Final editions: why no local news is bad news for democracy

Why communities must fight for local journalism – and, below, regional reporters on how their work makes a difference

A printer watches over a newspaper press in 1935.
 A printer watches over a newspaper press in 1935. Photograph: London Express/Getty Images

One of the sounds fast disappearing from British homes in the past 15 years has been that of a fat local newspaper falling on to a doormat. That daily or weekly alert to the goings-on in the courts and councils and schools and streets a walk or a bus ride from where we live is no longer an anticipated feature of a majority of lives. From 2005 to the end of 2018, there was a net loss of 245 local news titles.

An estimated 58% of the country is now served by no regional newspaper. Last week, Mark Thompson, former director general of the BBC and current chief executive of the New York Times, suggested in a keynote lecture that the closures would only increase without a dramatic shift in policy and investment, and that “A society which fails to provide its different communities and groups with the means to listen and come to understand each other’s pasts and presents shouldn’t be surprised if mutual incomprehension and division are the consequence. If you doubt that any of this connects to real-world politics and national wellbeing, you need to pay more attention.”

On a national level the relative decline in print journalism has been partly compensated by the shift online and a blizzard of information from other media; locally, that is not the case. Many of us are increasingly likely to hear more news of the Twitter-trending lives of Piers Morgan or Kim Kardashian than the people with whom we share our own town. The effect of that shift is arguably every bit as damaging to community as the decline in footfall on the high street. A local newspaper, at its best, reflects the place in which you live in all its minute complexity – its celebrations and its commiserations and its incarcerations; it not only holds powerful local figures to account, it shapes shared feelings of hope and of anger and helps to piece together the serial story of where you are.

A 2016 study by King’s College London, found UK towns whose local newspapers had suffered closure showed a “democracy deficit” that resulted in measurably reduced community engagement by local people and a heightened distrust of public institutions. “We can all have our own social media account, but when local papers are depleted or in some cases simply don’t exist, people lose a communal voice. They feel angry, not listened to and more likely to believe malicious rumour,” Dr Martin Moore, the author of the study, observed. The absence was felt in the national conversation too. Good stories have usually filtered up the news chain from reporters on the ground. The King’s study found that the third of parliamentary constituencies that were no longer covered by a dedicated daily local newspaper at the time of the 2015 general election received scant mention during it.

The Cairncross Review into the crisis was published earlier this year. It drew a familiar portrait of the reasons for this decline. The business model of local news (and by extension local democracy) was entirely dependent on classified advertising. When estate agents, car dealers and other local retailers moved their investment in “eyeballs” on to search engines, money drained away. The collapse in finance led to cutbacks in newsrooms and papers became thinner and more distant from their audience, further reducing their appeal. In particular, Dame Frances Cairncross concluded, despite many honourable and heroic exceptions, that those elements that gave local news its storytelling bite and purpose became largely unaffordable: “The cost of investigative journalism is great and rarely seems to pay for itself…”

Her recommendations to the government argued for a system of direct funding of public-interest news outlets and charitable status for some publishers. The review also recommended urgent investigation by the competition regulator into the dominance of the advertising market by Facebook and Google.

Some small-scale efforts to fix local news have already been made along the lines that Cairncross suggested. The BBC – whose website is part of the competitive problem for commercial local news – created the Local Democracy Reporting Service to fund 150 journalists to cover council meetings and local public services, and to share stories both with local news organisations and the corporation.

Most of the other investment in news-resuscitation is promised, ironically, by Facebook and Google, who have each launched ambitious $100m-a-year schemes (covering Britain and the US) to find ways to rebuild the local news economies that between them they have effectively destroyed. Cynics might believe these schemes to be a pre-emptive strike against regulators compromising elements of their profit engines. Google funded the Bureau Local, a branch of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, last year with a £500,000 grant, with the aim of supporting public-interest journalism in the UK by publishing free data online. Last week it announced a multi-million dollar investment in Archant, “the News Corp of East Anglia”, which owns a range of successful local titles from the Hackney Gazette to the New European. The money was to be devoted to testing models of local online news in three “news deserts” that have lost coverage.

While such experiments take place – and there is cause for optimism, too, in smaller co-operative and community models of news gathering – the critical business of investigating local stories for local people persists in many areas and thrives in a few. The best journalism always has a sense of vocation. We feature insights from some of those outstanding professionals who, despite everything, continue to operate in that spirit, who understand the importance of getting the story straight for the people it affects most directly.

Amanda Cameron, Bristol Post

Journalist Amanda Cameron photographed at the Bristol Post offices in Temple Way, Bristol.
 Journalist Amanda Cameron photographed at the Bristol Post offices in Temple Way, Bristol. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Late-career news journalist who exposed a mock slave auction in a local school

Originally from New Zealand, former medical writer Amanda Cameron retrained as a journalist in her late 30s. Now 53, she is a local news democracy reporter for the Bristol Post, following a stint at the Bath Chronicle.

Cameron’s 2018 scoop about a mock slave auction at a Bath comprehensive went national: seven white pupils had tied a black pupil to a lamppost in the playground and whipped him. The headteacher tried to expel the pupils, but governors overruled him. “There was so much secrecy from the school when I was trying to find out what happened,” Cameron says. “It felt very adversarial, and the community was very divided around what I was trying to do. Some people attacked me [verbally] for reporting it, wanting me to leave the school alone.” But she couldn’t let it go. “This was something that had to be challenged. I felt vindicated when the story came out.” 

Cameron’s early days in news journalism included a year at a New Zealand tabloid. “That was a real baptism of fire. There was so much competition to get headlines.” Working at the Bath Chronicle in the UK was very different, she says. “You instantly got out into the community, and started to meet its people, and understand its issues fully.” She reported a successful four-year fight by the residents of a local estate, Foxhill, to save their homes from demolition – which would have resulted in the loss of more than 200 social homes for rent – and she is passionate about local journalism’s importance in the wider media landscape. “Locally, you can follow up the impact of a story in a way that nationals haven’t always got the time to commit to. Seeing what happens next is so important.”

Last October, Cameron started working as a local democracy reporter for the news publisher Reach from the offices of the Bristol Post. The local democracy initiative was launched by the BBC in 2017 and allocated 144 new reporters to news organisations across England, Scotland and Wales, to boost coverage of local authorities and other public sector meetings. It’s been a breath of air, she says, to go into that detail; her recent stories include objections to the building of three new tower blocks on the site of a former fire station, and the accusation by a former GP that the local NHS is breaking national rules to deny people hip operations. “The reporting of the story is now the most important thing with my job, rather than finding an audience. There’s still a pressure to feed the beast in local journalism, to think of the insatiable appetite of your audience above everything.”

She’s also fired up by how vital her work feels in 2019: she’s sitting before the seats of power at a regional level every day, finding out about decisions that will have considerable impact on local communities. “My priority is holding power to account locally, and it’s such an important time to be doing this. People have got so inured to austerity in many ways. It’s not a headline any more. It should be.” Interview by Jude Rogers

Karin Goodwin, The Ferret, Glasgow

Karin Goodwin in George Square, Glasgow.
 Karin Goodwin in George Square, Glasgow. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Glasgow-based freelance journalist who writes for investigative platform the Ferret

“More than ever, the public desperately needs good journalism that holds people to account and covers stories important to local communities,” says Karin Goodwin, who has lived in Glasgow for nearly 20 years and now writes about social affairs. “A lot of the old news models have failed the public, and we need new and better ones to take their place.”

Goodwin, who grew up in Ayrshire, became a journalist in her mid-20s. She trained with the Big Issue and worked for the Sunday Herald and the Sunday Times before going freelance. In April, for her reporting on homelessness and drug addiction in Scotland, Goodwin won the prestigious Nicola Barry award at the Scottish press awards.

Two years ago, Goodwin joined Scotland-based investigative platform the Ferret, which was set up by a group of journalists in 2015. “They were frustrated with the current news model that doesn’t invest in in-depth reporting or investigations,” she says, “so they set up a co-op which is owned by its members, who are paying subscribers. We also have a couple of funders” – including Luminate and the Seedbed Trust – “but it’s really our members that are at the heart of the Ferret.” Though not exclusively local in its reporting, the platform covers regional public-interest stories at a level of detail few local newspapers can match. 

Periodically, the platform polls its members on subjects they would like to read more about and then covers them in detail over an extended period. One area that Goodwin has been covering is homelessness. Late last year, in partnership with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, she contributed to a series on homeless deaths around the UK, revealing that at least 94 men and women in Scotland had died while homeless over the previous 12 months.

Goodwin’s in-depth knowledge of Glasgow added an extra dimension to her reporting. “A man died in the local night shelter here, and just weeks before, I had interviewed him for a separate piece about homelessness,” she said, “so I was able to go back and listen to that recording, which was quite harrowing, knowing what happened to him subsequently.”

As well as appearing on the Ferret, Goodwin’s articles ran on the BIJ’s Bureau Local website, alongside related stories from across the country. “Then Channel 4 News covered it and were able to show that [homeless people dying in high numbers] was a UK-wide issue. That’s the strength of organisations like the Bureau,” she adds. “It’s able to reach out and tap into the resources of journalists right across the country.”

For Goodwin, maintaining a close, two-way relationship with readers is crucial. “At the Ferret we try to make sure we’re very much engaged with our members and we report the things that are important to them, as well as things we think are in the public interest,” she says. “Maybe that’s a way of getting back to building communities around the work that we do.” KF

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