Is this all the local news?


What happens if local journalism no longer holds power to account?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Worrying about a local newspaper closing or reporters being centralised is not just nostalgia, it’s being concerned that our democratic watchdogs are going missing, says Rachael Jolley in the spring 2019 issue of Index on Censorship magazine” google_fonts=”font_family:Libre%20Baskerville%3Aregular%2Citalic%2C700|font_style:400%20italic%3A400%3Aitalic”][vc_column_text]

Is this all the local news? The spring 2019 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Is this all the local news? The spring 2019 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Regional daily newspaper the Eastern Daily Press is closing two of its district offices, in Cromer on the north Norfolk coast, and in Diss, a Norfolk market town.

This matters to me because the EDP was the first place I worked as a journalist and it was then one of the UK’s biggest local papers, with at least 10 offices, all employing reporters. Some of the offices had one or two reporters, some had 10, and the Norwich head office had about 50 editorial staff. When I joined as a trainee reporter, the big bosses mandated that we worked in at least three different offices within two years. We went out and about on an almost daily basis, talking to people and covering events. These days, national newspaper editors dream of having as many reporters as the EDP had in the 1990s.

So why does this matter? And should anyone care when the small newspaper office in Cromer closes? After all, as the management of the EDP said, everyone is online now, so we can do business digitally. And, yes, most of us can communicate by email and we could email our news tips to a far-flung newsdesk.

We could, but perhaps we won’t bother.

And, yes, you can do business digitally: we can send money and adverts around the world at the click of a mouse. But the stuff at the guts of a local newspaper, the finding out what is going on and hearing a sniff of a story in the pub, will that still go on or will reporters be left to depend on social media as a source?

If no local reporters are left living and working in these communities, are they really going to care about those places? Will they even know who to call, or who to email?

When a massive fire starts down by the King’s Lynn docks, will anyone from the local newspaper be there to see it (as I was one midnight when I saw the flames out of my bedroom window)?

The answer is clearly that they will not. News will go unreported; stories will not be told; people will not know what has happened in their towns and communities.

Local newspapers (and, to some extent, local radio stations) were, and in some places still are, fighting for the little guy against the monolith for the old person, say, who is inundated by noisy construction work morning, noon and night. They bring to the attention of the public a council plan to close a massively popular library, or a bid to cement over a local swimming pool and turn it into flats. They cover a big crown court case about a million-pound corruption that ends with shops closing and jobs being lost.

When things went wrong, the local media were there to make sure people knew about it, and what the problems were. They could knock on the door of the powerful and shout for something to change.

And, yes, these things don’t have to be done only in print – a website can still cover stories and reach an audience – but if there are no reporters on the ground, and they are increasingly based far away from the stories they cover, they will increasingly miss knowing about scandals, corruption and the death of the totally brilliant grandmother who was the heart of the place.

One ex-newspaperman told me he recently walked into a city office to find all the staff for local newspapers from one part of Scotland sitting there, together. They had all become long-distance reporters, at arm’s length from the places they reported on.

This is more than an industrial tipping point. This is a gradual unpicking of part of democracy: scandals that need to be held up to the light will get missed; local authorities that spend public money will have no one watching to see if they are doing it according to the rules.

There is also cause to worry about the coverage of the courts and the justice system. As the former lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge, told Index: “Open justice is one of the essential safeguards of the rule of law. The presence of the media in our courts represents the public’s entitlement to witness the administration of justice and assess whether, and how, justice is being done. As the number of newspapers declines and fewer journalists attend court, particularly in courts outside London and the major cities, and except in high-profile cases, the necessary public scrutiny of the judicial process will be steadily eroded, eventually to virtual extinction.”

Lord Judge is right. It is likely that budget-stretched local newspaper managers will drop the coverage that costs them the most money. The difficult stuff will get ignored and replaced with fun videos of cats and other animals. The person who sifts steadily through a council agenda, page by page, will disappear, to be replaced by a “content manager” whose job is to produce crowd-pleasing clickbait fare.

Mike Sassi, editor of the Nottingham Post in the UK, said: “There’s no doubt that local decision-makers aren’t subject to the level of scrutiny they once were. There are large numbers of councils right across the country making big decisions, involving millions of pounds of public money, who may never see a local reporter. Many local authorities will be operating in the knowledge that no one will ever ask them an awkward question. Which, obviously enough, does nothing to help build trust in local democracy.”

The problem, some argue, is that the public are not really bothered about losing these skills or services. If they were, they would be willing to support them. Local news has to be paid for, and the companies that have been producing it have to make money to survive. If the public don’t care enough to pay for it, they will move on to doing other things. That’s the way the market works.

People are willing to pay for a cinema ticket, or to go to the football, or for a Netflix subscription, but right now it appears that not many are willing to pay for local news. And if no one funds it, it disappears. Will it be a case of appreciating local news reporting only when it is gone?

There’s even more to worry about when it comes to news vacuums appearing. As people feel more and more disconnected from the place where they live, they move into a state of solitude, not knowing what is going on around them. That breeds discontent, a feeling of being ignored, and when a community doesn’t exist there’s no one to lean on when things go wrong.

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There is a public right to information about what locally elected officials are doing, but there is no public right to a newspaper.
If no one wants to buy it, and if no one cares about it, it is likely to disappear. But there is a lot more to lose than a place when you find detailed coverage of your local football team (much appreciated though that is by many). There are deep societal costs.

There are some signs of public discontent which may be linked to declining local news coverage, and might be a sign that people are waking up to what is going missing when local media operations close down or pull away from certain types of coverage.

For this issue, we commissioned YouGov to carry out a poll of the public and we found that 40% of British adults over the age of 65 think that the public know less about what is happening in areas where local newspapers have closed down.

Also, Libby Purves, a columnist at The Times who started her career on a local radio station, tells us she believes part of the discontent that produced Brexit was about people in far-flung places and regional cities feeling their news and views were being ignored. She also talks to us about her earlier years working on Radio Oxford and the close relationship the station had with people who worked in and around the city. They would march into the centrally located studio and tell reporters when they were getting it wrong, she says.

The question is: how can that be replaced today? Can it be done on social media, for instance? Or is it a bit like barking at a tree? You have made noise, but the tree definitely isn’t listening?

For those of you who thought that threats to local news were just in your own country, think again. We looked into this issue around the globe and found some of the same problems developing in China, Argentina, the USA and Belgium, among others. We interviewed people in Italy, Germany, India, the UK and Nigeria. The worries are often the same, the reasons slightly different.

Many of those who fight for freedom of expression feel that declining numbers of local reporters just make it easier for governments to cover up scandals, leave the public ill-informed, and make sure only the information they want is out there.

There are some bright sparks who have ideas about how the important services that local news has provided could work differently in the future. There are people starting their own local paper, focusing on digging out stories, growing circulation and making enough money to keep going.

Other ideas are also emerging. The BBC’s local democracy reporters project, discussed in this magazine, is one way of funding specialists who have time to dig through council agendas to find out what is going on. What about finding specialist bloggers with in-depth knowledge on their particular local magistrates’ court, for instance, and having a Gofundme campaign to get up to 3,000 locals to pay £5 or £10 a month for a twice-weekly email of fabulously detailed and incisive analysis of what is happening?

Big ideas are needed. Democracy loses if local news disappears. Sadly, those long-held checks and balances are fracturing, and there are few replacements on the horizon. Proper journalism cannot be replaced by people tweeting their opinions and the occasional photo of a squirrel, no matter how amusing the squirrel might be.


Rachael Jolley is editor of Index on Censorship. She tweets @londoninsider. This article is part of the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine, with its special report on local news

Index on Censorship’s spring 2019 issue is entitled Is this all the local news? What happens if local journalism no longer holds power to account?

Look out for the new edition in bookshops, and don’t miss our Index on Censorship podcast, with special guests, on Soundcloud.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Is this all the local news?” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]The spring 2019 issue of Index on Censorship magazine asks Is this all the local news? What happens if local journalism no longer holds power to account?

With: Libby Purves, Julie Posetti and Mark Frary[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_single_image image=”105481″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” link=””][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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Contents: Is this all the local news?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”With contributions from Richard Littlejohn, Libby Purves, Michal Hvorecký, Karoline Kan, Andrew Morton, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Rituparna Chatterjee and Julie Posetti”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Is this all the local news? The spring 2019 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Is this all the local news? The spring 2019 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

The spring 2019 edition of Index on Censorship looks at local news in the UK and around the world and what happens when local journalism no longer holds power to account.

Our exclusive survey of  editors and journalists in the UK shows that 97% are worried that local newspapers don’t have the resources any more to hold power to account. Meanwhile the older population tell us they are worried that the public is less well informed than it used to be. Local news reporting is in trouble all over the world.  In the USA Jan Fox looks at the news deserts phenomenon and what it means for a local area to lose its newspaper. Karoline Kan writes from China about how local newspapers, which used to have the  freedom to cover crises and hold the government to account, are closing as they come increasingly under Communist Party scrutiny. Veteran English radio journalist Libby Purves tells editor Rachael Jolley that local newspapers in the UK used to give a voice to working-class people and that their demise may have contributed to Brexit. In India Rituparna Chatterjee finds a huge appetite for local news, but discovers, with some notable exceptions, that there is not enough investment to satisfy demand. “Fake news” is on the rise, and journalists are vulnerable to bribery. Meanwhile Mark Frary examines how artificial intelligence is being used to write news stories and asks whether this is helping or hindering journalism. Finally an extract from the dystopian Slovak novel Troll, Michal Hvorecký published in English for the first time imagines an outpouring of state-sponsored hate  

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Special Report: Is this all the local news?”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

The future is robotic by Mark Frary Would journalists have more time to investigate news stories if robots did the easy bits?

Terrorising the truth by Stephen Woodman Journalists on the US border are too intimidated by drug cartels to report what is happening

Switched off by Irene Caselli After years as a political football, Argentinian papers are closing as people turn to the internet for news

Eight innovative ways of reporting local news by Sally Gimson  How different organisations are responding to the global decline of community newspapers

News loses by Jan Fox Thousands of US communities have lost their daily papers. What is the cost to their area?

Turks retreat online for news by Kaya Genç Turkish journalists are using social media to get their stories out

Stripsearch by Martin Rowson On the death of local news

What happens when our local news disappears by Tracey Bagshaw How UK local newspapers are closing and coverage of court proceedings is not happening

Slip sliding away by Andrew Morton, Julie Posetti and Richard Littlejohn Well-known journalists reflect on their early careers in local journalism and warn about its decline today

Who will do the difficult stories now? by Rachael Jolley British local newspaper editors fear a future where powerful figures are not held to account, plus a poll of public opinion on journalism

“People feel too small to be heard” by Rachael Jolley Columnist Libby Purves tells Index fewer working-class voices are being heard and wonders whether this contributed to Brexit

Fighting for funding by Peter Sands UK newspaper editors talk about the pressures on local newspapers in Britain today

Staying alive by Laura Silvia Battaglia Reporter Sandro Ruotolo reveals how local news reporters in southern Italy are threatened by the Mafia

Public interest news is suffering by John Whittingdale A British MP says it is dangerous when local newspapers no longer hold public bodies to account

Dearth of news by Karoline Kan Some local newspapers in China no longer dig into corruption or give a voice to local people as Communist Party scrutiny increases

India shifts local by Rituparna Chatterjee People are hungry for local news, but badly paid journalists are tempted by bribes

Remote controller by Dan Nolan What happens when all major media, state and private, is controlled by Hungary’s government and all the front pages start looking the same

Rocky times by Monica O’Shea Local Australian newspapers are merging, closing and losing circulation which leaves scandals unreported

Making local neighbourhoods great again by Silvia Nortes In Spain hyperlocal newspapers are all the rage because they involve readers

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Global View”][vc_column_text]

Banning controversial speech won’t solve the issues by Jodie Ginsberg A kneejerk reaction to social media by government is in danger of creating bad laws that restrict free expression

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”In Focus”][vc_column_text]

Turning off the searchlights by Alessio Perrone The Italian government attempts to restrict coverage of the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean

Standing up for freedom Adam Reichardt  A look at Gdańsk’s history of protest and liberalism, as the city fights back after the murder of mayor Paweł Adamowicz

After the purge by Samuel Abrahám and Miriam Sherwood This feature asks two writers about lessons for today from their Slovak families’ experiences 50 years ago

Fakebusters strike back by Raymond Joseph How to spot deep fakes, the manipulated videos that are the newest form of “fake news” to hit the internet

Cover up by Charlotte Bailey Kuwaiti writer Layla AlAmmar discusses why 4,000 books were banned in her home country and the possible fate of her first #MeToo novel

Silence speaks volumes by Neema Komba Tanzanian artists and musicians are facing government censorship in a country where 64 new restrictions have just been introduced

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Culture”][vc_column_text]

The year of the troll by Michal Hvorecký This extract from the novel Troll describes a world where the government controls the people by spewing out hate 24 hours a day

Ghost writers by Jeffrey Wasserstrom The author and China expert imagines a fictional futuristic lecture he’s going to give in 2049, the centenary of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

Protesting through poetry by Radu Vancu Verses by one of Romania’s most renowned poets draw on his experience of anti-corruption protests in Sibiu

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Column”][vc_column_text]

Index around the world – Shooting the messengers by Lewis Jennings An overview of Index’s latest published work including three reports on media freedom

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Endnote”][vc_column_text]

Press freedom: EU blind spot? By Sally Gimson Many European countries are violating freedom of the press; why is the EU not taking it more seriously?

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe”][vc_column_text]In print, online, in your mailbox, on your iPad.

Subscription options from £18 or just £1.49 in the App Store for a digital issue.

Every subscriber helps support Index on Censorship’s projects around the world.

SUBSCRIBE NOW[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”105481″ img_size=”medium”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Listen”][vc_column_text]The spring 2019 magazine podcast, featuring interviews with editor of chinadialogue, Karoline Kan; director of the Society of Editors in the UK Ian Murray and co-founder of the Bishop’s Stortford Independent, Sinead Corr. Index youth board members Arpitha Desai and Melissa Zisingwe also talk about local journalism in India and Zimbabwe

LISTEN HERE[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]