Without regional press journalism will lose its foundation

Regional press journalists aren’t just essential to ensure that local democracy works – they are the foundation of our national journalism network.

In fact they are a big part of enabling us to know anything about day-to-day national life at all.

That’s why the Newspaper Society and the Society of Editors’ plea for Government action to help local papers matters so much, as does the NUJ’s lobby of MPs at Westminster today.

At least 1,000 editorial jobs have been lost from UK local newspapers since the summer. The last time the Newspaper Society counted up the number of local newspaper journalists, several years ago, there were around 12,000 of them.

That total could well now be below 10,000.

They are the foot-soldiers of our industry and the source of much of the news every other journalist covers.

In terms of local coverage, no other sector does anything like as much work to tell us what is going on.

Local paper reporters attend the meetings, answer the phones and knock on the doors to break the stories which are followed-up by local radio and TV, and flogged on by the news agencies to the national press.

Without them, these stories just won’t get told.

In a big town like, say, Swindon where I used to work, the local daily and weekly papers might employ 20 journalists as opposed to maybe one TV reporter, a couple of radio reporters and one or two agency hacks.

Every local paper journalist who loses their job means there will be more council meetings subject to no media scrutiny, more scandals and cock-ups from big business and local authorities which are not exposed and countless stories covering the gamut of everyday life in the UK which are never told because there was no-one there to look for them.

In addition to the big headline-grabbing cutbacks at the bigger news centres – countless piecemeal job cuts are being made at Britain’s 1,300-odd local weeklies, each one of which is a little tragedy.

A friend from the regional press recently told me about the cutbacks at his newspaper office.

All the subs have gone, as has the long-serving editor who, asked to re-apply for a group managing editor role, missed out in favour of the managing director.

A handful of reporters are left, filing stories into the ether to be laid out at a remote subbing production plant more than 50 miles away to be stretched over four newspaper titles.

It’s difficult to understand why the big local press publishers feel it necessary to make such drastic cutbacks across the board, when we have yet to see one report an actual loss. Profits are down, but not out, and they could yet return.

Presumably, titles have slipped into the red in recent months and that has yet to be reflected in reported profits.

But even so, to say: “We’ve had a century of enormous profits, but lost money for the last few months, so let’s sack everyone”, seems particularly cut-throat.

Government action is urgently needed to save the regional press, but in return the publishers need to look again at a business model which has always been about extracting the maximum possible profit return from the minimum editorial expenditure.

If the regional press is to have a future publishers need to abandon the impossible quest for perputual profit margins of 30 per cent plus, in favour of a more sustainable business model which delivers sensible profit margins built on the back of solid editorial investment.

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