Former Brighton Argus editor Mike Gilson has issued a warning about the effect the decline in local newspaper journalism is having on democracy.
Gilson lost his job at the Newsquest daily in December after just over two years in the role. His successor lasted only a few weeks before moving into PR.
Gilson was speaking in London today at a conference for journalism teachers.
He cited the case of a Brighton University student who was killed two years ago, found in the boot of a burnt-out car.
An investigation by the Argus uncovered severe failings at the mental health NHS trust where she was being cared-for and evidence of a “botched” prosecution which led to the man responsible for her death receiving only an eight-year sentence for manslaughter,
Gilson said: “How do we know all this? Well one thing is for sure. We don’t know because the Trust decided on a policy of full disclosure.
“We know this because journalists ensured it be so. And here is the concern.
“Up and down the country so many of these stories are existing in their own little orbits, unknown by anyone except those directly involved as newsrooms shrink and ambitions shrivel to getting online clicks for car shunts.
“And this is having a profound effect on society, reliant as it must be on the checks and balances that govern the relationships between its institutions and its citizens.
“I can tell you having recently returned from that front line, with only a mild dose of shell shock, that whole areas of life that should be public and debated and questioned are now in danger of disappearing from public consciousness. Town halls, trust boards, courts, quangos all going about their business unhampered by tiresome questions with no light being shone in the corners.
“We are in danger of losing the ability to hold people to account, speak up for the powerless, those lost in the systems.
“It is still the case that when people are in trouble, cannot get answers, do not know where to turn, think they are a victim of injustice, have exhausted all avenues for recompense, they turn to a journalist.
“And in places where rumbustious journalists – I call them affectionately troublemakers – still exist, the psychological effect that has on institutions cannot be underestimated.
“How many chief exec’s, chief constables, trust chairman, communication managers, union bosses, council leaders, politicians of all sorts factor this sublimely into their decision making: ‘what if this gets into the press?’.”
“My real fear now is those bosses and decision makers are beginning to rest a little easier, often surrounded as they are by a phalanx of communication officers (often fleeing journalists) who taken together now outnumber journalists working in the patch.
“In Northern Ireland the government employs 160 press officers more than the entire number of private sector journalists working in the province. If that isn’t worthy of debate, I don’t know what is.”
Talking about the new generation of journalists he said: “They must know why they are digging”.
He added: “They must know why it is important that as a lowly paid hack, which they almost certainly will be, they can look a £200k chief executive in the eye and demand answers to their questions.
“They must have the fire in the belly, the understanding of the importance of the role, to treat that chief executive as an equal for the duration of their relationship.
“This mindset is as important as it ever was. Truthfully I wonder if enough new journalists or even those applying for your courses actually think that way.
“I have met some brilliant young journalists, better than I ever was, but I meet too many also who are not really sure why they are there.
“The public interest role, and the fervour with which it is embraced by the new practitioners, must never be lost otherwise we will not have the army of reporters available when this correction gets into full swing.”
He warned that many more newspaper titles will “go digital-only this year as a precursor to disappearing completely, stranded as they will be without any visible brand in the market”.
And he added: “I will also be very surprised indeed if we have the same number of newspaper companies at the end of 2018 as we do now. Consolidation will continue and the cost cutting will escalate.
“But armed with the view that this correction is coming I believe there are still causes for optimism. For a start despite what I have called the democratic deficit there are still some great opportunities in existing media out there.
“Some newspapers under smart editors haven’t given up the ghost.
“Some big city dailies are still having a good rattle at it and there are still some fine woven-into-the-fabric weeklies around that haven’t just become one-man press release operations.
“Many of these titles have as much influence as they ever had thanks to their audience figures including, of course, digital platforms.
“News websites and blogs continue to cause trouble for their local great and good, some, but by no means all, local TV isn’t bad at all and micro newspaper/hyper local publishing is growing all the time.
“And here’s the other thing I think is obvious about the new breed of journalists, as well as the need to remember those basic skills that underpin all the technological shiny stuff. That is they will have to be much, much more entrepreneurial than any generation before them.
“They will have facts, data, stories at their finger tips that will command a price whether that be traditional media or maybe even those big digital players in the future as they are forced to abandon that absurdity of their position that they are just platforms not publishers.
“It may even be that these intrepid new reporters associate to produce their own publications on whatever platform, driving subscriptions (for that is the only saviour of the current newspaper industry for sure) based on offering unique exclusive content.
“Because if I am right about this correction, the demand for quality investigative news, feature, opinion and sporting content that meets the ‘surprise me’ test will come back into mainstream fashion.
“For if they are good and have new skills allied to the essential ethos that has stood the test of time over centuries there will be plenty of opportunities ahead.
“And the reward will be what it always has, the thrill of a trade that is different every day, speaks truth unto power, investigates but also celebrates and ensures that the democratic deficit does not grow wider.”