Monday, 25 May 2009

The sad story of the local newspaper

Where do you to go find your news? The internet? Television? Or do you just live in an enclosed bubble of day to day life? Hearteningly, despite the growth of broadband, mobile phone internet access and web journalism, it still seems that the local rag is often the first place where many of us find out about the issues that effect us, with 40 million adults in the UK reading a daily or weekly newspaper.

Newspapers still perform a vital function, scrutinising the local council, holding the police and NHS to account and making sure that justice is seen to be done through coverage of court cases. The local paper can act as a unifying force, from publishing sport results, births, marriages and deaths and classified ads to running campaigns - for, example, the MEN’s current campaign to return money to the Christie Hospital lost in an Icelandic bank.

Over five decades ago, one local paper, the Wakefield Express commissioned director Lindsay Anderson to make a film to celebrate its centenary, resulting in the wonderful documentary Wakefield Express: The Portrait of a Newspaper.

Lasting just over thirty minutes, it offers a snapshot of Wakefield life, and the city’s expansion, which it was there to record at every moment - as the narrator notes proudly, ‘the Express has grown with Wakefield’.

Opening with the lines ‘The backbone of a local weekly news paper is the kind of news you get just by speaking to people - you can never really tell when you may uncover a story... in a little town, the newspaper man has to know pretty well everyone’, the film places the Wakefield Express squarely in the centre of the community. We’re told ‘the reporter’s pencil is always there, recording the varied display of the region’s way of life’.

The film also shows the steps that go into the finished product, through rows of typewriters and subeditors to the traditional rotary printing method.

Wakefield Express was rescreened in Wakefield in April as part of a protest against plans to move the Wakefield offices - based in the centre of town - to a location on the outskirts of the city, thus removing the newspaper from its rightful place at the centre of Wakefield life.

The film’s depictions of hot lead and galleys, linotype and mangles seem anachronistic now, but even more worryingly, the notion of the weekly newspaper itself could soon become obsolete.

The National Newspaper Society reported that last year 60 out of 1,300 regional newspapers closed, and those that remain are scaling back staff.

It’s happening all over the country, including Manchester, which, as birthplace of the Manchester Guardian, was once referred to as the 'Fleet Street of the North'.

In March, the Guardian Media Group, owned by the Scott Trust, of which the Manchester Evening News group is a part, announced that 150 staff across the Greater Manchester newspapers, including 78 journalists, were to lose their jobs. This would be accompanied by the closure of all regional offices, with their remaining staff relocated to Deansgate, where the regional weeklies will be written and designed by a pool of journalists.

The Manchester Evening News is the UK’s biggest regional newspaper, operating 22 titles across Greater Manchester, stretching from Cheshire (Wilmslow and Stockport) and Derbyshire (Glossop) to Accrington and Rossendale in Lancashire.

The MEN chapel and Manchester branch of the National Union of Journalists took out a full page advert in the Guardian to protest the cuts, and managed to reduce the redundancies, although 28 journalists from the MEN will still lose their jobs and there were 36 voluntary redundancies at the weeklies.

They point out that, for many years, the MEN has proved profitable, unlike its loss-making mother paper. GMG Regional CEO Mark Dobson said the cuts were necessary, as the Guardian’s revenue from regional media fell by 85 per cent between 2007 and 2008, even though the NUJ claim the MEN Group is still expected to make a profit of £2million this year.

Local MPs and councillors are also worried about the loss of a vital part of the democratic process. Mark Hunter, Cheadle MP, passed an Early Day Motion against the cuts, signed by over 40 MPs. There are calls for the government to intervene, and culture secretary Andy Burnham has promised a review of what can be done to help.

In a Parliamentary debate on the future of regional news, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Barbara Follett said newspapers are “at the heart of the democratic process” and “the soul of local communities”.

In the same debate, Ann Coffey, Labour MP for Stockport, said the success of local newspapers lies in being “written by journalists who are constantly out and about and who know the local area and its people well.” She added: “Local newspapers also provide a forum for individuals and organisations to speak to each other.”

This is echoed by the National Union of Journalists. Jenny Lennox, of the Manchester branch, said: "We believe that you can't do good quality local journalism unless it's physically based in the area in which it serves. With the staff cuts, it will also be harder for journalists covering somewhere like Accrington or Macclesfield to get out of the Manchester office and travel to those areas."

Part of the problem, ironically, is that newspapers are increasingly coming under threat from publications produced by local government, which are in direct competition with local newspapers.

In addition, the public often expects to receive its news for free, whether through citizen blogs or in freesheets. Traditionally, newspapers have been funded by advertising, yet this has been hit doubly hard by the recession and a shift towards online advertising.

There’s also been a fundamental shift in the way news is delivered, with reporters nowadays often expected to function as photographers, filmmakers and bloggers as well as print journalists.

We might not always agree with a local newspaper, but we’ll miss them when we’re gone. Maybe it’s about time to start buying your local paper from time to time.

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