The problem with local media: An industry gutting itself

By Media Reform Coalition / Wednesday May 14, 2014 Read More
By Emma Hughes ‘The best stories I’ve ever got started life scribbled on the back of a beer mat in a pub talking to some character.’ Peter Lazenby, who worked as a journalist with the Yorkshire Evening Post for 40 years, is telling me why he loved the job. ‘I interviewed the last professional mole catcher in Yorkshire in a pub in the market town of Otley,’ he says. ‘We used to dispatch a reporter and photographer on spec for three days to the Yorkshire Dales, or over to the east coast to talk to fisher folk and people working on the docks, just seeing what we could pick up – and the most wonderful stories used to occur.’ By the time Lazenby left, however, the job had changed almost beyond recognition. In 1972, when Lazenby started at the paper, there were 200 journalists working across the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post; when he left there were 60. The result was that he was spending most of his time tied to the telephone or email, forced to rework press releases from the council or PR firms with less time to scrutinise or generate original stories. The voices and stories that made the Yorkshire Evening Post so popular were increasingly cut from its pages. A profession in crisis The situation for regional newspapers is grim. The industry has been under sustained pressure for several decades, and it’s no exaggeration to say that regional journalism is a profession in crisis. Andy Williams and Bob Franklin, lecturers at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, have charted the decline of regional papers in South Wales. The Trinity Mirror-owned Media Wales company publishes several in the area: the Western Mail, and the South Wales Echo, as well as a diminishing number of local weeklies in the Celtic Weekly Newspapers series in the Valleys. In 1999 there were around 700 editorial and production staff on Media Wales titles; by 2011 this had been reduced to 136. A succession of restructures at the weeklies has left just six senior reporters and five trainees to cover the seven remaining titles in communities such as Pontypridd and Llantrisant, Merthyr, Aberdare, and the Rhymney and Rhondda Valleys. In 2009 the Neath Guardian (which also had a Port Talbot edition) shut completely, leaving these towns with no local newspaper. A similar story has been repeated across the UK. Publications produced by local councils and national government have suffered an even worse fate. Susan Press, a regional freelancer, describes the loss of public sector titles: ‘The government closed down the Central Office for Information a couple of years ago, which put hundreds of journalists out of jobs across the country because the government had regional news offices all over England and Wales. There was consultancy work that local authorities used to pay out; that’s all gone because of the cuts.’ Why have regional papers faced such damaging job losses? It’s clear that revenue streams are falling. Newspapers have long relied on advertising to subsidise their product. But due to the proliferation of television channels and the dramatic growth in new media with the rise of the internet, both advertising money and sales revenues have decreased substantially. This has been exacerbated by the financial crisis. The Williams and Franklin study showed that advertising revenues at Trinity Mirror’s regional division fell by 43 per cent between 2003 and 2010, from £408.5 million to £222.5 million. Company greed The problem is not just a declining market, however. Local papers are still profitable, despite the fall in revenues. UK residents spend £690 million a year on regional and local papers; in 2007, 67.4 million copies of regional newspapers were sold (37.8 million) or distributed free (29.6 million). While there are worrying declines in advertising and readership, local journalism should not be on its knees. The reason for the crippling job losses is the greed of the companies who own our local press and their failure to invest in the papers and journalists. Over the past two decades newspaper proprietors have acted as if they were uninterested in the survival, let alone growth, of regional media. Their strategy has been to wring as much profit out of papers as possible before eventually closing or selling them on. It amounts to an industry gutting itself. Since the 1980s, relaxed regulation of media ownership has facilitated consolidation on a huge scale in the regional media. It has led to fewer and larger companies buying up more and more papers. Four publishers now dominate the regional and local press: Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and the Daily Mail and General Trust (which owns Associated Newspapers and Northcliffe Media). These four have a 70 per cent market share across the UK and each has its own highly concentrated regional monopoly. The lack of competition has encouraged owners to savage editorial budgets by cutting jobs. At the same time the companies have been taking profits of around 30 per cent per year. When compared with average UK supermarket profits of around 7-8 per cent it becomes clear just how unsustainable this greed has been. As Adam Christie, editor of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom’s Free Press comments, ‘Local papers were profitable for more than a century, but they were never cash cows and no one should ever have expected to get rich off the back of them.’ In recent years, though, instead of re-investing significant revenue into producing high-quality journalism, the main newpaper groups have preferred to pay out unsustainable dividends to shareholders. The companies also accumulated unmanageable debts by borrowing large sums to fund newspaper acquisitions. In the second half of 2005 Johnston Press spent more than £500 million, most of which was borrowed, buying local papers. This included expanding into titles in Ireland. When the financial collapse of 2008 saw advertising revenue plummeting, Johnston Press could no longer pay the interest on the debt it had accumulated. The only solution was to sack staff. Thanks to the scale of its newspaper grab, the company still has a debt of more than £300 million. In December it confirmed it was selling off its Irish papers at a £157.8 million loss. Yet the company continues to pay out huge bonuses. When CEO John Fry stood down at the end of 2011 he received a total remuneration package of £833,000, despite overseeing the disastrous acquisition strategy. Breach of trust Unsurprisingly the ratio of stories generated by PR and official sources has shot up. Susan Press says she was shocked at the working practices of some papers. ‘I was horrified at what was passing for a story. It was really just putting someone’s name on the press release and putting out puff pieces, free adverts.’ Journalists with Peter Lazenby’s impulse to get out there and talk to people are chained to their desks simply attempting to fill the increasing number of pages for which they are responsible. As a consequence, some fundamental tenets of journalism are being undermined, in particular the ability of journalists to scrutinise. Regional journalists used to be responsible for ensuring a certain level of local accountability; they’d examine the activities of councils, courts, businesses and other organisations. Now there is barely time to check stories. Journalists have reported that the pressure to pump out news has led to potentially legally expensive errors going to print. A central plank of journalism is that papers should serve both rich and poor within a community. Yet owners push journalists to appeal to a predominantly affluent audience in order to attract advertisers. This tendency is reinforced by those entering the profession. Journalists used to get trained on the job. Those with writing ability could get taken on as a trainee and learn while receiving a wage. Would-be journalists now have to shell out about £7,000 in fees to get on one of the top courses. As Susan Press says, ‘What is really shameful is that ordinary kids have been priced out of journalism because who can afford to fund themselves on a journalism course?’ The trust between a community and the journalists who serve it has been broken. Writers are increasingly removed from the places they write about. Newsquest is moving the production of papers in the north east of England to Newport in south Wales. This means the Darlington-based Northern Echo will be edited 270 miles away. NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet claims this is a key reason for readership decline: ‘Readers are not stupid, they can tell when their newspaper is being produced from a different county – and in some cases country. They can tell when they are served up rehashed, reconstituted fare.’ Fighting for the local Through the NUJ, journalists have consistently fought these disastrous strategies. Union membership has remained high among journalists within the regional press, even when powerful printing unions were being destroyed. In 2009 there was a four-day-a-week strike against compulsory redundancies at the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post. It lasted two months and although the redundancies went ahead, it showed the resolve of the workforce. Peter Lazenby, co-father of the NUJ chapel during the struggle, recalls management’s shock: ‘They thought we were a divided workforce but in fact the vote was 98 per cent in favour. It was possibly the biggest majority in the history of NUJ journalists voting for strike action in defence of colleagues’ jobs. We fought every redundancy and we saved some colleagues’ jobs by individual negotiations.’ Yet despite the fights put up by journalists, there is a sense that the speed and ferocity of job losses in a rapidly changing market has put the NUJ on the back foot. There are exciting ideas about how local media could be organised to ensure its viability – from public subsidies and co-operative models to stipends for young journalists to cover areas ignored by the big four companies. Some are fiercely contested – and not only by the big newspaper proprietors. Critics argue that they will lead to a further devaluing of journalists’ skills or an unwanted degree of state control, or simply that they lack commercial nous. It is clear that journalists still have an appetite for writing about communities, listening to people’s stories and investigating important local issues. ‘The life of a regional journalist was an absolute joy, a job that I loved,’ says Peter Lazenby. ‘It combined a profession and my political beliefs, campaigning against fascism and racism, writing about environmental issues, housing, poverty pay, home workers.’ To fulfill their democratic role, local media can’t just be free – they need proper financing to function effectively. There’s no shortage of people who want to write, but they need to have the means to do so.
Emma Hughes is a co-editor of Red Pepper and this article is re-posted with their kind permission.