CNJ at 40: Local news at a crossroads – where next?

MPs launch inquiry to investigate how a challenging media can survive

Thursday, 24th March — By Richard Osley

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LOCAL news is at a crossroads, to put it mildly.

You don’t need to step too far from Camden to find areas where there is no local newspaper at all.

Titles have closed while others limp on, a shadow of their former selves. Some have been replaced by web-only operations.

Indeed, some of the three big conglomerates in charge of nearly all of the UK’s local titles have decided they can operate websites rather than shoulder the costs of print and distribution.

Often, these sites are filled with the low hanging fruit: quick returns on police press releases, alwats with a parade of mugshots for us to stare at the baddies.

There is also the staple diet of product recalls from supermarkets, taste tests (what is the best Victoria sponge out there – you’ll never guess which one came out on top) and reheated history pieces dressed up as new knowledge

Then you will find Google search bar favourites: Which channel is Spurs versus Leicester City on? What time does Strictly start tonight? And don’t forget the detailed describing of celebrity Instagram posts.

This easy-to-spread cocktail, designed to get you to click once they have been fed into your neighbourhood Facebook groups, is slowly replacing the investigations and story-chasing which requires time but, critically, keeps publicly funded institutions on their toes.

In some companies, reporters now have stratospheric web targets; a metric surely guiding each day at work. Why go for the important public interest story, when you can score big with a traffic update? You don’t have to be snobbish about what does and doesn’t constitute news to realise this is a problem.

There is a Don’t Look Up quality to the trend; we can all talk about what could happen in a landscape without a challenging a media and missing that layer of independent checks and scrutiny.

And we can already see the warning signs of the upcoming burnout in the way that news is collated and presented. It always seemed a long way off, a future dystopia. It is actually happening now.

In the wake of the Grenfell tower tragedy, it was noted that the local newspaper presence had been flattened to bare minimums and the safety warnings on residents’ blogs had been easy for those in authority to ignore.


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Already, in the ‘straight to web’ model, you see how council press releases can be almost copied and pasted into what look like authentic news articles, and appearing without any alternative voice or scrutiny.

That means the people who make the decisions also control the debate about whether they were wise ones, while we are looking at whether Dua Lipa has a boyfriend or not and the surprise reveal that Aldi does a good apple Danish.

Of course, the New Journal would love you all to come to our website in millions, but we know some of the campaigns celebrated on the following pages just would not have been possible if we were on a click chase conveyer belt.

The unpalatable flip side of course is that one type of article drives money from online ad revenue, and the other becomes ever more niche despite the possible effects on our daily lives and changing communities.

The BBC has tried to help by funding its “local democracy service” – the idea of putting reporters back into town halls. It can’t be sniffed at in areas where there are no papers at all, but in truth, the Beeb need not use its public funds in Camden on one here, as the major meetings are all by and large covered by us.

And if we relied on it, we would be giving you stories which lacked in context and understanding we have built up over so many years.

What’s more, most probably realise that council meetings are essentially stage managed – everybody knows what is going to be said before it’s said – and further digging is almost always required beyond simply showing up with a tape recorder.

The solutions to protecting genuinely public interest local journalism are not clear.

Subscriptions, reader clubs and more CNJ events and services will be explored; your encouragement and enthusiasm – and criticism – as ever will drive us on.

In Camden, our pickup and engagement remains high – unusually high for the industry – and there is still great value for advertisers. The success of Camden’s Covid communications show there remains a place for what we do.

A more careful analysis by the government would have found its pandemic messaging would have been seen by more eyes if it had been placed in a local paper likes ours rather than blocked booked across giant companies.

Maybe it will see that in a new parliamentary inquiry ordered by the departmemt for Culture, Media and Sport, which has realised we cannot function on pictures of Amanda Holden’s work outfits and soccer transfer gossip alone.

Committee chair Julian Knight MP said: “It is clear that the market for local news journalism has shifted considerably over the past two decades.

“The need to know what is going on in your area is as great as it ever has been, arguably greater, but there is a very real challenge in how to deliver that.

“How can we maintain and protect the type of journalism that reports what your council is doing, coverage that is essential to local democracy?”

We will follow what the MPs do with this work and submit our own evidence. Understanding the importance of local news is a good first step.

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