Out of a clear blue sky came Hurricane Rupert. With eerie shades of Michael Fish, an unexpected Category 5 summer storm devastated parts of Britain last week. It might well be named “Rupert” as it appeared intent on flattening the life’s work of press and TV baron Rupert Murdoch. Fleet Street has never seen anything like it.
But enough has been said and written about one man and his dogs. Let’s look instead at another, slower-moving, tragedy involving the press: the fate of our regional and local newspapers.
On June 17th, the Press Gazette announced: “Torquay’s Herald Express is to become a weekly newspaper from next month – with an unspecified number of editorial positions under threat. In an announcement on the Northcliffe-owned title’s website this morning, editor Andy Phelan said the last daily edition would be on 15 July and that it will be replaced by a 100-page weekly coming out for the first time on 21 July.”
This is not an isolated incident. It’s happening all over the country, often unreported in the nationals.
Regional newspapers are faring just as badly. Where I live in the Westcountry, the 151-year old Western Morning News (WMN) is in serious trouble. Often its main feature of the day is taken directly from the national Daily Mail, as with Andrew Alexander’s Wednesday column. The Mail’s city editor Alex Brummer is also a regular in both papers.
The WMN’s senior journalist and writer, Martin Hesp, produces so many columns: political, personal, countryside, touristic and general news, that I wonder what would happen if he ever got ill or resigned from overwork. A few other journalists cover far too many arts and culture events. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid an occasional jaded review.
One staffer told me: “You don’t need me to tell you that regional newspapers are in a hell of a plight at the moment – I think we had about 80 editorial staff when I joined the WMN and now we only have 20 odd. People are hanging on to the jobs they’ve got with fingernails scratching down the exit corridors. I know the WMN’s freelance budget has been cut to nothing compared with what it was when I started writing for them.”
It’s hard to avoid the truth that these stalwarts of the local scene are fading away fast. Two years ago I set up an online version of a local newspaper: Devon & Cornwall Online. It seemed obvious that much of the material of town and city-based journalism will go exclusively online eventually.
But there’s online and there’s super-online. Much of the “river of gold” of the local press, classified advertising, is going to specialised national websites, especially in autosales, property, including rentals, and other big-ticket categories. What’s left is appearing on postcards in newsagents’ windows or in a new line of home-delivered freesheets and pamphlets.
My own effort, DCO, grew steadily for a while and then hit the wall. It got stuck at a low-to-medium daily audience and stubbornly refused to budge. Apart from website design and a few freelancers, I’d taken a “toe in the water” approach to funding the project. Either its time had not yet come, or it never would. Looking around at other local projects, I’ve now assumed the worst.
The most vibrant outlet for local news and gossip is, without doubt, hash-tagged Twitter, based, oh so ironically, in California. Take a look at #Exeter, #Devon, #Cornwall. These are wonderful if you run a small, local business. You can quickly build up thousands of like-minded “followers”: individuals and companies. This allows you to “direct message” them. Twitter is very underrated as a business communications tool, and is basically free. What chance local rags?
There are other sources of local news. Here in the West we have two television outfits: ITV’s West Country Tonight, based in Bristol; and the BBC’s Spotlight, in Plymouth. Both are high quality, but ITV’s effort is probably doomed in the medium term because of its dependence on fickle advertising revenues — and Bristol is a bit remote for those of us in Devon and Cornwall. The BBC’s compulsory public subscription is a much better guarantee of survival for the longer term.
In today’s 24-hour news culture, the regional press is not local enough, nor sufficiently national. And truly local journalism is having its existence salami-sliced away by newer entrants with little loyalty to small communities, and by social-media sites.
Perhaps only David Cameron’s community-based enterprise ideas can save it. A voluntary-sector local press could be the last chance to preserve genuine small-town and county-based journalism.
Devon & Cornwall Online will re-emerge soon as a pillar of the Big Society. Who’d have thunk it?
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
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