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The Strike to Save Local Journalism

Taj Ali

The strikes against cuts to regional radio and newspapers are about more than just saving jobs – the fight to protect local journalism is a fight to defend democracy.

Local journalists strike against cuts. (Credit: NUJ)

Local journalism is collapsing. Today, there are fewer local newspapers than at any time since the eighteenth century. More than 320 local titles closed between 2009 and 2019—a trend that has only accelerated since the pandemic.  

It’s hard to understate the importance of local journalism; it keeps communities connected, helps keep local councils accountable, and often serves as a starting point for many budding journalists hoping to make it in a fiercely competitive industry. But, amid diminishing ad revenues and declining readerships, cash-starved local newspapers have made swinging cuts to their output. It has meant mass redundancies, while those that remain in the profession face growing precarity and increasing workloads. Reach PLC, the UK’s biggest regional and local newspaper owner, is a case in point. The publisher has already made cuts to hundreds of titles and sites and now seeks to embark on a second round, putting more than 600 jobs at risk. Meanwhile, at the BBC, local radio is under threat as the state broadcaster seeks to merge local stations together, hollowing out an already diminishing aspect of their news coverage. The consequences for journalists couldn’t be bleaker.  

Liz Kennedy worked for the BBC for over 21 years, producing the afternoon show on BBC Shropshire. She left the job at Christmas last year. ‘My mental health couldn’t take it anymore,’ she tells Tribune. ‘Only this morning, I spoke to some of my former colleagues who are really struggling. They are going through the process of applying for their own jobs.’  

She explains that there had been a recruitment freeze at the BBC in her last few years on the job. Very few people were offered staff contracts, and the state broadcaster relied heavily on freelancers. ‘Many people and I worked there for five days a week full-time but on a freelance contract. We were not allowed to apply for any of the jobs and were effectively thrown out in the cold. They say there won’t be any job cuts, but they are getting rid of hundreds of freelance workers who have no rights and have been silenced.’  

Rural counties like Liz’s have always relied on a local radio service. ‘Our county floods every year, and parts are often cut off from the snow in bad weather. Our presenters are local people who know the area.’  

In contrast, she says, those who run big media companies like Bauer, Global, and the BBC disproportionately live in London. ‘They don’t know what it’s like to live in the countryside, where there is a sense of community and belonging. People would call in to chat to us. They felt we were their friends, coming into their homes every day. Listeners even sent in knitted clothes when my little boy was born.’  

Journalism in Crisis

Laura, a journalist based in Luton, always wanted to get into the profession. ‘I did an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism, and then the pandemic hit, so it was difficult to find a job.’ She opted for a Master’s degree in investigative journalism, hoping a further qualification would help her in the pursuit of a job. She’d eventually land a job with Reach PLC as a local reporter at Bedfordshire Live. It started well. Laura had lots of support for the stories she put forward. She enjoyed reporting on local democracy and community events. ‘We were actively encouraged to hold the council to account. They wanted us to go to inquests at court.’   

Investigative journalism, however, was off the table. Unlike larger titles with bigger teams like the Liverpool Echo and Manchester Evening News, Laura simply didn’t have the time or resources to pursue her passion. ‘If you’re a local reporter, it’s really difficult. It’s a 24/7 job. There is no downtime. Even on your days off, you’re getting contacted.’ Journalists like Laura were expected to attend events, even on days off. ‘They’ll say you don’t have to, but if you don’t go, you won’t get the story. We were expected to pitch at least three stories, if not five, a day. It’s really difficult.’  

The pay wasn’t great either. When Laura started, she was earning £20,000 a year as a trainee reporter, going on to earn £22,000 as a senior journalist. ‘It’s a pittance. It’s just not liveable at all, especially in the south-east. Pay was eventually increased so that trainee reporters would earn £22,000 while senior reporters were on £25,000. It’s an improvement, but certainly not enough to stop journalists like Laura from leaving. With advertising revenue declining, things took a turn for the worst. ‘They wanted us to focus on SEO content. Quick hits. Churning out a lot of crap. This wasn’t the sort of journalism I wanted to do. And I wanted to get out.’  

Shortly before Laura handed her notice in, Reach PLC announced a restructuring that would lead to scores of journalists being made redundant. In Laura’s patch, Bedfordshire, there were three journalists—two based in Luton and one based in Bedford. Reach PLC announced they would be replaced by a single journalist covering the entire county of nearly 700,000 people.  

Laura eventually landed a job with the BBC, but it didn’t take long before cuts were being made there too. A merger between the BBC News Channel and BBC World meant presenters were essentially forced to reapply for their jobs. ‘They had to do really humiliating tasks like doing audition tapes again as if it’s their first gig. Some of them have been doing it for decades.’  

A lot of the old-timers thought it was the perfect time to leave. ‘They’re laughing really because they’ve got a five-figure redundancy package and they’re on the good old pension scheme.’ Others, lower down in the media hierarchy, have been less fortunate. Laura ended up leaving the BBC, and, like hundreds of other qualified journalists, she’s on a painstaking hunt for a secure job in the industry. In recent weeks, she’s applied for dozens of jobs, struggling to even land interviews despite years of experience and an array of qualifications under her belt.  

The journalism industry itself is one of the most socially exclusive professions in the UK, with working-class communities significantly underrepresented. Just seven percent of Brits are privately educated, yet, according to a 2019 Sutton Trust report, forty-three percent of the one hundred most influential news editors and broadcasters and forty-four percent of newspaper columnists went to private schools. Such disparities have only gotten worse in recent years. Eighty percent of journalists now come from elite backgrounds, up from seventy-two percent in 2016, according to a recent report from the National Council for the Training of Journalists [NCTJ]. It found that social class was the only factor surveyed where the UK news industry is becoming increasingly unequal over time.  

It’s a problem that is only exacerbated by cuts to local papers. Local journalism is one of the few areas where a sizable proportion of workers come from working-class backgrounds. These journalists are often rooted in their communities and are able to connect with their audiences in a way that many national outlets simply can’t.  

‘It’s so sad what is happening to the BBC and the local commercial stations,’ laments Liz. ‘It will be people from poorer parts of the country like ours who have no chance of getting a job in the media unless they have the money to move to London. Unless you are rich, a job in the media is out of reach. It will make the industry less diverse, as we lose out on talent outside the big cities.’  

The Fightback

Journalists are not going down without a fight. The BBC’s new digital-first strategy, for instance, is a key battle in the fight to defend local journalism. On budget day, over a thousand BBC journalists, members of the National Union of Journalists [NUJ], joined more than half a million other workers on strike. These journalists weren’t demanding a pay rise; they were merely seeking the protection of their jobs and their industry. It was the second major journalists’ strike in the UK in less than a year, after 1,150 Reach journalists across the UK and Ireland walked out in August last year over pay.  

Under the BBC’s controversial proposals, local radio stations would share programmes across the network, going from more than one hundred hours of local programming on every radio station every week down to just forty. The NUJ says such a move will kill off local radio, which has 5.7 million loyal listeners.  

Journalists are set to take further industrial action, with a 48-hour strike scheduled for Wednesday 7 June and Thursday 8 June. The proposals constitute the biggest threat to local radio since it launched in 1967, and journalists will not go down without a fight.  

The disappearance of local news, the eyes and ears of their readers, has ripped a hole in the heart of our communities. Whether it’s making the media industry more inclusive, holding authorities accountable, keeping communities connected, or making our society more democratic, this fight matters for all of us.