“Fake news” or “No news” – the twin threats to democracy.
I love local newspapers. My very first paid job was as a trainee reporter on a Manchester-based local newspaper that, sadly, wasn’t the great Manchester Evening News. However, my editor, Roy Shinwell, had been a sub-editor on the News, and he ate, slept and drank on the power of the local press to make a difference. That was in 1970, and that lesson never left me. I wonder how Roy would now view local newspapers and their output.
One respected database says there are around 1500 regional newspapers in the UK. Their circulation, according to the authoritative ABC audit of media reach, ranges from 489,000 for London’s Evening Standard which is distributed freely, to 3,032 for the Folkestone Herald.
Many of these titles are part of much larger groups, many of whom have struggled over last few years to pay their way. For example, by 2016, Johnsons Press was boasting of a daily print circulation of 600,000 and a print and online audience of 32 million readers across its over 100 titles. Two years later, in November 2018 it went into administration with debts of over £200 million.
This centralising of local titles in the hand of a few groups is not new. In 2009, 20 publishers accounted for 90% of all titles. Today, for example, Archant, has 15 titles across London alone, all competing with the free Evening Standard.
However, the decline in the reach of local newspapers is best shown in the Press Gazette’s recent article under the lurid but truthful headline
The report, carried out for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), “warned that the decline of the local press reduces scrutiny of democratic functions and that this is “unlikely” to improve without intervention”. Folkestone MP, Damian Collins was chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee until earlier this year.
The report found that average daily print circulation across all local authority districts in the UK was at 31% of 2007 figures in 2019. Weekly print circulation was at 39% of 2007 levels.
It also found that the closure of local and regional titles had “led to under reporting and less scrutiny of democratic functions, such as local court reporting and local authorities’ decisions”.
265 titles have closed since 2005, and with these closures, democratic accountability becomes a more elusive goal, and Councils take advantage of this, as we have noted elsewhere.
Underlying all this is a decline in the advertising revenues that make local print journalism possible, and an increasing unwillingness of people to pay to read. Another report commissioned by DCMS in 2018 revealed:
“Circulation has been under pressure for 20 years, and the declines have accelerated in the 2000s and 2010s. Younger consumers are far less likely to read a physical newspaper, or at least to pay for one……. this younger cohort is more likely to use social media and other online platforms for news consumption, where content is plentiful and competition more intense. There is a relatively low propensity to pay – at least for general news – and high ad intolerance”
The report goes on:
“The key observation is that newspapers may find themselves in a vicious downward spiral, as circulation and readership continue to decline, cover price increases become counter-productive and advertising revenue drop in tandem.”
It’s worse for the local press:
“The strategic and financial challenges we identify are more serious for the local and regional press. Many titles simply do not have the scale of audience needed to generate profitable income online. Moreover, the local and regional model is characterised by a reliance on advertising, with many more ‘free’ weeklies than there are paid-for dailies. The ability to offset circulation declines through cover price increases has become severely hampered.”
To an extent, the information gap left by closures and staff reductions, and I have to say, an increasing unwillingness to offend those advertisers still left, has been partially plugged by the digital new entrants. It is worth reflecting here on the new online entrants in news gathering. They enjoy lower costs of operation— cheaper/free journalists, no newsprint to buy or distribution costs, presses or physical distribution and the ability to take content from around the Web in addition to their own. Practitioners such as BuzzFeed, Vice Media, Huffington Post and Vox grew users and revenues impressively from the mid-2000s. Could this be the way to deliver quality journalism to an online audience?
Sadly not, and the major digital newcomers have appeared to stall. Two major players, Vice Media and BuzzFeed announced redundancies and have tried to restructure, complaining that changes made by Facebook’s algorithms and its newsfeeds are loaded against other news gathering players. To quote the report again:
“For the digital natives, just as for the legacy newsbrands, there appears to be a singular threat – the dominance of the search and social platforms. Short of regulating these, what might the industry do, collectively, in the face of structural challenge?”
Big brands, such as the Times, the Telegraph hid behind paywalls, but in 2017, only 6% of people in the UK paid read their news, compared with 20% in Sweden and 16% in the USA. This isn’t going to change anytime soon:
“According to the Reuters Institute, only 9% of people who currently do not pay for online news said that they were somewhat to very likely to do so in the next 12 months, while 69% said they are very unlikely to pay to access news on the internet”.
Source: Reuters Institute, Digital News Report 2017; *people who did not pay for online news in the UK in the last year
Finally, the report points out:
“…..that there is also a strong belief among several members of the industry that UK citizens, and in particular those with lower means – e.g., young people – have a fundamental right to free public-service journalism. In that sense, the BBC plays a crucial, though not unique role.”
On a separate tack, and one much closer to home, the report states:
“There are examples of community newspapers, kept alive by local, committed ‘citizen journalists’ or local blogs providing local insight without the need to deliver returns to shareholders. There may be scope for a model, moreover, that marries commercial and community characteristics. Some in the industry point to a ‘franchise’ model whereby central services are provided to local operators at a very low cost, allowing them to develop community newspaper websites/apps more efficiently.”
Is this sufficient, however, to address one concern of the report?
“Furthermore, the dangers of so-called ‘fake news’ are more serious in a world where the traditional press is existentially challenged, with the risk of fake news filling a vacuum left by more closures of press titles – or indeed, an outcome where citizens are left with no professionally produced news at all beyond the BBC”.
Any news site which consists almost entirely of unattributed articles undermines its own authenticity. There may be a case in some circumstances for protecting a source’s identity, but not the writer’s.
So using that argument Dick, The Economist, Private Eye and other reputable publications are undermining their own authenticity. It’s an argument which doesn’t stack up.
Dick should have listened to BBC Radio 4’s Today at around 08.54 last Friday. He would have learnt that news isn’t owned and truth doesn’t require an author.