19 February 2012

Why should we care about local papers?

The following is a note I worked from yesterday when speaking at the Netroots North West meet-up in the workshop session Engaging with Local Media, with NUJ member and PR expert Matt Finnegan and Mike Rawlins from Pits and Pots in Stoke:

33 million people in the UK pick up and read a local newspaper at least once a week. Websites run by local newspapers attract unique users totalling 42 million every month. It remains the case that the local press, in its entirety, has a bigger share of the media market than either television news or national newspapers.

Crucially though, local newspapers are more trusted and liked by the public. We live in an unprecedented age where traditional journalism as a profession is right up there with banking in the unpopularity stakes.
But still, surveys show that more than just under 50 per cent of people believe their local papers contain news that can be trusted – a rating perhaps far above that of the national press or TV news.

But somehow, in spite of this huge base of public support and healthy market share, any of the very many media commentators around these days will fall over each over to tell you as loudly as possible that all that local newspapers are dying and will probably not be around this time next year.

Certainly, it is true that we are already seeing daily regional newspapers start to disappear – witness the recent death of the Liverpool Daily Post which has turned into a weekly edition. We are seeing circulation reductions in some areas that are posting year-on-year percentage declines in double figures. Interestingly though, it seems those downward trends can be bucked where journalists are properly resourced and managed and given the tools and support they need to do a decent job.

But in turn, the growth of online audiences on local newspaper websites is heartening. There are good and bad examples of local newspapers online, The Stoke Sentinel’s latest incarnation of its website is one of the most user-unfriendly I have ever seen as I am sure Mike will talk about, but slowly local newspapers are finding their way online.

The problem for the industry is that it hasn’t worked out how to turn these audience increases online into hard cash revenue that will both adequately sustain their operations and also deliver their shareholders the bumper profits they have been used to for years - not long ago it was not unsual for newspapers to make profits in excess of 40 per cent on turnover. It is also arguable that having given away professionally produced content for nothing on the internet for so-long has devalued journalism in the eyes of the public who now view unlimited access to entirely free information as a right and not a privilege.

Business model concerns aside, the key lesson here for anyone trying to campaign or highlight issues in society is that local newspapers, and crucially their websites, remain central and key to communities in the UK. To ignore or write them off if you are trying to engage with people in your community is deeply unwise.

In that context, I would just say a few words about the realities of life on a local paper for NUJ members. There remains, I think, something of a perception about local newspaper reporters sitting around in the pub all day drinking and smoking, attending the office only briefly for a few hours to churn out some lines before deadline. I have heard many times people seeking press coverage complain that no journalist ever bothers to turn up to events and cover them any more in spite of being invited.

Staffing cuts have seen in some local newspapers over the past five years have more than a third, despite workloads remaining largely the same. Papers may have slimmed in size, but filling the blank space between the decreasing number of adverts has become for many a far more difficult job.

Moving online still hasn’t changed this situation - in fact it has largely made it worse. Although the websites are supposedly 24-7, the reality is that most journalists on the local newspapers are working to strict deadlines set by print, mainly because the newspapers themselves are the main sources of revenue, and making serious money from online operations still hasn’t happened. Yet still, they are expected to report "live" too - bringing continual and constant pressures to an already difficult job.

Even when I started full-time in journalism in the mid-90s on a weekly local paper, leaving my desk to go out to find stories, meet people or even understand the patch being covered was a difficult task, but at least I managed a day a week on average. But particularly for those on weekly local papers, it now becomes almost impossible to spend any time outside the office covering events as they happen as there is simply too much to churn out to fill the newspapers.

In an even worse development, newspapers are now going down the route of losing most staff photographers. The mantra is that with cameras so widespread and the available numbers of usable pictures from the public freely available, there is no need to spend money on employing professionals to take pictures documenting what is going on.

The situation is poor for working journalists and the NUJ will continue to argue for properly resourced professional journalism at every turn. But the situation I believe is also ripe to be taken advantage of by clever activists.

Simply telephoning the local paper to tell them something is happening, unless it is seismic, will not result in coverage these days because of the desk-bound nature of the journalists working there.

But presenting decent stories to the paper, including decent pictures and words and an angle can reap huge benefits in terms of coverage. Whether I like it or not, material that can be used online and in print that does not require a huge amount of work to present it will inevitably end up being used above less usable information. I think most people here will realise this, but it is important that we do not ignore or write off what continues to exist as the biggest provider of local news to our communities.

The most important thing I want to get across today is my experience of dealing with the 5000 NUJ members I cover in the north and Midlands of England employed in local media every single day. Many of them, in fact the majority, are members of the NUJ. They may not be activists in the sense of people at this event today, but there is a definite awareness amongst most of what a trade union is, the job it carries out and how it operates.

In our region we have had several key industrial disputes in the last year which, because of their very local nature, have gone largely under the radar. Journalists working in Doncaster and South Yorkshire took 55 days of unbroken strike action over job cuts and the attack on their papers in summer 2011. Journalists working on the Warrington Guardian – the same series that back in the 1980s was infamously owned by Eddie Shah – took decisive and widespread action last September to defend jobs and won the dispute hands down. We have recently ensured, through a militant and solid stance, that not a single union member lost their job when the Liverpool Post turned into a weekly paper.

My point here is that many local newspaper journalists are trade unionists too. They are brow-beaten, overworked and low paid like everyone else – most will not earn a great deal more than around £20,000 a year and will often work far more than their contracted hours. But they are also largely ready to listen if you are prepared to spend the time getting to know them and learn what they need from you. If I can impart anything useful to you today other than ensuring you do everything you can to engage with local papers, it is to try your best to get to know your local journalists and find out what they need from you. It can only benefit what you are trying to achieve and ultimately help you win the battles you are fighting.

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