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Future of local news in Ireland will be determined by quality

2 December 2011

The NUJ in Ireland has warned regional newspaper publishers that only a renewed commitment to journalism can save local titles. Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary, told a conference at the University of Limerick yesterday, that diminishing editorial resources is having a major impact on coverage.

Séamus Dooley's comments echoed a presentation by Prof. Roy Greenslade on the situation in the UK. Roy Greenslade's characterisation of a crisis in the regional press sector was challenged by publishers.

The NUJ Irish Secretary told the conference that we were not yet whistling past the graveyard, "but coming very close to the gate."

Setting out the factors in the decline in news content of many newspapers, he said changes in ownership and centralised management structures undoubtedly influence how newsrooms operate. A growing number of local communities are now at the whim of media conglomerates.

The process of making editorial decisions is no longer determined on the principle of serving the community; the predominant factor now is cost. In the battle for resources, editors find themselves curtailing coverage of courts and local authority meetings, for long the mainstay of local journalism.

Séamus Dooley revealed that, in a survey of NUJ members in the regional sector this week, common trends emerged. There is a real concern that the loss of resources is inhibiting journalists in carrying out their most basic functions.

The consequence of voluntary redundancy programmes and the non-replacement of retiring journalists is that many courts, in particular, are not covered.

One senior reporter summed up the change in editorial direction:

"In the case of the circuit court, we simply no longer cover them – unless we get a tip off from somebody that there will be a plea in a case (and therefore will not be contested) and it will be short – and it will be on a non-press day.
"In the case of the district court, we never cover it on Monday, occasionally on Tuesdays, always on Wednesdays and Thursdays and rarely on Fridays."

Another senior journalist explained that the second largest court in the county is not covered because it is 50 miles from the office.

Restrictions on travel expenses had led to journalists being metaphorically chained to their desks.

The lack of "fresh air" journalism leads, as one correspondent said to "an unhealthy reliance on press hand outs with no time for follow up stories or developing local contacts."

There is little time for investigative journalism. FOI requests are being monitored on cost grounds.

In the area of sports coverage, there is an ever-increasing dependence on club press releases and the devaluing of press photography and the reliance of free pictures, often of doubtful quality, is another worrying trend.

The deterioration in terms and conditions of employment in many media groups will have long term consequences for recruitment and on the quality of journalism.

He added:

"There is widespread concern about the future of regional newspapers – and that concern is justified. Understandably, the focus has tended to be on whether newspapers have a future and whether there is a viable future for online regional media.
"For my part, I remain confident that there is a future for local news – across a variety of platforms. But that future will be determined by quality journalism and a return to the primacy of news gathering. We still have a vibrant regional press, struggling but surviving. Where editorial investment occurs we see the fruits of sound commercial management.
"It is clear that the law of diminishing returns is now in full force in regional media. Reader loyalty has been stretched to breaking point by cut upon cut. While the new generation of owners fumble in their greasy tills to pay the interest bills owed to international bankers circulation is falling and with it advertising revenue.
"The role of the local paper as a watchdog for the citizens is being undermined: justice is administered away from prying eyes; local government is becoming less accountable.
Were he alive, the Czar of Russia could safely find himself on a drunken driving charge and no one might even notice, depending on the court day or the distance from the local newspaper office.
"The vicious circle must be broken. Newspapers must once again invest in serving their readers with the coverage of the courts, councils, sports and social events they demand and deserve.
"I firmly believe there is a bright future for those newspapers which find the resources to make these investments. On the other hand, if resources are not found then regional newspapers will simply not survive in any form."

Tags: , regional newspapers, ownership, new media, courts, newspapers, foi, cuts