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Stand up for local journalism: NUJ meets media minister

5 November 2013

Ed Vaizey, minister for culture, communications and creative industries, is meeting representatives of the NUJ's Parliamentary group today to discuss options for supporting a sustainable future for the local media in the UK.

The union wants to work with the minister to plan a roundtable, bringing together experts, in the new year to look at new models and strategies for vibrant local newspapers at the heart of their communities.

Everyone who cares about the local media is concerned by the fall in circulation, closure of titles without any consultation with the staff or local community, cuts to journalist posts and newspaper production being moved many miles from the communities they serve. These factors have all had a serious effect on quality journalism, informed citizenship and local democracy.

The meeting takes place on the European day of action to Stand Up for Journalism.

A survey of NUJ reps revealed that many reporters no longer covered council meetings or court hearings. The minister will be warned that this trend is depriving people of the information they require to make judgements when voting in local elections. The NUJ believes local papers have a vital role in ensuring democratic scrutiny, accountability and encouraging informed and active citizenship.

In the past decade, 20 per cent of the UK’s local newspapers have closed, with only 70 launches. According to the Newspaper Society (NS), there are 1,045 local and regional newspapers; but in March 2011 the NS reported 1,195 titles. Giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry in 2011, media analyst, Claire Enders, estimated that 40 per cent of jobs in the UK regional press had gone during the previous five years and the regional press had lost £1 bn in advertising since 2008.

The union is concerned that newspaper groups appear to believe that reader-generated copy is the answer. Newspaper chiefs talk about journalists as being “curators” of copy. In reality this means reporters sitting at their desks pouring press releases into pre-determined page grids. Sub-editors, the people who check copy for accuracy, are seen as surplus to requirements.

Morale among newspaper staff is at an all-time low. They have had to put up with pay being frozen year after year, increased workloads and many are struggling with the poorly-managed implementation of new digital systems.

Despite this, local papers are popular and remain the most trusted form of media. 

The union believes newspaper should be made community assets under the Localism Act 2011.This would prevent newspaper titles closing overnight and give potential new owners, including local co-operatives, the time to put together a bid for the paper. Newspaper groups should not be allowed to close a paper and lock away a title that has resonance among its local community. There is also need for legislation which would prevent newspaper owners from refusing to offer their titles for sale before closing them.

The NUJ will be asking the roundtable of experts to look at how local papers could be funded or part-funded on a public service model. If local papers are to receive public subsidies, they would need to prove they can meet a public benefit test by complying with tangible outcomes, such as a commitment to reporting council meetings, courts and providing a forum for the local community. 

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"The NUJ believes that journalists should be at the heart of their local communities, speaking and listening to their readers. It believes there is a strong future for local papers, which enjoy high levels of trust among their readers. Yet the sector is in a precarious position. 
"When times were good, the newspaper chiefs squeezed profits, made unwise acquisitions, built up debts and failed to invest in journalism. Year-on-year cuts, pay freezes and increased workloads have created low morale among newspaper staff. The transition to digital production is fraught with danger – and it appears that professional journalism, community journalism and investigative journalism could be casualties.
"There is a real danger that local, campaigning newspapers will wither on the vine. The NUJ believes that the model is not bust: local papers need to rediscover their local roots, so that local advertisers know they are reaching their market and readers can see that reporters are working on their patch as a watchdog and friend. That is why we will be discussing with the minister how government can contribute to the future of a vibrant local press which serves its community."

Tags: , ed vaizey, newspapers, local newspapers, local government, regional newspapers, user-generated content