The major regional newspaper groups are engaged in “a stampede to irrelevance”, leaving readers less well informed about what they need, want and ought to know, according to former Newspaper Society president Chris Oakley.
Oakley said local newspapers need journalists embedded in their communities, alongside the families whose lives they chronicle and influence, and whose hopes and concerns they share.
“For the many years I worked as a journalist, this was the accepted wisdom and the way in which local newspapers went about their business,” he told journalism students at Northampton University.
But increasingly journalists now operate from centralised hubs miles from where a paper would be sold and read, he said.
“In an attempt to close the gap in local knowledge and involvement, the major groups plan to have half or more of all editorial content, in print and online, written by ‘citizen journalists.’
“Of course, local readers must be involved in the creation of their community’s newspaper; they always have been. But it is unrealistic to expect from them the wide-ranging, impartial coverage trained journalists should provide.”
Oakley questioned how such contributed content could be verified to ensure accuracy and condemned an increasing reliance on press releases.
“PR no more fills the need for journalism you can trust than community correspondents,” he said.
“Amateur content and templated page designs into which content managers fit stories judged on their word count rather than their merit cut costs. They do nothing to give readers the information they need and want.”
Oakley said the ability of local newspapers to conduct investigations, to dig out the stories that those in authority would prefer were never published had almost totally disappeared.
He quoted Shaun Lintern, the reporter who covered for his local paper the Stafford Hospital scandal in which more than 1,000 patients died through negligence or ill-treatment.
Lintern told Press Gazette this month: “If my newspaper had not existed, those families had nowhere else to get their voice heard…I believe we made a difference for them.”
But, Oakley pointed out, Lintern went on to say the paper could no longer investigate such a story because of staffing cuts and had added: “If we are not going to resource stories like this, what kind of news coverage are we giving to our readers?”
Oakley commented: “It’s not a question the industry wants to address.”
The policies being followed by major groups in the UK were identical, Oakley said, to those highlighted in Philip Meyer’s book The Vanishing Newspaper.
Meyer describes proprietors in the United States who have embarked on what he terms “the slow liquidation” of their newspapers by charging more and giving readers less. This allows the proprietors to siphon off the maximum profits in the short term but ultimately kills the title – Oakley said. “That is precisely the policy being followed by major regional groups here.”
But, he added, the picture was not entirely gloomy.
If Sir Ray Tindle could continue to build his weekly group and legendary US investor Warren Buffett is buying small town newspapers, then there were profits to be made.
Oakley said almost 100 new titles had been launched in the last five years.
He cited the success of the Filton Voice, launched by Richard Coulter, who left Northcliffe to set up his own monthly news magazine in the Bristol suburb of Filton.
The Filton Voice was profitable from its first issue. Coulter now has sister titles in two other Bristol suburbs and hopes to launch four more titles by the summer.
Oakley encouraged journalists to look for charitable funding to start their own newspapers, citing the independent charity Nesta which recently set aside £1 million to help local launches.
He urged universities to follow the example of the United States, where student run newspapers have been launched to fill the void left by traditional media.
Oakley highlighted Cardiff University which has set up a centre for community journalism to build a network of local news websites and Coventry University which has launched an online newspaper for the centre of its city.
“Why shouldn’t media students produce a monthly newspaper, in print, online or both, as a service to their community while gaining real working experience?
“I can envisage, over time, a profit-sharing model between the university and the students who work on the title. “
Commenting on the aftermath of the Leveson report, he said: “Journalists are there to hold those in authority to account. More often than not to do so, they have to use subterfuge, to pay contacts or to operate at the boundaries of the law.”
He was sceptical of the Government’s proposal for a Royal Charter to guarantee the freedom of the Press, pointing out that Royal Charters could be amended by the Privy Council.
“So Chris Huhne and expenses cheat David Laws would have been the guarantee of our freedom. Does that make you feel comfortable?” he asked.
He condemned plans to make it more difficult for journalists to protect the whistleblowers who are the source of so many powerful investigations, adding: “For all its flaws and excesses, only a free press can even aspire to give readers what they need, what they want and what they ought to know.”
And he concluded by urging students to consider starting their own newspapers.
He said: “It’s important for a free, democratic and open society that our councils and our courts are covered, authority is scrutinised, press offices bypassed, that a voice is given to victims like those of Stafford Hospital. This cannot be left to citizen journalists.”
Chris Oakley is a former editor of the Liverpool Echo who went on to lead a management buyout of Birmingham Post and Mail group for £125m in 1991.