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Community value journalism?

30 March 2017

Rachel Matthews

Editorial workers in local newspapers put up with a lot; sometimes meagre salaries, long working hours and an attitude from some who dismiss their titles as 'rags'. What tends to keep them going is the fact that they believe they are doing some good.

Inculcated in reporters via tradition and training is the idea that local newspapers benefit their readers; this localised version of the fourth estate positions titles as 'watchdogs', which scrutinise and campaign on behalf of those who would otherwise be voiceless. More than this, the presence of the local newspaper is a kind of glue which holds communities together with its provision of information and news of 'hatches, matches and despatches'.

But this relationship between local newspaper and community is more complicated than might at first appear. While workers may be motivated by a form of public service, titles are profit-making businesses, geared around maximising yields from advertisers and increasingly it appears that these two principles are in conflict.

The vast majority of local and regional titles in the UK are in the hands of huge corporatised businesses, which are set up to benefit shareholders.

In times of plenty this structure has still enabled workers to work in way which supports the good of the community, with enough people to cover the routine of courts, councils and parish pump events. However, research suggests that the current landscape of relative scarcity is having a real impact on their ability to meet this value – because they no longer have the resources to do so.

My interviews with a range of newspapers workers at local and daily titles leave no room for doubt as to the significance of community value to their raison d’etre. One reporter summed it up succinctly:

"Our newspaper is here to serve the community; I very much believe that. We give people a voice." 

The deputy editor of weekly title described how this service extends to the minutia of daily life: 

"We’re totally embedded in the psyche of here. The tiniest to the biggest thing they expect to see in the paper. It’s easy to forget those things are still as important to people. We do all of those, golden weddings, five generations of the same family. We do all that." 

But these same interviews also demonstrate how journalists who have suffered years of cuts within those corporate-owned titles are finding it increasingly hard to serve their communities. The closure of town-centre offices and the reduction in staff in the industry is well-documented. It’s impact on the work routines of staff is less so. One district reporter described how she was based 20 miles from her 'patch'.

"It’s harder not being based there. We get out as often as we can, but if you’ve got to do a round trip then it’s a couple of hours in the car."

The editor of a daily title was acutely aware of the restrictions his operation faced:

"We don’t do as much local government as we used to, we don’t do as much of anything as we used to. We do everything we can flat out the best we can." 

A sub-editor at the same title described how going out on a job was seen as a "faintly odd thing to do".

Those journalists interviewed who felt best equipped to serve their communities were those at an independent family-owned newspaper. While workloads had increased because of the introduction of digital formats alongside the printed product, staffing levels at this title had remained relatively stable for 30 years.

Strikingly at the time of this research this title still employed four photographers because of a belief that they were a visible presence of the newspaper in the community. In this title, maintaining a locally-based workforce was itself seen as contributing to the community, which in turn contributed to the business. 

"It’s a bit of a win-win situation" said the chief executive. "The more we invest in the community, the healthier it might become."

Those journalists who are less fortunate are having to modify their commitment to their community in the face of the practical strictures they face. It is this process which really begins to call into question the continued ability of titles to lay claim to serving the good of their communities.

At one corporate daily title included in my study, the community was increasingly defined as those people who made a contribution to the paper.

"Editorial was a fortress and they made their own decisions and it didn’t matter what the advertising situation was as it was entirely separated. I don’t think that’s the case anymore," said the head of content. "If I know that somebody is a good advertiser then I will happily give them the biggest coverage".

Another editorial worker described the company’s "core area strategy" as one which explicitly targeted particular advertising demographics. For him, the need to make money had reduced community service to an "ideal".

While the value of public service may underwrite the work of local journalists, increasingly their ability to act in a way which accords with that value is compromised. In turn, then, the extent to which those companies which sustain such compromising practices should be able to call on community service as way of justifying their value is particularly open to question.

One daily editor said: "There’s a line, and I’m the one who has to decide where that line is."

But this research suggests that increasingly this line is being shifted in a way which sacrifices the ability to support communities.

Dr Rachel Matthews is principal lecturer in journalism at Coventry university. Prior to this, she worked as a journalist in the regional newspaper industry for 15 years.

A fuller version of this research can be found in the Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies, Vol 6, No 1, 2017, pp37-56, published by Intellect ltd.

Find out more about the NUJ's local news matters campaign.

Tags: , research, academics, local journalism, local media, newspapers, local news matters, local news matters week