This month, we have seen changes in Target’s local paper, the Gloucestershire Echo and their sister publication, the Citizen, with a roll back to become a weekly publication and a shift in focus towards their digital platform.
It has been an unsettling time for local papers and their reporters over the last decade. The impacts of the recession and the internet has led to fewer people buying print titles, leading to an estimated 50% drop in the number of local journalism roles available and around 200 local titles either disappearing altogether or facing mergers.
Some people might question why this is such an issue – who cares about small-scale stories documenting the ups and downs of local council meetings or new shop openings? While the beauty of the internet is that it has allowed us to broaden our horizons to a more global scale, the role of the local paper is still vital in performing its traditional role – that of accountability and information, not to mention building a sense of community.
Keeping local politicians, dignitaries and businesses in check with grass-roots investigative journalism is a very basic principle of UK democracy, yet faces extinction if local media continues in what is often referred to as a ‘dizzying decline’. Where local journalism has disappeared, often in its place comes tax-payer funded council publications which are unlikely to expose mistakes in their own organisation to their electorate.
Local papers have also traditionally been a trawling ground for broadsheets looking for human interest stories. The exposure of a Manchester health trust’s cover up of the damning report into their maternity services is an example of where the local-to-national funnel still has huge importance.
However, the fate of local news outlets may be looking more positive. The government is waking up to the issue the decline presents to our political system, reflected in the London Assembly Economy Committee report ‘The fate of local news – read all about it’ published in August, which made several encouraging recommendations about supporting local media through grants and bursaries. While additional funding and support is a necessity to ensure that accountability and information continues in local communities, if the source of the funding is the state, it needs careful guidelines to protect media independence.
The changing landscape has also presented an opportunity to bring local media up-to-date for the next generation. Many publications are now focusing on digital media as the easiest way to engage younger readers, and also bring in the vital funds to finance themselves through advertising. It also opens up the field to other media sources – including bloggers, youtubers and “citizen journalists” – which not only provide quality checks on content through competition, but also allows local news and information to have an easily accessible voice.