The Government must introduce subsidies and tax advantages for local newspapers if they are to survive, MPs were told at a Westminster debate on the future of the industry.
Louise Mensch the Conservative MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire and member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said: "The threat to our local democracy is severe. It is often only the local press that will hold a member of Parliament or a local council to account, because only the local press and only local people really care."
She said that more than 33 million people a month read their local paper; that is more than 70 per cent of the UK's adult population.
She attacked plans for local TV stations because they will compete against newspapers and because they would be part-funded by the BBC licence. She called on the government to hold a review into the state of industry and explore whether direct or indirect subsidies to local newspapers should be set up.
Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, communications and the creative industries, said: "I think one of the things we should recognise is that local papers take their responsibilities very seriously. There is passionate support in this house and among local communities for the local press. I will happily organise a series of meetings with heads of regional media organisations if honourable members will find it helpful."
The debate was prompted by Johnston Press turning five of its daily newspapers into weeklies in a major overhaul by Ashley Highfield, the newspaper group's new chief executive. The revamp will include all of its 170 paid-for titles. The company said the changes would bring in "seven days per week publishing online and a new iPad app with news updates around the clock and comprehensive online sport and events coverage".
Ms Mensch said: "Residents of my constituency in Corby were unbelieveably insulted to be told that the Corby Evening Telegraph will be replaced by an iPad app which excludes people on low incomes and elderly people who are not familiar with the internet."
On the same day, Johnston Press published its financial results for 2011, revealing a pre-tax loss of £143.8 million and a new three-year loan. Ashley Highfield also said he expects the provision of editorial content to be split fifty-fifty between journalists and “community contributors” by 2020. At present just 10 per cent of Johnston Press editorial content is created by readers.
The NUJ has warned MPs about the threat to local journalism. Two recent surveys of union reps working for titles owned by Trinity Mirror and Newsquest found that cuts to newspaper budgets and mass redundancies have reached crisis level. The dossiers painted a picture of poorly paid journalists covering for redundant posts, spending most of their time uploading websites rather than finding and writing up stories. Photographers are becoming a dying breed, with papers relying on readers’ pictures. Papers are thinner and editions fewer. Journalists can no longer follow council meetings, court cases and admit to “increasingly going for the easy stories”.
Speaking before the debate, Austin Mitchell, MP for Great Grimsby and a member of the NUJ Parliamentary Group, said: “Year upon year of cuts and redundancies in local papers has led to the life-blood being sucked from them. Creative and investigative journalism is seriously under threat because journalists no longer have the time or resources. Reporters having bigger and bigger patches to cover lose the vital connection with the community they serve. Local papers cannot fulfil their vital role as a public watchdog, holding local politicians and businesses to account. The special relationship between the reader and their local reporter is being broken. Local newspapers are vital for local democracy. When people feel they have lost touch with their local paper, they feel a lost a sense of community, a vulnerability and a powerlessness.”
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: Our local newspapers are a community asset that should be cherished. The cuts mean that court cases are not being covered, council meetings are not reported and reporters have no time to dig and delve for stories. This is not the service that readers deserve. All this means that community and grassroots news has suffered. An industry levy – a tax or charge on the revenues or profits of media organisations – common in many European countries is one option to provide subsidies elsewhere in the industry. A levy of one per cent on pay TV operators, such as Sky and Virgin Media, could bring in around £70 million a year.”
Linda Riordan MP for Halifax has put down an EDM on Johnston Press. The Halifax Courier is to switch from daily to weekly.
“That this House notes with sadness the decision by Johnston Press to move many long-established local newspapers from a daily publication to a weekly publication; condemns this unnecessary move and the implications it will have for the jobs of many journalists, printers, newspaper sellers and newspaper deliveries; praises the role local daily newspapers like the Halifax Courier and other titles in towns like Kettering, Northampton, Peterborough and Scarborough play in local democracy and in reporting the news on a daily basis; further notes the knock-on effect this will have on the local economies of the towns affected; urges Johnston Press to protect existing jobs at the newspaper titles affected and ensure that there are no compulsory job losses; further urges them to consult fully with the National Union of Journalists about their proposals; and hopes that local newspapers will continue to play an important role in the life of local communities for many years to come.”