Journalists in the UK having been looking at the impact of the collapse of local media, following publication of Reuters Institute’s annual digital news report.
In the Guardian, Alexandra Topping cited the case of a government-backed regeneration scheme, Britain’s Teesworks, where “a culture of excessive confidentiality” meant it was hard to tell if it was providing value for money.
“That anyone has heard about it at all is in large part down to the dogged reporting of Private Eye’s Richard Brooks, who published his first story about it in March 2022,” she wrote.
Brooks said the issue should have been looked at earlier… by a local newspaper. “Local journalists should have been scrutinising the mayoral authority and development corporation years before, but they don’t have the resources, and that turns into a lack of ability – and will – to scrutinise.”
Topping says the Guardian Councils in Crisis project showed, “there is no shortage of stories to be rooted out in the workings of local authorities – but there is a dearth of people to write them.
“According to the Charitable Journalism Project, there are probably fewer local newspapers in Britain now than at any time since the 18th century, and the number continues to decline: more than 320 local titles closed between 2009 and 2019 as advertising revenues fell by about 70 per cent.”
Regional publisher Reach, which publishes the Liverpool Echo and the Manchester Evening News as well as the national Mirror and Express titles, has slashed 800 roles in the last 12 months.
“Local newspaper barons are largely extinct, with much local news local in name only – an amalgamation of copy from news agencies, repurposed content from sister titles, press releases and letters,” she says.
The impact all this has on local democracy is unknown, according to Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “We can’t say for sure it is having a corrosive effect, but there is every reason to be deeply concerned,” he told the paper.
Topping says not only the number of local journalists has fallen off a cliff, but also number of people “actually caring about local news, at least as printed by traditional publications”. The number of people who got news from a local or regional newspaper dropped from 22 per cent in 2015, to 12 per cent in 2023, according to the Reuters Institute’s annual digital news report survey.
Can anything be done to halt the decline? Topping says there are “small shoots of regrowth” with the rise of small independent media, while the BBC funds journalists at other regional organisations through the local democracy reporting service.
MPs had recommended that government looked at ways to make it easier for local news organisations to encourage philanthropic support… or even go as far as Nordic countries, where news outlets can apply for state subsidies.
“But at the moment, nothing is being done on a governmental level – itself a political choice.”
She quotes Nielsen that local news will have to “be its own saviour”.
“The harsh fact is news organisations are the ones with the clear and urgent interest in turning this around,” he says. For local democracy’s sake, everyone else must hope that they do.”