Local News Matters - Quality is more important than clicks
11 March 2020
Recently, a former council leader in south Wales was talking to me nostalgically about the time not long ago when virtually everyone in his community bought and read the local weekly paper.
"People took a great interest in what was going on. If there was some controversy at the council, they'd all have a view, especially if it involved the waste of public money ... Nowadays hardly anyone reads the paper, and while it still comes out, there is very little worth reading in it. No-one knows or cares what's going on at the council, unless it's something that puts them directly at a disadvantage. But mostly they just don’t care."
The days of well-staffed local papers are over. They are the victims of a failed business model that relies on cutting back to survive. But in cutting back they have increasingly deprived the papers they own of the raison d’etre they had when they were established.
Instead of the lively reporting of controversy, the weekly papers that once meant so much to their communities are full of bland press releases promoting things for readers to buy and stories that have already appeared in sister daily titles.
It's increasingly the case that weekly papers have no dedicated reporting staff - or indeed staff of any kind. Their overheads are therefore extremely low and while sales have dipped greatly, they are still contributing to company profits.
These days, in digital-first newsrooms, papers are too often seen as embarrassing survivors of a bygone age. A few years ago a Reach digital executive when it was still Trinity Mirror saw no irony in telling a conference that "the trouble with papers is that they still make money". What the digital executive should have said was that without the group's print revenue, they themselves would not be in their highly paid job.
Digital, we are told on a daily basis, is the only future conceivable for the industry. The huge increases in page views, we are told, will safeguard the industry's future by translating into extra revenue. Yet promises that decreasing print revenues will be matched by increasing digital revenues seem as illusory as ever.
From the point of view of those who believe in the crucial importance of local news, the changing culture of newsrooms is seriously worrying.
News values have changed. A story is not judged on its own merits, but on how many page views it will generate. A piece about Wetherspoon's new menu (much the same as the old menu) is rated highly because of the number of page views obtained from the large numbers of people anywhere who for reasons best known to themselves have an insatiable appetite for trivia relating to the pub chain.
Reporters are under pressure to get as many page views as they can. Inevitably this frames the kind of pieces they will write. Faced with a requirement to constantly increase their contribution to company targets, they will inevitably change their behaviour and - too often - make news out of trivia and trivialise the news.
But while people are, to one degree or another, consuming such material, they are becoming alienated from their local communities and the decisions that are being made in their name. A vacuum is created, and it’s filled by unwholesome material from social media that pushes views that offer simplistic, and often racist, solutions to complex problems. Of course there are other factors involved in the rising influence of far-right narratives, but I believe the decline of well-resourced local papers rooted in their communities has played a significant part.
I work in Cardiff for Media Wales, a Reach subsidiary. I have the good fortune to have been classified as a print journalist, which means I have escaped the click-chasing imperative most of my colleagues are driven by. I'm pleased to say that we have a talented team and that much high quality journalism is created by my colleagues. But that's despite the click imperative, not because of it.
The great majority of my work appears in the Western Mail, still styled the national newspaper of Wales despite circulations that are a fraction of what they once were. Most of my articles concern Welsh politics, which the paper's largely ABC1 readership tend to be engaged with. The Welsh political class is constantly agonising about the devolution settlement. Questions of funding are very important, and determine the quality of public services that can be provided. Austerity has hit Welsh communities hard, some of which are among the poorest in Europe.
Yet pure political coverage without some personal animus isn’t favoured by our website because it doesn’t get enough page views. This applies not just to all-Wales political stories, but to local controversies, which are seen as too parochial.
Paradoxically the papers are lasting longer than many of us believed a few years ago, for the reason that digital advertising revenue hasn’t taken off in the way expected. More than 80 per cent of Reach's revenue still comes from print.
But newspapers can't carry on forever with declining revenues and the worry is that when they go the digital offering we shall be left with will be a stripped-down model based on "breaking news", sport, food reviews and stories tied into the commercial interests of advertisers - with even fewer journalists in employment.
Everyone - those in the industry, decision makers, consumers of news - must wake up to the danger.
Meanwhile we must keep making the case that quality local news matters - and persuade as many people and organisations to stand with the NUJ on this vital issue as possible. Otherwise the prospects for a well-informed democracy will be as good as dead.
Martin Shipton is Reach NUJ group chapel chair and a member of the union's Welsh executive council.