Why local decisions mean we need a local media
Town & Country Planning, May 2009
A relative of mine was a sub-editor on the Bristol Evening Times when the Great Depression swept through the West Country in the 1930s, a small outpost of the then Kelmsley newspaper empire.
One afternoon in 1932, the editor came through to the compositors – known in those days as ‘the stone’ – where the paper was being put together and asked him to insert a notice explaining that the following day’s edition was to be the last. It was the first indication that the newspaper would close.
The death of newspapers is a always a tragic business. They have a life and personality of their own. I know some people, though admittedly not very many, who have never got over the closure of the Liberal News Chronicle in 1960 – ‘murder’, the New Statesman called it.
All the indications are that we are in for quite a lot more of these sudden closures – though perhaps not quite so sudden – as our regional newspapers struggle to make ends meet. The loss-making Independent is in talks with its bankers as I write. The tattered remains of our great regional media empires are huddling together for warmth.
As for regional television news, ITV is going through a desperate struggle to persuade the government to end that obligation altogether.
There was a column in the Observer last week by former Guardian editor Peter Preston which suggested that this doesn’t matter as much as some commentators are saying. A little bit more consolidation here, the loss of some free-sheets there, and nearly everything will hang on.
That may be so, but five years experience on local papers certainly taught me how much the presence of local reporters assist the process of local democracy. They also, of course, support planning.
In fact, without some kind of local oversight and input, the process of planning what places should be like in the future is a purely technocratic process, and rather a terrifying one too.
When I was a local reporter in Oxford (back in 1981-5, ah happy days), Oxford City Council was subject to interference by five separate newspaper editors and a BBC local radio station. It was, as a result, rather well-run.
The same could not be said of some of the surrounding local authorities, which were covered by the occasional outlying news offices, and sometimes not even that. Local journalism matters.
None of this can really be replaced by local websites. Because, rather like small book publishing, the infrastructure can pay for itself, but writing for either of them has to be an unpaid hobby. The business plan doesn’t extend as far as paying for the journalism, which is then snapped up for free by the new generation of global sharks like Google.
Yet planning committees need to know there will be a someone on the press bench, preferably somebody knowledgeable, and certainly when it comes to the full council. If they don’t, they very soon develop an unrealistic sense of their own importance.
Part of the problem is that people don’t buy newspapers any more, at least not in the same numbers. There also seems to be some kind of trade-off between focusing on a small area, and nurturing a committed local readership, and casting your net wide enough across the region to get the necessary advertising revenue.
Workable business plans require you to do both, and you can’t any more.
Regional news tends to be pretty anodyne anyway, certainly on the television – a succession of car crashes and hospital stories. Very local news is fascinating, but only to people who actually live there.
I remember the experiment in 1990, when the village of Waddington in Lincolnshire had 20 television channels beamed into their homes to see how it would alter people’s viewing habits.
The result was that people slowly switched them all off – as so many of us have actually done now that we have hundreds of channels to choose from – but carried on watching the very local TV channel run by the headteacher of the local school with volunteer help.
This seems to me to get to the nub of the issue and the real tragedy. People will pay for a very local paper, if it holds the local councillors and quangocracy to account, and if it does so with authority and style. But the advertising is no longer forthcoming.
Go back a century or more, and there were tens of thousands of local papers for every nearly every town across the nation, rather than the 500 or so that remain now. Their consolidation has driven, and been driven, by a similar consolidation that has sucked most of the potential advertisers out of most local economies.
The issue is competition, and diversity, and how we have allowed them to dwindle away from our local economies.
But explaining how we got here isn’t quite the same as a solution, and we do need to do something if localism is going to work. Local decisions we be almost as bad as central ones if there is nobody to watch, and hold the decision-takers to account.
More consolidation may put off the evil day a little longer, but is not really a long-term solution. Neither is virtualisation, still less is putting local papers onto mobile phones, as they are doing in the USA. You might as well take them in pill form.
But imagine that local government had the imagination to fund local media and then set them free to report?
Impossible? The only way to do it in practice is via some kind of blind trust administered by the Local Government Association. But in the long run, good governance and meaningful localism requires good reporting, and the money has to come from somewhere.