Can Theresa May save local papers?

By Jack McCormick

13th February 2018

It’s no secret that local newspapers have been dying a slow and painful death for many years. Print circulations are down every year across the board and it feels like most publishers are just keeping them afloat for as long as possible, in the faint hope that someone will come along with a silver bullet before the inevitable happens.

Digital initiatives have attempted to claw back revenue but, despite promising visitor numbers, most are struggling to convert this into significant enough revenue to stem the severe losses from print.

Earlier this week, then, local papers were offered a much-needed boost by Theresa May. The Prime Minister announced a review of funding models for printed press at national, regional and local level—saying newspaper closures are a ‘danger to our democracy’.

And she’s right. In an era where politicians are quick to label high-quality journalism as ‘fake news’ if it doesn’t suit their agenda – and where scores of people struggle to separate true from false – we have never needed journalists more.

They’re often criticised for their ruthless nature and unquenchable thirst for the truth. It’s inconvenient for some businesses, but it’s an attitude that rightly means they hold governments and other public bodies to account. And, at a local level – usually out of the national spotlight – that’s arguably even more important.

Without the local paper, who’s holding county and district councils to account? Who’s shining a critical light on emergency services and schools? Who’s providing a platform for local people to publicly voice serious concerns—and ensuring official bodies take note?

In my short time as a news reporter at the Northamptonshire Telegraph, I helped locals campaign on everything from potholes to prank 999 calls and people consistently letting their dogs poo on pavements frequented by children. I rode in a tank with protestors whose favourite, council-owned drinking hole was being shut down.

With the best will in the world, national newspapers have neither the resource nor the reader demand to cover this sort of thing. But such issues seriously impact the people living in that area.

It remains to be seen what May’s review will do for the industry. She described a ‘hollowing-out of local newsrooms’ and called journalism ‘a huge force for good’, but – worryingly – the BBC has said her review will determine whether solutions ‘should be left up to the industry’.

Clearly, years of leaving newspapers to fight for themselves – amid pressure from digital platforms like Facebook and Google – hasn’t worked. Local papers have needed outside intervention for years—here’s hoping it’s not too late to save them.