Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Peterborough Pravda. Is this what Louise Mensch wants from local media?


Yesterday, Louise Mensch – the MP for Corby – argued that local newspapers are an essential cog in our democracy:

She called on the government to conduct a review into "local democracy and the local press" to see if there might be some sort of direct or indirect subsidy that could support the sector.

She attacked plans for local TV stations, which will compete against newspapers, because the proposed funding plans include using part of the licence fee as well as BBC content.

Now there are a few obvious things that might be said about Mrs Mensch’s suggestions not least that Tory MPs calling for business subsidies is a wholly new experience for this very long-standing Tory member.

However, at the heart of this isn’t the question of whether we have a local press – in my view we have as vibrant a local debate as we’ve had in a very long while. But here in Bradford very little of that debate is down to the local evening paper.

Local papers have declined, many have merged, closed or become mere shadows – more advertising sheets that newspapers. And that decline continues – think for a second or two where you go to look for a job, a car, a house or the cinema listings? In times past you bought the local rag on the appropriate day and looked in the class ads. Now you use your lap top or your iPhone – tomorrow you’ll be using the telly in your living room.

Local newspapers have become ever more reliant on the money that local councils spend – the statutory notices, job ads and theatre listings. Without this cash, many more local papers would go to the wall. Maybe this would be a loss but it is the market that is killing these papers not the choices or decisions of local councils. People no longer buy the evening paper – 30 years ago the penetration of the York Evening Press was up at around 80%. Hardly a house in the City didn’t receive the paper. Today that paper sells around 25,000 copies each day (as it happens about the same as Bradford’s Telegraph & Argus). The Doncaster Star sells fewer than 3,000 copies.

It seems to me that, for all her good intentions, Mrs Mensch is railing against the wind – for sure, stopping councils from producing their own free newspapers and not using the license fee to support local TV might slow the decline a little. But the decline will continue for the simple reason that people no longer buy the local paper and local businesses no longer advertise in the local paper. And while this is happening local papers reduce their editorial staff – I fear that many will simply be desk-bound churners of press releases (which isn’t why anyone went to journalism school) – to the point where they simply don’t have the resource to cover stories.

However, public subsidy – using taxpayers’ money to stop local papers closing – seems like a recipe for a supine, state-directed newspaper. Something of a Pravda of Peterborough or Isvestia of Ipswich – regurgitating the tractor stats produced by the local authorities and printing without question or challenge the words of the local MP. A ghastly shade of the challenging, offending and investigating local paper of legend.

Maybe that’s what Mrs Mensch wants but for me, I’ll take my changes with bloggers, Facebook and citizen journalism. That might just be the better future don’t you think?


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