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The decline of local journalism should scare us all

By Ian Silvera
31 January 2023

By Ian Silvera

New deserts are forming across England’s green and pleasant land. Like their real-life dry and barren counterparts, there are some nasties lurking across these hostile landscapes. The biggest frightener is conspiracy-laden fake news. When local and regional outlets disappear, it opens up an opportunity for politically motivated operators to step in.

They can create Facebook and other social media accounts, which look surprisingly like reputable outlets, and then the tap is turned on and a flood of propaganda and information cascades in. The other reality of news deserts is less nefarious and more straightforward.

A lack of good information means voters go straight to politicians and social media for their news. The phenomenon has been followed closely in the United States, following Donald Trump’s election to the White House in 2019. Now, it’s happening in the UK.

The good news is that we know there’s a problem. The other positive is that a powerful group of MPs, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, have published a landmark report on the issue. The research begins with a startling fact: more than 300 local newspaper titles in the UK closed between 2009 and 2019.The survivors are operating with “diminished resources and fewer journalists”.

It’s a bad (borderline dire) situation, especially when you take into account the fact that some of the UK’s top journalists started their careers on local outlets and eventually rose to the very top of their trade.

Now it’s common for wannabe journalists to go straight from university into a national newspaper or broadcaster. Just one of the reasons why the industry has a social mobility problem and why accusations of a ‘London bubble’ ring true. So, what should the private and public sector do to change the fortunes of the industry around?

The cross-party group of MPs, amongst other things, want the government to expand its grant-giving Future News Pilot Fund and create a long-term public interest news fund to support innovation, start-ups and new technology.

This would be a case of government-funded journalism, which would rightfully give some people the chills, but such a move seems sensible given the circumstances local news finds itself in. Appropriate safeguards would have to be put in place to ensure independence, of course.

Another bright idea from the MPs was to make it easier for local news organisations to achieve charitable status and to encourage more philanthropic donations to local news publishers. The model has become more and more popular due to the daily financial pressures facing local outlets. On the non-profit side, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is a good national example of such an enterprise.

The lawmakers, led by Conservative chair Damian Collins, also made some BBC-specific recommendations, stressing that the corporation's Local Democracy Reporter Service, where the BBC funds and places reporters in local outlets, has “had a positive impact”. The MPs added: “More could be done to expand it across different platforms and to give access to a wider range of news providers. It should be protected during forthcoming BBC Charter negotiations.”

And on the BBC’s relationship with the government, the committee urged the BBC to reconsider its proposed cutting of local radio provision. “The strategy for digital first should not come at the expense of local radio,” they said. Such sentiments are in-line with journalism union NUJ, which has called the plans the “biggest threat ever” to BBC local radio.

The report wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as the MPs noted “encouraging examples” of local journalism. The newsletter-powered Northern network of local outlets, including The Manchester Mill, Liverpool Post and Sheffield Tribute, is one of the most promising projects.

The Substack-backed outlets rely on monthly subscriptions (rather than fickle ad revenues) to pay the bills, with five full-time reporters, a combined total membership of more than 3,700 people and 58,000 email subscribers.

The journalist behind the titles, Joshi Herrmann, has described the situation as “very promising”. There’s a light over the desert after all.