Curiously tucked away in ‘News in Brief’ on page 5 of The Berwick Advertiser is the breaking news that our local press is proposing to move to modern offices within the town.
Editor Phil Johnson is clearly excited – and come on, who doesn’t love a new mouse mat? – but tempered his glee at the thought of an office sundry upgrade with an earnest “…there will be no detrimental effect for readers, advertisers or customers wanting to place announcements in our papers.” Just in case anyone had anxieties about their “Wey-hey! Jock is 18! Look, here’s his willy as a baby!” coupon going astray amid the untrammelled chaos caused by cancelling the milk and last-minute hoovering.
Phil, suddenly remembering his priorities, then went on to say: “And there are also exciting plans to invest in an updating of the newspaper and website later this year, to reflect the ever-changing multi-media landscape we are in.” But ended things there because he had run out of room on his hand.
Content to one side for a minute, where was the fanfare, the personality, the face of our local newspaper? Where was the pride in sharing these latest developments with us, the readership? Simply the way that this report was handled makes us despair for the future of regional press.
Contributor Pippa Johnson has this to say in an open letter to editors of local publications everywhere:
A Letter to An Editor
I am a regular taker of your esteemed organ and so I thought you may be interested in my views on its recent shrinkage. I refer to your circulation, of course, which is by anyone’s admission frighteningly small. Can it ever recover?
It’s my sad prediction that local newspapers cannot survive in their present form and I’m afraid to say that they have printed – and probably misspelled – their own death warrant. Let me take you through my reasoning:
There may be a case for suing the local newspaper under some category of the Trade Description Act. You’re supposed to be ‘a local newspaper’.
You are undoubtedly local – oh, so very, very local – and you are made of paper. But in this case, two out of three is not going to make people buy the product.
Where, sir, is the news?
Local newspapers seem to live in terror of the establishment. They refuse to rattle the cages of anyone who might get a little miffed or anyone who regularly provides them with dull, self-serving copy about themselves or their company/school/church/landfill site.
And thereby you miss the entire point of a newspaper – offering the reader something they don’t already know.
Why should I buy a local paper to read an unedited version of a press release sent out by the council or some weasel-staffed PR company? What happened to the principle of the fourth estate? Your job is to challenge the establishment, not help it do its marketing. Give people something worth reading and they might start buying the paper.
The woeful content of most local papers, including yours, is getting worse. And why is that? Because cutting your reporting staff down to an unworkable minimum and piling on extra duties that would once have been done by more specialised staff will, of course, mean that no one has to the time to do any ‘proper’ reporting – certainly not the kind that takes time and research, and that may not guarantee immediate results. Hence your paper is full of cheque presentations and charity stunts and regurgitated press releases, all churned out by your one or two over-worked reporters, Phil Space and Phillipa Page (with apologies to Private Eye).
And there’s a case in point – the satirical news magazine is recording its highest circulation for 25 years, selling almost 230,000 copies a fortnight. Why? Because it tells you the interesting stuff that everyone else is afraid to print. Back to the principle of the fourth estate.
Now, let’s look at the editorial’s evil twin – the advertising. Two things here. Firstly, taking out an ad in your paper is eye-wateringly expensive compared to many other forms of media and given the very tiny reach you can boast. No wonder advertisers would rather look elsewhere.
But secondly, and somewhat sinisterly, you allow the advertising department to dictate the stories you run. This isn’t confined to shying away from stories that might upset your regular advertisers. Be honest – ever refused to print a decent story because the person involved wouldn’t take out an advert? Yes, sir, you have. You know you have. And that is tantamount to blackmail. Press standards, Lord Leveson?
It used to be, of course, that readers didn’t have much choice, so selling local papers was like shooting fish in a bucket. But now there is choice and even more choice. The internet has scuppered the hold that local (and national) papers have on information. The papers themselves are reluctantly getting on board with the idea of online – according to the Newspaper Society, the UK press now has 1,600 local news websites, as opposed to 1,100 local daily or weekly titles – but these sites are often just a poor reproduction of the printed product.
Many bloggers do a darn sight better job of finding stuff that people really want to read and they often write with a bit more attitude.
The cost of setting up a local news microsite is negligible compared to the unwieldy and non-environmental process of producing a print run.
And look at the quality of the product. Compare the muddy, blurry photos in a local paper compared to the sharper images on a website; see how quickly people online can comment and get involved and how easily they can share stories with others who may be interested. What else can you do with a local paper once it has been skimmed and grumbled over? Line the cat tray.
Coincidentally, as I write someone has tweeted me an article in which the former Washington Post reporter Malcolm Gladwell warns students at Yale to avoid working in newspapers, saying they are ‘dreary, depressed places.’ Better, he says, to work online – even unpaid – when starting a journalism career. There’s evidence in the States that people are even prepared to subscribe to maintain good investigative journalism sites. What does this tell you about what readers really want?
You could do something about it, of course. Start simply – don’t use a press release unless you’ve checked and challenged its contents, and leave the fundraising stunts to the church newsletters. It’s not hard. Look at the printed news publications that are thriving even in this time of cutbacks and crisis. It’s the good journalism, like Private Eye, The Economist, Newsweek and Time (yes, in the UK). You could take on more reporters rather than managers and bean-counters; you could let them spend time uncovering original stories, and that way give readers a paper based on good quality investigative writing. Or ‘news’ as it’s sometimes called.
The thing is, dear editors and managers of local papers, I’m not angry with you, I’m disappointed. Because I love newspapers so much, and I love their potential for changing the status quo and righting wrongs. The world will be a poorer place when they all disappear. And your penny-pinching, low standards, lack of courage and stultified imagination will be to blame.
Red faces all round – or there should be.
Time will tell whether a move to different premises will spur The Tweeddale Press into putting up a fight for its survival. It’s one thing having zippy new technologies to play with, but quite another if there’s nobody with an instinct for news to get the most out of them.
And that, sadly, isn’t always something you can learn.
What do you think, is Pippa right in her assessment? Is there a future for local papers?
Either leave a comment below or email us your opinion to Not BAd HQ: firstname.lastname@example.org.