A new report from the Charitable Journalism Project provides a sobering picture of what is happening to local and regional newspapers. The foreword to Local News Deserts in the UK identifies the problem:
“For often the first time in over two centuries, towns, villages and communities in Britain have no reliable and useful news – either because local newsrooms have been shut down, or because publishers have shrunk their investment in local reporting as the business model for printed news deteriorates.”
Social media has replaced local news
The report focuses on seven communities that had all undergone a significant reduction in the provision of local news in recent years. Most communities were strongly associated with a specific newspaper title which had declined. The two communities chosen in the North were Whitby, North Yorkshire and Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.
What the researchers found through focus groups was that social media are now the dominant channels of local news and information. An NHS worker said, “In the past we have used the Whitby Gazette to publicise changes in our [NHS] services like flu vaccine campaigns. We don’t do that now because putting something on Facebook is more effective than putting it in the Gazette”.
However, the downside to this has been the spread of social division and misinformation through social media.
It’s also clear from the research that the traditional role of the local newspaper as a glue holding the community together has gone. The new style of local journalism which had replaced it was felt to be commercialised and, on occasion, damaging and divisive and driven by ‘clickbait’.
Communities are crying out for trusted local news sources
At the same time, respondents did want a trusted source of local news, and news and information provided by journalists based in their community. The closure of the local newspaper office in Barrow led to a loss of relevance of the title. One respondent said, “I do feel the closure of the office has negatively affected the reporting. You see that online a lot of the photos they use are from Google Maps. It just feels lazy. But you can’t expect someone to travel for half an hour just to take a photo and then go home”.
There are profound democratic issues at the heart of this report. As the demise of well-resourced, trusted local newspapers accelerates we see editorial staff amalgamated in central locations with the same or similar content distributed to multiple sites.
Inevitably the circulation of local newspapers falls, as people feel the content becoming thinner and less relevant. Most worryingly, there is clear evidence that local newspaper circulation has a significant effect on local election turnout: As circulation numbers drop, so too does turnout.