who operate in the Leeds area.

Kean has a small but dedicated readership; the Citizen gets about 1,500 unique visits per month. The Citizen has become part of the news ecosystem in Leeds. Johnston Press and the local BBC follow him on Twitter, sometimes picking up the stories he’s uncovered. What started out as a hobby has become something of an obsession: ‘I read stuff endlessly. I work on the Citizen between 30-40 hours a week and sometimes only a couple of stories a week will come from it.’

‘I got asked to write a story about which cartoon character I fancied the most and I thought: this is not why I got into journalism’

Kean gets no money from the Citizen but the project gives him the freedom to cover the stories he wants. ‘I spent most of my life writing for other people, so now I’m writing for myself,’ he says.

A joyous tirade

Quentin Kean’s single­­‑handed mission to bring accountability to Leeds civic life is an inspiring feat of perseverance. But the Citizen is far from an isolated example. The opportunities afforded by the web have created a joyous torrent of independent, community news. As the market for commercial local news retreats, citizen media is springing up, if not to take the place of commercial journalists then at least to populate the local news space with a range of voices and stories.

Some are run by professional journalists. Salford Star editor Stephen Kingston wrote for the regional and national press before starting the Star, ‘I wrote for lots of the mainstreams: the Times, the Daily Mirror, the Manchester Evening News.’ As his career progressed Kingston become increasingly frustrated with a media that was unwilling to report community stories. ‘I gave up when I got asked to write a story about which cartoon character I fancied the most and I thought: this is not why I got into journalism.’

When he founded the Salford Star with photographer Steve Speed their ambition was for it to be a monthly print magazine. To begin with the council and other funders were keen to back the project, but Kingston says the funding dried up once the nature of the Star’s sharp criticism became clear and the Star moved to being online only.

Last year Kingston earnt well below the minimum wage. But any kind of payment can be unusual. Most local news sites are not run by professionals; they are created by citizens who want a different kind of local press.

The Manchester Mule, an avowedly left-wing publication, emerged out of the Basement social centre in 2006. The project looks ‘to promote social justice by getting out the news and views you won’t find elsewhere’. For several years Mule managed to print 10,000 copies quarterly, which were distributed across Manchester by volunteers standing on the street handing out copies. Jenny Nelson, now Red Pepper’s political organiser, recalls: ‘It was a different spin on the news, not ramming politics down people’s throats. It was supposed to be a pick-me-up, easy read rather than a manifesto.’

A different kind of local news

These examples of people working for next to no pay, in order to hold local decision‑makers to account, seem heroic. But some journalists are fiercely critical of those who work for free. As Susan Press, a regional freelancer, puts it: ‘I don’t see anything positive at all about journalists working for nothing. If people can get something for nothing then why would they buy it? You don’t have citizen plumbers, so why are there citizen journalists?’

While most people I spoke to were sympathetic with Press’s view, many argued that the reality was that no one would pay for them to write these stories. Andy Williams, from the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, doesn’t think citizen journalists are necessarily undermining professional journalism: ‘We don’t need to protect what’s left of the local news industry, we need as much local news as possible.’

While some journalists claim finding an advertising model that works is the best way to salvage local media, Williams doesn’t agree. He thinks the way that advertising revenues have traditionally underwritten local media may be ending. As a result, the kind of news we get may also be changing. A more politically partisan local news may develop, such as the Manchester Mule, with different values to the commercial media. He argues that a more partisan media is not necessarily a negative development as long as the interests involved are transparent.

Co-operative model

One thing is clear: we can’t rely on a purely voluntary model for our local news. The difficult, critical, investigative work needed for decent local news is too important to be left to the extraordinary efforts of a few. We need a sustainable model to support local news.

Dave Boyle, who wrote a report on the crisis in local media for Co-operatives UK, argues that media co-ops could be a viable model for local news producers. ‘Co-operatives are brilliant at being ownership vehicles for institutions where people inscribe themselves into them,’ he says. People would choose to invest time and money in a media co-operative because it enables a part of their identity to be reflected in the world.

It’s an observation that many who work on local news have made – people are keen to give money and support. Stephen Kingston describes how people often fundraise for the Salford Star – perhaps donating £100 from a car boot sale or having a whip round for petrol money when he reports on a particular community. A co-operative model could offer a more structured way to harvest this good will.

But co-operatives offer more than just financial support. They also offer way to restore democracy to local media.

Boyle cites the example of the East End News, which came out of an NUJ strike at the East London Advertiser in 1979. ‘They had a charter that said these are the values, these are the things that define the DNA of a publication. So an editor can’t become greedy and decide they’re going to cover this town and the next town and lose the local focus.’

At the same time the co-op model must protect the editorial team from the whims of particular members. ‘The truth cannot be amendable to shaping through a vote at an AGM,’ says Boyle. ‘It’s a process by which the publication has a dialogue with the issues and the people in its community.’

Although the editorial team is held accountable to the aims, vision and values of the publication, most day to day decisions about content are left to the editors. Boyle thinks the internet does allow some opportunity for influence – for example, the editors could pick a list of stories and offer members a vote on which topic the paper might cover in a special supplement. What is different, he says, is that editors are not removed from their readers, sealed off in an impenetrable office. Instead there is a dialogue between members and editors, but the editorial board still has the final decision making power.

It’s a model that the Birmingham‑based co-operative Slaney Street is trying to put into practice. Its eventual aim is to fund a 10,000 monthly print run. In Skye, the Western Highland Free Press has been operating as a commercially successful co-operative since 2009, after the journalists bought out the previous owners. In most cases this isn’t possible as the big four media groups tend to sell off their papers in large blocks, leaving journalists unable to purchase titles individually. Boyle wants laws that ensure that ‘when papers are sold off they are unbundled and offered to the community for purchase’.

A citizen subsidy

Others think the co‑operative model alone will not be enough. Andy Williams argues that public subsidies are essential if local media are to survive on more than the goodwill and enormous efforts of local citizens. He stresses: ‘You do not want to let politicians anywhere near the purse strings.’ Rather there are numerous models of state subsidies being successfully distributed by an independent body – the BBC is just one.

Perhaps the most interesting idea is that of creating a mechanism to enable citizens to choose where they distribute an allocation of funds for local news. Williams acknowledges there would need to be safeguards but he thinks it could lead to a hugely plural local news: ‘There would be startups all over the place vying for people’s attention in the production of local news.’

As a member of the volunteer-led Red Pepper editorial collective, I recognise the precarious nature of non-commercial news. Media co-operatives and public subsidies are exciting ideas because they offer the potential for sustainable, secure, community-led news. Yet these are not the demands that many people on the left are currently making of the media. As Boyle observes, ‘A lot of effort has been based around asking someone else to do something about the media – regulating media ownership laws for example.’ These campaigns are important, of course, but we must also build up our own tools of communication and make demands that support the media we create ourselves.

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