Roy Greenslade: Local newspapers need state subsidy to survive

Many local newspapers face disaster unless some form of subsidy for public service journalism can be introduced, a media expert has warned.

Guardian journalist and academic Roy Greenslade highlighted the plight of the regional Press as he gave evidence to peers on the House of Lords Communications Committee.

He said many titles were being merged or closed as the rise of the internet ate into traditional sales and advertising revenue.

That potentially had consequences for coverage of court cases and other key parts of civic life, he said.

"We also need to do something to preserve the good journalism in our towns and cities across Britain," Professor Greenslade said.

"I, after much soul searching on this subject, do think that there ought to be some funding for public service journalism.

"We ought to think about whether or not we should have a public subsidy available rather than let these newspapers go to the wall."

BBC broadcaster and commentator Steve Hewlett told the committee, which is looking into how to preserve plurality in the media, that some national newspapers were likely to disappear.

However, while stressing he always wanted to see more journalists and publications, he said by international standards Britain still had a "remarkably full and vibrant" Press.

"Not only is it likely that there will be further consolidation in the UK national Press market, I think it is probably overdue. There is probably a red top and a broadsheet that are going to go. I don't know if that necessarily means that we are absolutely going to be the poorer for it," he said.

Mr Hewlett said he did not believe websites like the Huffington Post would take off in the UK in the same way as in the US, partly because the Press here provided a platform for a wide range of comment. "There is lots of it and it is very argumentative," he added.

Clive Marshall, chief executive of PA Group – which owns Press Association – said the role of search engines such as Google had to be considered when looking at media plurality.

"It is hard to have a discussion about plurality without taking some time to think about the impact of search engines," he said.

Mr Marshall said the news media in general worked by selling access to content and advertising.

"Google works by providing advertising around a search. But they do not recognise the boundaries while they are providing that search."

Mr Marshall said a Google search for "David Cameron" during the recent party conference season would have brought up a page full of images.

However, although many of them would have originated from newspaper websites, users did not need to go back to the original page to view and even download the images.

He said he was not suggesting imposing a levy on Google for its activities, but added: "I think when you look at Google it could be a tremendous force for good around intellectual property. They have tremendous ability around their technology.

"At the very least flagging up that material may be copyright, may be owned by somebody else."

ITN chief executive John Hardie insisted the BBC had to be included in any consideration of media plurality.

He highlighted director general Lord Hall's stated ambition of expanding the corporation's offering online and for social media and mobile devices.

Mr Hardie questioned how that would affect smaller newspaper groups that were investing in trying to migrate readers to websites and mobile devices.

"This is not a criticism of the BBC," he said. "I am not advocating any cuts to the BBC… I am not saying stop the BBC. But at least assess it along with everything else."

It was not enough to argue that the corporation was already "well looked after" because it had its own governance arrangements and charter, according to Mr Hardie.

 

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