Don’t write off local newspapers just yet

James Cracknell on how local newspapers can make a comeback

Newspapers-still-existBy reading this, you are in a minority. A survey by watchdog Ofcom last year showed that only 49 percent of adults in the UK still read a local newspaper. Interestingly, however, more people who read local newspapers rate them as an important source of news than users of any other type of media.

A lot of people have been reading the last rites for the regional press in recent years.

It’s true that local papers have been in decline since the early 1980s, and that the rate of decline has hastened since the dawn of the internet age. An estimated 47 local newspapers were closed between 2012 and 2015, while nearly all those that survive have rapidly shed staff.

But the same research on closures, conducted by industry publication Press Gazette, also highlighted another telling statistic – since 2012, 39 new local papers have launched. The Waltham Forest Echo is one of those newspapers, having first gone to press last summer.

July 2015 is the Echo’s first birthday. Having worked as a reporter myself for the past eight years, I can attest that local journalism is currently at its lowest ebb. One of the papers I used to work for printed its final copy last year. The paper I was most recently employed at shed two-thirds of its reporting staff in the first six months of this year. But papers like the Echo prove that there is some life left in the local press.

More than that, I believe the Echoand other newspapers that have sprung up around London show an entirely new model of local journalism is not only possible, but can supersede the old corporateowned model that is currently limping toward oblivion.

The Echo is a not-for-profit newspaper, set up by a community interest company comprised of charities and social enterprises based in the borough of Waltham Forest. It therefore has a direct link to the community that it serves.

Most local newspapers started off as family-owned businesses in the 19th century, quickly becoming trusted and respected sources of information in their towns or cities. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the dominance of the corporate media began to be felt at a regional level, with paper after paper gradually being subsumed into the same organisations that publish the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, or even USA Today.

A handful of huge media conglomerates now own the vast majority of our local media.

The result is that these newspapers often become detached, with offices shut down and reporters relocated to regional “hubs” sometimes a long way away from the areas they actually write about.

We can debate the reasons behind the decline in local journalism, whether it has roots in corporatisation, the internet, or both. But it remains important – vital, even – to local democracy. And the desire for people to know what is going in their borough, their neighbourhood, and their street, will never diminish.

Social media and the internet have reduced the scope for local newspapers to provide this information, but they have not eliminated it entirely. If they had, the Echo wouldn’t exist.

Groups of people are clubbing together to establish new local papers all over the country, in direct response to the decline of corporate-owned local media that they can no longer rely on. In that sense, the regional press has gone full circle.

We are heading back to where we were at the start – locally owned, locally written. This is good news, but there is still a long way to go. The Waltham Forest Echo will only thrive for as long as there are people in the borough who read it, support it, and contribute to it. I am confident that you will.