Future for local and regional media - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by The Chartered Institute of Journalists

  The Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ) is the world's oldest professional association of journalists and operates under a Charter granted in 1890 by HM Queen Victoria. This charter compels us to look after the good interests of all aspects of journalism—and we include in this responsibility the interests of readers ... something that has been absent from this current debate on the crisis affecting newspapers.

  We represent staff and freelance journalists across all sectors of the media including local and national newspapers, periodicals, broadcasting and electronic publishing.

  The CIoJ is not against digital forms of news presentation but we do believe it is an additional form of delivery rather than being instead of traditional print formats. The Internet has become a bandwagon onto which people have climbed with little care or regard to its immense drawbacks and are seeking to impose on the public a form of news delivery that is not necessarily more efficient and more convenient to the customers—in other words, the readers—than the traditional, everything-in-one-place newspaper or magazine.

  We ask the Committee members to use their own personal experiences of searching for items on the Internet compared to the ease of the format of their own local newspaper! How many sites would you have to visit to glean the same amount of detailed information that you find in your local press? This is just one aspect of our concern for readers.

  We hope that our point-by-point observations on your request for views on the future for local and regional media will explain many of our concerns and we do request that we are invited to participate in any hearing that the Select Committee may decide to hold in order to answer any points its members may care to raise.

1.   The impact on local media of recent and future developments in digital convergence, media technology and changing consumer behaviour

  The Chartered Institute acknowledges that the advent of the Internet has had an impact on local and regional media, particularly with the migration of advertising from hard print to web-based formats. However, the transition is still in a state of flux and long-term predictions can not necessarily be drawn right now. It may be that in time what advertisers will want is a combined print/web package linked to a trusted brand, which local newspapers will be able to offer.

  Advertising in traditional local and regional newspapers is largely aimed at local readers and is largely irrelevant to world-wide readers of newspaper websites. Also, the quality of web readership is questionable—looking at reader responses to stories on websites, one is struck by the quantity of "graffiti" posted by people whom advertisers would not wish to entertain!

  The question of availability is of utmost importance. Traditional newspapers are easy, "purchaseable" items, costing a few pence; Access to the Internet is expensive—and beyond the means of a large part of the British population.

  There appears to be a paucity of research on the reach of the Internet and we believe that large sections of the British public just do not have ready access. Ofcom published some figures which showed that 72% of over-65s do not have a computer—and of the 28% who do, 95% of them do not use a computer as a prime source of news, preferring newspapers, radio and television as the means for obtaining day-to-day information. (Interestingly, research just published by the American-based Scarborough Research Group, shows that only 4% of the American public use news sites as their sole source of news—a remarkably similar figure to Ofcom's 95% observation.) The Office of National Statistics 2007 survey found that 39% of low income families did not have computer or Internet facilities.

  We believe that for as much as 40% of the British public, Internet news is a non-event. This would be a staggering proportion of excluded people if newspapers were allowed to fall by the wayside. The many hundreds of pounds required to set up an installation is a luxury people on the limitations of pension income or state benefits can ill afford. Until such time as these commodities become much cheaper—or the Government provides huge subsidies in one form or another—these people will remain "the forgotten many".

  We invite the Committee to encourage a Government-sponsored detailed survey into computer ownership and the uses people put them to, to establish a base line from which to consider other aspects of news development on the Internet.

2.   The impact of newspaper closures on independent local journalism and access to local information

  The present crisis in British regional and local newspapers has not necessarily been brought on by the advent of the Internet. The recent wave of redundancies among journalists has been centred on the larger groups. Still-independently owned local newspapers have been conspicuous by their lack of job cuts.

  We believe that some newspaper groups' managements have been wooed too much by views—not facts—of the future of news delivery and in doing so have lost sight of their main purpose in life, which is to produce newspapers that are valued by their readers.

  In a question: Have readers deserted newspapers, or have newspapers deserted their readers by introducing ill-thought-out changes, reductions in some vital areas of coverage and staff economies that are giving readers a less value for money impression? When people say "I have stopped buying the such-and-such paper because there's nothing in it," they probably mean there is no longer anything in it that is of interest to them.

  One reason, we believe, is that managements are demanding of journalists more than can be reasonably expected. While the term "journalism" covers all aspects of news delivery, there are very important differences in the disciplines involved in newspaper, radio and television news production. To demand, as some managements are doing, that one reporter provides print, audio and video reports of one story is expecting too much if each presentation is to be done competently and professionally. The result is that the reader, listener or viewer is getting a poorer quality version. The old adage of "each to his own trade" applies equally well to professional news presentation.

  The CIoJ is very concerned by the recent arrival of the Local Media Alliance formed by the Big Seven publishing groups to campaign for a relaxation of the media merger regime. These groups have found themselves in serious financial difficulties because of the conduct of their businesses in recent years.

  During the good economic times we have been through, they have been on spending sprees building up huge stables of titles on borrowed money. Now that the economy has turned sour, they are finding it difficult to fund their repayments—even though they remain very profitable. Johnston Press, for instance, recently reported trading profits of about £128million but debts of £484million.

  These groups have responded by cutting costs to the bone and wielding an axe on staff numbers that has seen more than 1,000 journalists made redundant in the last year, cutting circulation areas, closing or amalgamating titles, reducing or eliminating editions, closing offices and centralising production facilities. This is bound to have an effect on news content, alienate readers' perceptions of value for money and lead to diminishing returns.

  We are greatly concerned that the ideas of the Local Media Alliance have not been published to enable a wider public examination of them. We note that the Alliance reportedly sent a 108-page submission to the Office of Fair Trading's examination of the calls for relaxing the merger regime, with the request that it remain secret because it contained commercial confidentialities.

  We hope that a British law will not be changed on the basis of a secret document being considered behind closed doors. We urge the Select Committee to open up that particular situation to public scrutiny.

  The only published information (to date) on the plans of the Alliance have come in a short Channel 4 News interview with Roger Parry, its chairman, (a verbatim transcript of that interview is appended)[1] and a short story in the Financial Times. Quoting from Mr Parry's remarks to Channel 4 when asked to forecast the future shape of news, he replied: "I think that the core idea of local journalists understanding local people and local communities will sustain exactly as it does today. The differences will be they are going to be working towards a 24-7 website with a lot of audio on it, a lot of video on it, and that website will be used to produce a weekly publication which will be a more cost effective way of serving that local community."

  That is a frightening proposition. It is a declaration of withdrawal from its traditional products, the creation of increased competition with local radio and television stations (which are also under their own particular pressures) and the abolition of local morning and evening newspapers and their replacement by weekly editions compiled from the contents of those websites.

  Talk about treating readers with scant regard! What about the large proportion of British society that does not have access to their websites? Are they to be jettisoned?

3.   How to fund quality local journalism

  We are generally against any form of subsidy or grant from public funds to help regional and local press in this time of crisis because we believe such money would be used, by and large, to alleviate the debts built up by these groups and will not serve the interests of journalists or their readers.

  What we do suggest is that consideration is given to a specially created Government loan fund from which newspapers could borrow, at suitable 'soft' interest rates, to cover up to 50% of their editorial costs (mainly journalists' salaries and the expense of news gathering) with repayments to be made over time once the nation's annualised GDP returns to a pre-determined level. This would enable newspapers, and possibly local radio and television, survive the present crisis without the need to cut back on news coverage to the detriment of the most important people in our industry—the readers.

4.   The appropriateness and effectiveness of print and electronic publishing initiatives undertaken directly by public sector bodies at the local level

  While the Chartered Institute recognises the advantages of local authority and other public bodies' websites as a means of publishing corporate information, our "availability" reservations also apply—if 40% of the population is excluded by economic factors then these organisations face a critical communications gap which is best filled by use of local print/broadcast media.

  The role in a newspaper in the conduct of a democracy cannot be under-estimated. Local newspapers are a vital link in local democracy with their ability to examine and question local authority decision making. It is also a means of conveying information to the public. You only have to ask yourselves, as Members of Parliament, the value you gain from your local publications as a link with your constituents and think how much more difficult it will be for you to keep in touch with your electorate without those columns to report your activities. It presents you with a nightmare situation—particularly at election times!

  We deprecate the growth of local council newspapers. These are publicity vehicles promoting the corporate interests of the authority with no room for a critical examination of those interests in the way that local newspapers do so well. This is not serving the cause of democracy.

  We believe that local authorities and organisations functioning from the public purse should be mandated to advertise in local media any proposal involving the spending of taxation funds and particularly so when contracts and jobs are involved.

5.   The role and effects of search engines and online content aggregators on local media

  No comment.

6.   The future of local radio and television news

  The CIoJ suggested to the Ofcom inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting that the possibility of local newspapers providing news services to regional television and local radio output has, to some extent, been taken up but we question the financial ability of local newspaper companies to undertake to run their own stations. (Recently, the Manchester Evening News announced the redundancy of 41 of the 100 staff involved in the production of its Channel M internet service—most newspapers could not sustain those staffing levels). The core skills for journalists in print, radio and television are different and expecting all journalists to supply individual versions of news stories for each media and maintain professional quality is unrealistic. Remember the adage: Horses for courses!

  The developing situations with regional television cutting back on its local coverage, and the development of regional news hubs among chains of local radio stations are denying the public of worthwhile local news services.

7.   The desirability of changes to the regulatory framework for print and electronic local media, including cross-media ownership and merger regulations

  The Chartered Institute would like to see firm proposals before adopting a definite position but any change to media ownership regulations should provide a means for guaranteeing the survival of titles and not introduce cosy arrangements whereby groups could swap ownership of newspapers to enable titles to be absorbed and plurality reduced.

  We have suggested that any future merger application should demand written guarantees of intentions to maintain editorial coverage in titles and that any change to those written undertakings should only be permitted after an inquiry by a competent government-appointed authority.

8.   The opportunities and implications of BBC partnerships with local media

  We prefer to wait until fuller details of the BBC offer emerge. Generally speaking, BBC local radio content is similar to existing news coverage by printed titles. We would not necessarily oppose such partnerships which may add more content to local media websites. However, the necessity for plurality still applies.

9.   The extent of plurality required in local media markets

  Plurality obviously introduces competitive aspects—good for advertisers and good for journalists. Journalists always work better in the knowledge that their output is being compared to that of rival publications. It should be maintained and encouraged.

10.   Incentives for investment in local content

  Financial investment from local interests should be encouraged for the input of both local knowledge and interest from the investors but the mega-groupings of the last decade has negated its importance. If any of these major groups should fail, the sale of their local title assets to local investors should be encouraged. As far as input from local interest groups is concerned, well-run local newspapers do "listen to their readers" and accommodate their concerns etc within their columns.

11.   Opportunities for "ultra-local" media services

  The Chartered Institute has no objection to Internet-based ultra-local media services and believes that experiments in their production and promotion will determine their future. Good services will attract an audience, bad ones won't! A lot depends on the quality of local initiatives.

May 2009

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