John Mair, co-editor of the updated book What do we mean by local? the rise, fall and possible rise again of local journalism, has warned "unless the ‘locals’ learn from the past and especially the last decade, such proud names as the Wolverhampton Express and Star, the Cambridge Evening News, the Northampton Chronicle and Echo will exist only on the tombstones on media history."
Mair writes: "Unless we learn from history, we cannot face the uncertain future for the local press. For some (including me), locals are in the commercial intensive care ward about to become history. Others are more positive. It was not always thus. In the great days – not that long ago – local papers ruled their towns. Their words were Gospel. Editors were almost proconsuls in the town, reporters scurried hither and thither to gather stories to fill the daily and weekly news machines.
They had their ‘patches’ to serve. The paper was often physically in the centre of the town and always at the centre of its life. People bought it in thousands on their way to and from work to connect with their community.
Local newspapers performed national functions, too. They were the first home for stories that might go on to have national, even international, significance. They were also the training grounds and nursery slopes for journalists and wannabe journalists."
He adds: "Local news lies lower than the bottom-most rung of the traditional food chain; it is information you can’t get elsewhere, wherever you look and whatever you are prepared to pay. While news may well be something that someone, somewhere doesn’t want to see printed, local news is something that no one else, anywhere else can be bothered to print; information of interest to so small a section of the population that its publication isn’t generally regarded as either desirable or cost-efficient. It is, in fact, both of those things."
Learning Something from History?"So have local papers learned ‘nothing from history’ to paraphrase Hegel? These five quick and dirty lessons I would posit:
- Find the audience wherever they are and whatever platform they use to get their news. Today those are tablets and mobile phones, tomorrow is uncertain.
- Big does not always mean best. Look at the continuing rise of the Tindle empire based on very local papers.
- Local roots are vital – you pull them up at your peril. A reader in Tamworth is simply not interested in Stafford news.
- Merger mania has damaged the industry more than it realised. The future is simply local, however defined.
- And in industry terms, the local is still needed as a nursery slope for wannabe hacks; university journalism courses cannot and do not provide anything like a comprehensive enough grounding.
Accept that and try to recapture some of it in cyberspace. ’Get’ the net and ‘get’ it quickly or get out.
Unless the ‘locals’ learn from the past and especially the last decade, such proud names as the Wolverhampton Express and Star, the Cambridge Evening News, the Northampton Chronicle and Echo will exist only on the tombstones on media history. ‘The way we were’ will be the only memories."
Mair, a Regional Press Awards judge, says of campaigning journalism in the local press: "Today, the paper as campaigner rarely happens. So much so that industry bodies such as the Society of Editors feel obliged to reward newspapers such as the Liverpool Echo when they mount long-running (and successful) campaigns calling for ‘Justice for the Hillsborough 96’.
"For too many, this is an ambition too far; their campaigning stops at parking charges for the local hospital or another Freedom of Information generated ‘story’. Too many too have lost touch with their audience through the mania of mergers, acquisitions and consolidation that gripped the industry in the last decades of the twentieth century."
- What do we mean by local? The rise, fall and possible rise again of local journalism edited by John Mair, Richard Lance Keeble with Neil Fowler, published by Abramis on September 1, 2013. ISBN 978-1-84549-593-0. Price £19.95 or as a special offer to readers of this blog £15.00 from firstname.lastname@example.org.