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Can the UK's local newspapers survive?

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

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The great Sir Harold Evans may have brought lasting kudos to the Sunday Times for its reporting of the Thalidomide scandal but it was as editor of the Darlington-based Northern Echo that he honed his instinct as a campaigning editor.

In his time on the Echo, Sir Harry campaigned fearlessly against the pollution of the chemical giant ICI, and successfully fought for the pardoning of Timothy Evans, who had been wrongly hanged for the notorious Rillington Place murders in London – a national story if ever there was one.

And when he hosted the BBC’s What The Papers Say programme and criticised the standards of Fleet Street, the Daily Mirror wrote a sniffy leader saying: “Loftily he lectures the national newspapers as if Darlington exudes a special degree of insight and wisdom.”

That was the 1960s and such upstart behaviour is less apparent in the regional press of today.

With 198 local titles having been shuttered since 2005 (according to Press Gazette) and total circulation of papers halved from 50.5m to 26.6m in a decade (according to Enders Analysis), the financially challenged sector does not seem to have the journalistic clout to set the news agenda.

The UK’s local press, which still comprises 1,000 papers and 1,700 related websites, is woven into the national culture. The Worcester Postman began publication in 1690 and evolved in 1709 into the Berrow’s Worcester Journal, under which name it continues to circulate as a weekly free-sheet, proudly bearing the slogan “The World’s Oldest Newspaper” beneath its masthead.

Rival publishers must collaborate

This week is Local Newspaper Week and we should reflect on how much poorer we would be without them.

The sector’s best hope is collaboration. Rival groups in a famously competitive industry, where a handful of publishers have scrapped for the biggest slices of the pie, must now work together for their collective reputation.

If local papers are to survive then they will need to exploit concern over the unregulated internet to become safe havens of public trust, where advertisers can promote their brands with confidence. They must become rallying points for local pride and agents of public service.

The local press does seem to be waking up to this need. Last Friday’s industry-wide “#Trusted News Day” saw local titles inviting readers to watch their daily editorial conferences using Facebook Live, showcasing professional journalism and providing transparency. The sector has launched a 'Fighting Fake News' campaign, highlighting the risk that, with the tools of social media, local pranksters and gossips can pollute the news ecology, just like state-sponsored propagandists.

A word of warning. Regional publishers are not, in my view, going to win public trust in their fairness and independence by going for the short-term commercial gain of surrendering their front pages to political ads of the type we saw across the country at this month’s local elections. That’s not the way to distinguish yourselves from cynical political spin that looks a bit like news.

Ultimately, the future of the local press is online, and their exponential traffic growth, from 20.7m monthly users across the sector over the first six months of 2009 to 86.4m in the same period last year, is a clear signal of public demand for the product.

Gratifyingly, papers have been able to demonstrate that despite the financial turmoil of the past decade and the continual demands of producing for an online audience, they are still able to produce the big campaigns and investigations that force policy makers to take action.

Regional investigations remain vital

Who would have thought there was still mileage in the story of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, more than 40 years after they ripped apart two city centre pubs, claiming 21 lives and injuring 182 more? Combing the archive, the Birmingham Mail’s content editor Andy Richards realised that the inquests into the dead were opened but never completed, due to the prosecution of the Birmingham Six, one of the UK’s most shameful miscarriages of justice.

In spite of fierce opposition from West Midlands Police, whose notorious Serious Crime Squad was responsible for the wrongful arrests, the Mail campaigned with lawyers for the inquests to be resumed, with the story attracting national media attention. Full inquests are expected to begin in September.

National tragedies remain longest in the memories of the communities in which they happen. The Sutton Coldfield Observer last year lobbied successfully for a memorial for the victims of the York to Bristol express, which derailed in the Midlands in 1955 with 17 people killed. Among those present at the unveiling was a man who had survived the crash, at the age of six, and was able to touch the engraved names of his brother and sister who had died in the disaster.

At their best, local papers are champions for the territories they cover. The Isle of Wight County Press persuaded the secretary of state for communities and local government, Greg Clark, to cross the Solent and visit after a 'Fight for the Wight' campaign had generated more than 10,000 signatures from readers. The campaign highlighted social problems on the island where one in five children grow up in poverty.

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Chronicle was credited with helping to tip the balance in favour of Tyneside being chosen as host for The Great Exhibition of the North, and the same paper’s 'Keep Rafa Benitez' campaign – which included a front page open letter from the paper, headlined 'Please Stay' – was crucial to the Spanish manager staying at Newcastle United and, ultimately, guiding them to the Championship title last month.

Landmarks of national importance often only remain in existence because of the watchdog role of local newspapers. The Aberdeen Press & Journal has won a 15-year reprieve for Fort George, Scotland’s oldest operational army barracks and the home of the Black Watch. The Arran ferry was kept running after a campaign last year by the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald.

And in fighting for better local health services, provincial papers are saving lives. The Wiltshire Gazette & Herald marked its 200th anniversary by backing a newly-launched children’s hospice in Devizes, giving it two pages of coverage each week and raising over £100,000 in funding, enough to pay for eight carers.

All of these campaigns are among the 28 nominations for the Making a Difference award, which is a centrepiece of Local Newspaper Week.

Striving to be a trusted source in trying conditions

A recent report published by Bournemouth University’s Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture & Community found that there had been 30 instances of job cuts in the UK local paper sector between November 2015 and March 2017, resulting in 418 lost jobs.

Yet despite this, local papers are still taking on difficult stories by using technology to achieve greater collaboration. Four weeks ago, this column highlighted how the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative, is assembling a network of reporters, technologists and lawyers to do investigations for local media using data journalism.

At Johnston Press, which publishes around 250 titles, journalists from different papers are sharing expertise, most obviously in the Investigative Unit, which comprises 10 reporters from different titles. The unit has investigated the way that the Criminal Justice System deals with dangerous drivers and probed the viability of the government’s shake-up of the NHS under its Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STP).

Declaration of interest: I also write a column for the i paper, which is published by Johnston Press.

Gary Shipton, who is both a senior figure at the cross-industry News Media Association and the deputy chairman of the Johnston Press Editorial Board, argues that concern over the veracity of much online content offers an opportunity for the regional press to highlight its importance.

“There’s a spectrum of fake news and at one end you have deliberately-created fiction for political or financial gain…and at the other end is where somebody in a community will hear a false rumour that somebody was killed in a car accident and post it on social media and very quickly it gets shared and seems to be true to people,” says Shipton, who is editor-in-chief of the Johnston Press Sussex titles. “As a local newspaper we often get asked why, when a tragedy has happened, it’s not on our website or in our newspaper and it’s because we checked it out and it wasn’t true.”

He produces an example of fake website that carried a hoax story of a pile-up in West Sussex that had left ‘three dead and seven critical’.

Shipton is hopeful that the entire local press is entering a new era of co-operation, exemplified by the Trusted News Day.

“The point was to show the checks that we put in place and the standards we adhere to, when social media is entirely unregulated,” he says.

“It’s nice to see the whole industry standing together.”

If it’s true it’s not a moment too soon.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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