Since 2005, the UK has seen a net loss of 245 local news titles. The ‘managed decline’ of local news publications, including corporate bodies specialising in local news, means that in many areas of the UK there are no local news publications holding power to account or providing a platform for their communities to have their voices heard.
In an ideal world, the role of local journalists would be to cast an objective eye on the actions of local government and community groups, weaving a narrative about a local area and the ways in which the decisions of the council can affect the families and individuals residing there. With engagement in local politics low, particularly among the young, local journalism has the space to play an active role in democracy.
Voter turnout has in fact been directly linked to local newspaper circulation: a report carried out by Plum Consulting for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport found that local newspaper closures ‘led to under reporting and less scrutiny of democratic functions, such as local court reporting and local authorities’ decisions’ and warned that ‘the absence of journalism [is] potentially catastrophic’ for communities.
The absence of active local news and conversations around local politics reinforces the idea that all decision-making is concentrated in Westminster, and that the decisions of our local MPs or councils have no impact whatsoever on our daily lives. As more councils spearhead their own municipal politics beyond the dictates of central government, it’s increasingly clear that this is not the case – but without local news, it’s hard to make that known.
The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme, set up by the BBC in 2017, has sought to fill this gaping hole. Reporters hosted by local newspapers and funded by the BBC write on council activities which can then be used by any local publications signed on. It’s a successful way to hold local authorities to account, but doesn’t solve local publications’ falling print circulation and the subsequent local news void in many parts of the country.
Reach, Newsquest, Johnston Press, Tindle, and Archant, who together own more than 75 percent of all local newspapers in the UK, have become increasingly stretched as the years have gone on, losing revenue from print advertising as readers turn to digital. The consequence is that some online local news publications devote their online coverage to national issues and click bait rather than stories of significance to their specific communities.
To maintain profit margins, newspapers cut costs: titles are merged, staff are laid off, and one title can end up covering vast areas of the country with little to no connection to one another. When titles have had to cut back on staff, they are sometimes unable to fund reporters living inside the communities on which they report. Metropolitan areas also receive more coverage than rural ones, entrenching divisions along city/country lines and the alienation that comes with it.
One solution is the development of local news models that represent the communities they serve. Social Spider, the social enterprise at which I work, has recently set up our fifth free independent local news publication, Barnet Post, which aims to involve the community in everything from editorial to our membership model to ethical advertising with local businesses.
Specific examples demonstrate the centrality of this kind of local news to community wellbeing. Although a fledgling publication, Barnet Post has received communications from MPs eager to help amplify the voices of residents in Barnet and Brent affected by cladding issues. Without robust local newspapers it’s much easier for these issues, raised by local action groups, to go ignored.
Hyperlocal Journalism in 2019 and the Guardian in 2017 both questioned whether the Grenfell Tower fire, which caused 72 deaths in 2017, could possibly have been prevented had there been a robust local newspaper in Kensington and Chelsea shining a light on the cladding issues. The action group who first raised concerns about the cladding were ignored: having a dedicated media in place to represent them could only have strengthened their voice.
Crucially, local news is not about covering the light stories people sometimes associate with it. At Tottenham Community Press I took part in an investigation into the area’s High Road West Development, making the point that foreign investment and Spurs’ property ownership was failing to increase opportunities for those who had been living in the community for the longest. The article drew attention to the human cost of ‘regeneration’ in Tottenham, where temporary residents living for decades without a stable home have now, in large part, lost collective trust in the council.
Investigations like this can and should be a vital part of local news, but with publications stretched for resources—including for legal funds—they come few and far between. The unique nature of journalism means that this is not something that can be funded by the local government it seeks to hold to account; many will feel it should not be funded by profit-driven corporate interests like our national media, either. Rebuilding a meaningful and well-resourced local news network is something communities have to see enough value in to be able to fund themselves in combination with a sustainable, locally-centred advertising model.
Funding from Trust for London and training from the Centre for Investigative Journalism made that particular investigation in Tottenham possible, but donations only go so far. In that, local news is a marker of the kind of communities we need to rebuild: publications with power require those with the most to support those with the least, since the latter are disproportionately affected by decisions made by local government but rarely given the opportunity to speak out. Initiating this change in our local news could spark a revolution in national publishing, too, encouraging diversification in the writers who are employed and the stories that get told.
By giving everyone the opportunity to write for our community newspaper, we disrupt the current balance of power which makes journalists the gatekeepers to the platforms that can spark change in society. That allows marginalised groups to share an authentic voice, rather than being caged as the subject of a narrative told by somebody else. For example, we took contributions from those working with the elderly during lockdown; the campaign group Voice of the Domestic Worker also played a central role in the production of a Barnet Post article about how migrant domestic workers in the borough are isolated from the rest of the local community. By giving these stories space to be told on a local level, we empower people to make changes that directly affect their day-to-day lives.