Comment: Relaxation of cross-media ownership rules would be disastrous for regional press

Imagine a society where people can’t find out what’s being decided for them. Imagine a society where people’s only sources of information are the propaganda and PR from the decision-makers or the blogs from their opponents.

Imagine a world where reputable, trustworthy and impartial journalistic coverage of decision making, established over centuries has been lost to its society.
That’s the doomsday scenario being considered by journalists, academics and politicians seriously concerned that local democracy itself is at risk because of the decline of public service journalism in the regional media.

These concerns were brought to a head at a meeting in Parliament on St Patrick’s Day, addressed by leading academics, media commentators, the NUJ leader, journalists and students.

Democracy Without Journalists was organised by the Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy in association with the NUJ and hosted in Portcullis House by journalist-MPs Austin Mitchell and Dennis MacShane in an effort to make the crisis in the regional media an issue in the general election.
At the heart of the debate was the contraction of local civic journalism, basic coverage of public affairs, politics and councils, and the threat of complete loss of some providers, notably regional ITV news and the weakest of the local press.

The opportunity to grow responsible journalism on the internet was one bright spot on an otherwise fairly bleak horizon for those with a background or stake in the regional media.

The four main regional newspaper owners made huge profits between the mid ’90s and mid’ 00s in an unprecedented revenue bubble largely generated by their pre-internet monopoly on employment advertising. Papers charged what they wanted for this precious commodity and booming local advertisers had no choice but to pay the prices asked if they wanted to fill their vacancies and continue to progress.

The big four were good at making profits. They not only maximised revenue, they also cut costs, reducing headcount in support and admin roles, closing district offices, centralising printing into a handful of huge printing plants, driving down journalists’ pay and realising the benefits of computerisation of all functions.
Johnston Press began to delight its shareholders and corporate financiers with profit margins of 35 per cent and when other publishers saw this they demanded the same of their local managements.

There were not huge losses of journalists’ jobs in the boom years, but paginations grew to unprecedented levels without a matching growth in staff and journalists’ pay was driven so far down that it was barely over the minimum wage, with trainee reporters starting on less than £10,000 even at the height of the boom ten years ago.

These same owners are now trying to save their platforms by cutting and centralising the jobs of the remaining underpaid and overworked few journalists. The journalists left working in the local press are incredibly conscientious, but their morale is at rock bottom and there is a limit to how much important local news they can cover and how much depth they can go into.

If the big four could be persuaded to sell their newspapers off to (possibly locally-based) owners who would be happy to run them with smaller profit margins the current owners could pay off their debts and the local press could continue to serve its local readership, unburdened by those debts and the need to make unsustainable profits to service them.

The owners have lobbied for a relaxation of cross-media ownership rules as a way of helping them to survive and the Conservatives are apparently backing them. This would be disastrous because such a relaxation would not be used to ‘save’ local journalism, but simply to make greater profits from the ‘synergies’ the owners could achieve by the cutting costs (ie jobs) in their new multi-media empires. This proposal would only exacerbate current problems.

Freed of the need to generate unsustainable and excessive profits to service corporate debt and unrealistic shareholder expectations, the regional press could lower its profit margin expectations, invest in its journalism and serve its local audiences through a combination of its paper and online products.

This kind of product would offer a public service benefit to local society and local democracy. If this model is dependent on the big four selling their local papers back to local owners then the proposed IFNC cash could perhaps be diverted into providing low interest loans to facilitate this.

So, yes there is a crisis in regional journalism and it’s good this crisis is attracting attention even if the proposed solutions aren’t necessarily focused in the right areas. But out of all this it is possible to imagine a solution which could save the most important part of regional journalism, local grassroots press and online public service journalism which knits together and properly informs the communities which form the very bedrock of society.

Tor Clark is principal lecturer in Journalism at De Montfort University in Leicester. Previously he was an editor and political journalist in the regional press.

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