Regional newspapers in a 'spiral of decline'

Local newspapers face a bleak future unless they invest in specialist journalists and adapt to the integrated print and digital landscape – according to two national newspaper editors.

The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger and Robert Thomson from The Times have told the House of Lords Communications Committee that the newspaper industry faces renewed pressure from the loss of advertising revenue to the internet and needs investment and a commitment to journalism to survive.

The pair gave evidence in separate sessions to the recently formed committee as part of a probe into the effect of media owners on news. Both were asked to describe the way they were appointed, and the effect that their owners, the Scott Trust and News International, have on their editorial line.

Rusbridger said the independent owner of The Guardian, the Scott Trust, set up in 1935 after the sudden death of the paper’s editor, CP Scott, had no influence on the paper’s editorial output or line, and said there was ‘no higher power’than the paper’s editor and staff.

Thomson said of his relationship with proprietor Rupert Murdoch: ‘We have discussions about world affairs; he is a very curious person.

‘What we do not discuss is what is in the next day’s paper. There is a line there and he knows where it is.”

Thomson revealed that he did not speak to Murdoch in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq or before the past two General Elections, though he admitted that the proprietor has ‘a very different relationship’with his other British titles, suggesting that he may exert more influence at The Sun and News of the World.

Rusbridger said he was ‘troubled by the power the mainstream media has’in society, adding that owners were ‘effectively in control of everything in their papers”.

But he warned that the downturn in advertising, along with the development of the internet, would cause the newspaper industry – and particularly regional titles – to struggle to survive a ‘spiral of decline”.

He added that readership for The Guardian was generally up thanks to its successful website, but that circulation was down, in line with ‘the general trend”.

‘My assumption is that the overwhelming majority of classified advertising is going to go on the internet,’he said. ‘All the newspapers will try to develop strategies to keep it but they have a rather integral problem.

‘The circulations of all newspapers have been in sharp decline for 50 or 60 years. Google is killing off classified advertising – cars, jobs and homes – our main source of revenue.

‘And the main response of newspaper owners is to cut back on editorial costs. Competition then comes in from the freesheets and erodes them. That’s going to be extremely tough.”

Because of society’s need for news, ‘new models’of online news delivery would spring up to fill the gaps left by the flagging local press, said Rusbridger, adding: ‘I do not think the printed local newspaper has a future.”

Thomson, himself a former foreign correspondent in China, warned that newspapers should not cut back on specialist reporters in the face of budget cuts and an advertising downturn now that it is ‘easier for normal people to be journalists”.

‘I am worried about how we can employ specialists to cover the reality of China or India. You can get citizen journalism but it won’t be of the standard as that of full-time journalists. That is the element of journalism that is most at threat,’he said.

On a more positive note, Thomson said that, for the first time in decades, The Times would make a profit ‘some time in the next financial year”.

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