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NUJ calls for 'short, sharp inquiry into the future of local newspapers'

11 November 2014

The National Union of Journalists has written to culture and digital economy minister, Ed Vaizey, calling for a short, sharp inquiry into the future of local newspapers.

The letter from Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: "With the general election looming, there is genuine concern that many newspapers no longer have the capacity to provide the coverage necessary in order to inform and enthuse communities about local and national politics and issues of importance in their areas."

The call for an inquiry followed a summit at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), last week, which included representatives from newspaper groups, industry experts and organisations and NUJ reps.  The meeting, chaired by Mr Vaizey and John McDonnell, secretary of the NUJ Parliamentary Group, was also attended by John Whittingdale, chair of the DCMS select committee, Lord Best, chair of the Lords Communications Committee, and Helen Goodman MP, Labour media shadow minister.

Michelle Stanistreet told the meeting that in the past week there had been 25 posts cut at the Oxford Mail, as production was moved to Newsquest's subbing hub in Wales, 8.5 jobs at Newsquest titles in Blackburn, 45 jobs to go in Scotland with Johnston Press's merger of the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Edinburgh Evening News, plus cuts to staff photographers across Johnston Press and other groups. All these cuts, she said, have come on top of year-upon-year of jobs losses across the board. She said:

"We need newspapers to ensure democratic scrutiny, accountability and to encourage informed and active citizenship.  My concern is that we are in danger of reaching a tipping point where local journalism will not be able to fulfil this role. Reporters say they are too busy to cover council meetings and courts, what should be bread and butter functions of any local paper.  Major newspapers such as the Liverpool Echo, Manchester Evening News and the Express & Star no longer employ staff lobby correspondents."

She said it was not healthy for local democracy that that five companies controlled some 75 per cent of regional daily newspaper circulation,  with a quarter of local government areas not covered by a daily local newspaper and a third covered by only one daily newspaper.

John Whittingdale added his concerns at the summit. He said:

"The great selling point of local papers is that there are at the heart of their community, but, for example, my local paper in Maldon no longer has a presence on the high street since the office moved to an industrial estate in Braintree.  It also seems the case in newspapers covering the county that there is less coverage of what is happening in local hospitals and councils. Stories are more celebrity driven and investigative journalism seems to have disappeared."

Shaun Lintern works for Health Service Journal. He was the journalist responsible for breaking the story about the scandal of the Mid Staffs hospital. He told the meeting:

"Local journalists are a seldom-recognised but crucial function of a healthy free society. Somewhere tonight a town council will be holding a meeting and a young, underpaid but nonetheless enthusiastic journalist will be sat alone watching from the press gallery; an under-valued guardian of our democracy we cannot lose."  (Why local journalists matter

Neil Benson, editorial director of Trinity Mirror Regionals, said the trick for local newspaper organisations is to sustain print until the digital model works. While digital consumption of news is increasingly rapidly, the revenues were not following. If people are going to read their local news on their telephones, new ways of selling advertising will have to be found, he said.

Keith Harrison, editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star, addressed the meeting. Johnston Press, Local World and Newsquest snubbed the minister's invitation to the summit.

Tags: , local newspapers, newsquest, johnston press, local world, dcms, ed vaizey, John Whittingdale, trinity mirror, Wolverhampton Express and Star, local news