More than 300 local newspaper titles closed between 2009 and 2019. If this dangerous trend continues local news coverage could disappear, posing a threat to the long-term sustainability of democracy. To counter this trend, new support from the government is called for in a cross-party report on the sustainability of local journalism, published on 25 January by the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee.
The report outlines how many local publishers have struggled to adapt to the shift from print to online and highlights what the MPs described as “the harmful impact on communities” from the decline in access to local news. This included a decrease in participation in civic life, less scrutiny of local government decisions and increasing levels of polarisation and misinformation.
“The disappearance of local news providers, which have always acted as the eyes and ears of their readers and held local decision makers to account, has ripped a hole in the heart of many communities”, said Damian Green MP, acting chair of the committee.
“Worryingly, it is the most deprived areas of the country that are most likely to miss out on coverage, compounding the disadvantages they already face.”
Local news coverage could disappear
The report also finds that:
“Existing support for local journalism tends to go to the largest, multi-title news publishers. The local news market is highly concentrated, with the largest three publishers owning more than two thirds of all local newspaper titles. Consolidation within the sector has ensured the survival of many titles, but we recommend the Government works to ensure that more support for local journalism reaches smaller publishers, many of whom are driving innovation that could help sustain the sector as a whole.”
The report also gives supports the independent 2019 report by Dame Frances Cairncross on the future of the British media, which said that local news coverage could disappear, which could pose a threat to the “long-term sustainability of democracy” unless the government provided direct financial support.
The report has been welcomed by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) who gave evidence to the committee.
Seamus Dooley, the union’s assistant general secretary, said that:
“Journalism matters and any measures designed to protect and promote local journalism are to be welcomed… The report’s proposals are very welcome and the emphasis on smaller publishers is appreciated. The NUJ strongly supports a Journalism Foundation to promote, protect and investigate new ways to fund public interest news.”
The government must urgently act on recommendations
The Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) also welcomed the report and called on the government to adopt its recommendations as a matter of urgency. The charitable foundation was set up in 2019 to promote the unique contribution that independent news providers make to society.
Jonathan Heawood, executive director of PINF, said: “We are thrilled that the committee has recognised the immense value that local news brings to democracy. We are particularly glad to see the committee’s acknowledgement of the crucial role played by small, independent news publishers. These publishers must be fairly remunerated by the big tech platforms if they are to thrive in the digital economy. They must also be able to access public funding and philanthropic support as the committee recommends.”