Bail out local news

We need a journalism stimulus package to save local democracy.
Jeremy Dear
27 April 2010

Across Europe there is a growing acknowledgement amongst journalists that too many media are failing democracy but also an increasing belief that politicians are failing the media.

It’s often said not much happens in Long Eaton - which is just as well. It has no commercial radio station, little coverage on regional ITV news and earlier this year its only local newspaper closed.

The Long Eaton Advertiser was closed, not because the people of Long Eaton did not want news about their council, health service, education system or their local community but because of what the company called “difficult trading conditions”.

The paper was profitable, just not profitable enough for avaricious shareholders.

The Long Eaton Advertiser was not a victim of the recession, even though it had seen a huge fall in advertising revenue – it was a victim of a failed corporate business model for news. A model encouraged by successive governments through deregulation, turning a blind eye to the effects of mergers, indebtedness and excessive profiteering on citizens’ rights to information.

Since the Long Eaton Advertiser shut a further 101 newspapers have closed across the UK. Almost one in four jobs in local newspapers have gone. Dozens of local media offices have closed removing journalists from the communities they serve. ITV has cut more than 1,000 jobs and halved its regional news services. A growing number of newspapers have gone from daily to weekly, local and late editions have been cut, supplements axed, specialists ditched. Media analysts predict that half the country’s 1,300 local newspapers will close by 2013, destroying 20,000 media jobs.

As a result local and national democracy is suffering – councils, courts and public bodies are no longer being properly scrutinised. Sixty-four percent of editors believe they are not adequately scrutinising local councils. Eighty percent of judges believe courts are not subject to adequate scrutiny. Journalists are increasingly stuck in offices rewriting press releases – relying ever more on corporate or celebrity PR.

Everywhere the corporate business model is threatening quality journalism, cutting at what is perceived to be expensive – investigative, international and original newsgathering.

So what should be done?

At the heart of this debate must be a total rejection of the idea set out by James Murdoch that profit is the best guarantor of media quality and independence. It’s not.

The supply of the independent information people need to be engaged citizens is too important to be left entirely to companies motivated primarily by profit.

The founders of the free press never thought that freedom of the press would only belong to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the idea that if rich people determine there is not sufficient commercial value in news that communities should be deprived of quality information and quality journalism.

There are those who argue the answer is to keep cutting costs. It isn’t. No newspaper was made better by having fewer reporters.

There are those who argue the answer is to sweep away ownership rules, deregulate media further and allow greater consolidation. It isn’t. Enabling greater concentration of ownership not only undermines plurality but also threatens democracy and in practice leads to fewer jobs, fewer titles, less resources devoted to newsgathering, greater homogenisation and media more remote from the communities they serve.

There are those who argue that the answer is to reduce the newsgathering capacity of public service broadcasters because they represent unfair competition. It isn’t. In the US they don’t have the BBC yet the situation facing the newspaper industry is if anything worse.

And there are those who argue that the answer is to reduce the public service obligations on media. It isn’t. If anything it is to put public service and the public interest increasingly at the heart of media policy.

And so, the case for public support for public service media has never been greater.

We need political action to save, build and sustain newsgathering. We’ve called for an economic stimulus plan for journalism with action aimed at encouraging a variety of voices, across all platforms, a greater plurality, maximised through a combination of different ownership models – commercial, public, mutual, employee, co-operative, for profit and not for profit.

New media could be stimulated through public support in the form of start-up grants, subsidised technology or training grants, solutions driven by journalists and communities themselves.

Such moves could be supported by tax breaks for local media who meet clearly defined public purposes, tax credits for individuals subscribing to publications that meet such public purposes.

Such action is not about propping up failing companies or business models but about delivering public service content across platforms. To ensure any public money is used for the public good, for the benefit of the communities media serve – not primarily private businesses and shareholders – clear and enforceable conditions need to be applied – that safeguard the production of original content in the public interest.

Politicians say they like such ideas. Restate their commitment to local and national democracy. Recognise media, news and information is vital to that democracy. But say it is not affordable.

Even if you could bring the supply of fair and balanced information down to a simple economic equation, safeguarding the future of the media is not a question of resources but a question of political will.

With the right political commitment we could levy those who profit from re-broadcasting public service content but pay nothing towards its creation. News aggregators – such as Google - exploiting news content for commercial gain could be charged.

Funding for news is not a question of resources it is a question of political will.

I’m sick of hearing politicians say “but can you imagine what Rupert Murdoch would say about that” while bemoaning the closure of another newspaper, a scaling back of local and regional TV news or the hubbing of yet another set of radio stations.

Without action what we are left with is as Natalie Fenton writes: “a contradiction between the potential of new technologies and the stifling constraints of the free market”. The material conditions of contemporary journalism – particularly unprotected commercial practice – do not offer the space to practice independent journalism. On the contrary, job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists’ ability to do what most of us want them to – to question, analyse, scrutinise.

Digital media offer us huge opportunities to enhance our democracy through investment in newsgathering and enhancing pluralism. Protection of the internet and journalism from commercial suffocation could create a vastly expanded and critically engaged public space operating in the public interest.

Politicians must find the will to create the structures to enable democracy to flourish.

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