Memorandum from the Society of Editors

 

The Society of Editors would like to submit our response to the above inquiry.

 

The society has more than 400 members in national, regional and local newspapers, magazines, broadcasting and digital media, media law and journalism education. Simply as a result of the number of titles about 60 per cent of our members are involved in regional media.

 

Our key concern at a time when regional news media in particular is suffering from the double effect of major structural change and the economic climate, is that local and regional newspapers are being especially affected because of the importance of classified advertising. The property market and related industries are particularly disrupted by the credit crunch, as well as motoring and recruitment markets that also have a major place in budgets.

 

Share values in regional media have been talked down dramatically and titles have been lost. Along with changes in regional television this means that this issue is not simply a matter of concern for media businesses. It has serious consequences for the public's right to know and to their right to freedom of expression.

 

We have had several meetings with the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport and I am attaching copies of various letters to him on the specific issue of the regional press.

 

Our main overall concern is that there should be a level playing field for all media companies. That means they should be freed from unecesary and outdated regulation regarding ownership and account should be taken of the position of publicly funded media in the market place and the effect of internet aggregators. The growth of publicly funded local council media activities that cannot possibly be considered independent is a special and serous worry.

 

Digital convergence has a great impact on regional and local newspapers, because they play a major part in training journalists for the whole of the media industry. Journalism training is itself becoming converged to meet the needs of the media in the digital age. In the depths of recession it is vital to maintain investment in training but it is of course costly. Subsidies for trainee journalists could make a crucial difference to the maintenance of local coverage and could help publishers retain editions that are unlikely to be recreated once they are lost (please see letter dated 13th January).

 

The closure of newspapers has serious consequences for the public's right to know and to their right to freedom of expression. This is not simply a matter of concern for media businesses. If you refer to our letter dated 13th January, you will see that Trinity Mirror has already ceased publication of more than 40 titles. In effect this means communities have lost a conduit for news and a voice.

 

On the issue of funding journalism, the Culture Secretary had suggested to us that direct public subsidy would neither be welcome nor appropriate because of the dangers it could bring and unacceptable regulation that would follow (please see letter dated 13th January). That does not mean that new ideas about extending the financing of public service journalism should be dismissed. For example, local and national government could be encouraged to advertise jobs and services in local papers and their websites. This would be cost effective and recognise that supporting local media is very much in the public interest (please refer to the urgent action points set out in our letter dated 23rd March).

 

The impact of local authority publications has been discussed at length recently and we must state that although regional and local newspapers are not afraid of competition, there are some instances where they simply cannot compete. For example, local authorities produce newspapers for free distribution that purport to be independent. In some cases they carry advertising in competition with local papers. Please see our letter dated 13th January for more detail on this. In addition to this, if you refer to our letter dated 4th February, you will note a case where a local council used public money to offer a free advertising service in Nottingham that would clearly undermine local newspapers. On another note (please see letter dated 23rd March), the Government could issue guidance to discourage local government publications and websites that compete directly with and undermine local papers. More detailed evidence will no doubt be provided elsewhere.

 

Finally, we believe that if some newspapers are to survive, legal controls over newspaper transfers and mergers should be reviewed and relaxed. The whole of the media is becoming increasingly converged. Organisations cannot compete fairly if they are constrained by outdated regulation. Please refer to the letter dated 13th January, which provides more detail on our thoughts on this.

 

The correspondence and talks with the Secretary of State largely focused on regional and local newspapers. We are happy to support ideas that could lead to greater cooperation between former print-only and former broadcast-only organisations to sustain local and regional news. There is now no such thing as a newspaper company or a broadcasting company. All now have to find ways of serving their communities on a variety of platforms.

 

While broadcasters tend to be able to lead on technology, newspapers have more reporters on the ground and are therefore natural suppliers of content. That is where there is huge scope for commercial partnerships where there would be mutual benefits so long as the market is not distorted.

 

I hope this helps the committee's inquiry. The society would of course be pleased to help further in any way appropriate.

 

May 2009