The widespread and rapid decline of local papers is a great source of sadness. Those of us who have worked on the editorial floor of a newspaper can scarcely help feeling sentimental about the experience – no matter how rough and rowdy it felt at the time.
Gareth Davies, a reporter who has resigned from the Croydon Advertiser, has taken to Twitter, to express his dismay. He says the paper “consists entirely of stories scraped from website by subs and put in paper” and adds:
“Reporters no longer have any input or involvement in the paper product, including no chance to proofread…..A paper with a proud 147-year history reduced to being a thrown together collection of clickbait written for the web.”
Under the ownership of Trinity Mirror the paper now has no photographers and two reporters, who cover the rest of Surrey and Sussex as well as Croydon (which has a population on its own of 380,000):
“Without any prior warning they were put on shifts, including working on Sundays. Every six weeks reporters have to work 12 consecutive days. The few reporters who are left are not allowed to meet contacts unless there is a guarantee of a story. They have to get permission from a non-editorial manager to claim travel expenses. They already work at least 30 mins away from patch, in poorly paid jobs….
“What do readers get in return? A website focused on live blogging everything, with reporters told to ‘write like they speak down the pub’….Well, it breaks my heart. I couldn’t stick around to watch the paper be destroyed & I would not help them do it. Local press should be a vital part of democratic accountability and a force for change, not an exercise in generating clicks by any means.”
Reporters at the Croydon Advertiser must seek permission to write any stories that would be expected to generate fewer than a thousand hits on the website.
David Higgerson, of Trinity Mirror, has hit back:
“Has Trinity Mirror banned stories which will generate fewer than 1,000 page views? No (and in fairness Gareth doesn’t say that, although that’s the interpretation many have given). Has Trinity Mirror instructed reporters to get permission to write stories which generate fewer than 1,000 page views? No. Do we think it’s a good idea for the people who know a story and an area best (the journalists in the newsroom) to discuss how to ensure a story generates more than 1,000 page views? Yes.
“There are two reasons for this. The first is cold economics. Much of the revenue which funds our journalism comes from advertising which is dependent on page views. Another rump of it comes from local advertisers who need convincing that our brands have an impact online locally. Therefore, the more people who see a story locally, the greater chance we have of convincing local advertisers to jump on board.
“The second reason is about readers. A story which generates fewer than 1k page views will have been read by fewer than 1k people. According to ONS data, Croydon Council covers a population of 264k. So a story generating fewer than 1k page views will reach 0.4% of the local population at most. That’s not a strong place for a news publisher to be when it seeks to hold authorities to account.
“So our content approach is to determine that if a story is worth doing, for readers, we need to make sure that readers want to read it. Gareth claims many council and health stories fall beneath the 1,000 page views mark. Let’s ask why, and do something about it, as people should care about the council – schools, bins, roads – and health boards – GPs, hospitals, accident departments…”
It is possible both to sympathise with Davies and accept that Higgerson is merely facing up to the economic realities if local papers are to survive at all. In one regard conditions are likely to get tougher. The statutory advertising that councils must place in local papers for planning and licensing applications is pretty outdated. It amounts to a hefty council subsidy and I doubt it will last forever.
On the other hand if the economy generally grows then so will the amounts spent on advertising – including local spending. Human nature has not changed and that means a thirst for local news remains. Indeed the problem for the traditional printed weekly paper is partly our impatience. We don’t want to wait that long to find out what is happening.
Local papers adapt by putting greater emphasis on their websites. But providing local news and comment via social media is a game where we can all join in. The number of professionals may have fallen but there has been a welcome flood of amateurs.
For local councillors all this represents not only an opportunity but a duty. In terms of campaigning, councillors and council candidates should be set wider expectations by the political parties they represent. Tweeting should be regarded as a basic requirement. So should emailing news bulletins to all local residents who wish to receive such missives (which is actually most of those given the opportunity). I run a local blog – the Hammersmith and Fulham Forum – which offers an alternative perspective to the official propaganda on my Council’s website. Usually councillors are expected to canvass and leaflet – quite right. But these days campaigning involves more than that.
This is not just about winning votes. If, as Davies fears, local papers are becoming constrained from being “a vital part of democratic accountability” then councillors – especially opposition councillors – need to fill the gap. There is more to scrutiny then sitting in committee meetings. Councillors and residents must communciate with each other to keep track on what is happening.