To thrive again, local newspapers must go back to their community role

Local newspapers in Farnham, Hampshire. Image: Getty.

Local newspapers are contradictory things. They are dismissed as “rags” and yet their familiar names are are part of the glue which holds communities together. The Conversation

Just as the derision which can greet these titles can be great, so can the impact of their closure. When local papers close, communities can be left bereaved, having lost a vital service.

This contradiction between sentiment and utility is often overlooked by those working in or researching local media. Indeed, the national press is given more attention by both academia and industry – despite regional titles dominating in terms of local readers and profits for much of UK newspaper history.

Local titles may draw on their relationship with communities for prestige, but they also rely on advertising from them for their income. The link between these elements is far from clear. In good times it has been a moot point. When, like now, times are bad, cracks begin to show. As resources are stripped out of the business to maintain profits, those functions associated with community benefit, like covering courts or councils, fall by the wayside.

Echoes of the past

Since 2005, some 198 local newspapers have closed in the UK. Others have moved online, been merged, or are now produced by relocated teams, who are sometimes miles from the location printed on the masthead.

Still, this is not the first time the regional media has experienced such a decline. Similar concerns prompted enquiries from the Royal Commission on the Press in 1947, 1961 and 1974.

The reports and evidence left by these examinations confirmed that local newspapers were expected to act as a watchdog on behalf of the communities they served. But, just as Canadian businessman Roy Thomson, of Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN), famously proclaimed that editorial content was “the stuff you separate the ads with” the current corporate model views editorial as a cost. One that is to be controlled alongside production, advertising, distribution and administration. The model gives no special attention to content, and is one in which quality editorial can be sacrificed for cheap words, “churned out”.

Local value

In 1971, TRN’s managing director, John Davis, made a prescient comment about the impact of continual cost cutting on the performance of Cardiff newspapers the Western Mail and South Wales Echo. In his June report that year, held by the National Library of Wales, Davis said:

Behind this pursuit for urgently needed profits lies the concern for the long term prosperity of the papers and the fear that by selling over hard, increasing our charges too readily and investing too little in the quality of the product we may be sorting up for ourselves an even greater problem for as little as five years ahead.

More than 50 years on, reductions in people and titles in this sector have been extensively documented, most recently for the NUJ’s Local News Matters campaign. Yet, despite the precarious position, service to the community continues to be the raison d'etre for the vast majority of those who work in the local press.

That local news reporting brings benefits to society is officially recognised. But the debate on how to reconcile revenue and public need seems to have moved on little from the first enquiry 70 years ago.

Making community relations pay

Profit and community benefit are not incompatible. Indeed, by focusing on monopolistic circulation areas at the turn of the 20th century, numerous local newspapers maximised advertising revenues, and cemented themselves in this particular role.

Now, with cost cuts, digital editions and other concerns, it can be just as easy to forget about this community role which local newspapers have made their own – but equally, it needn’t be a choice between revenue or serving a community.

The future of the local newspaper lies in it working in a way which supports its role as watchdog. By investing financially in and articulating clearly that it provides a service to the community, local newspapers can weather any changes.

Equally, however, if these titles want to draw on public subsidies, then they should be called to account for their ability to walk the walk of serving the community, rather than just talking the talk.

This new generation of “socio-local” newspapers would put community benefit on an equal footing with metrics such as circulation.

It is not some distant dream or academic hypothesis: socio-local newspapers are already serving UK communities, and thriving. Titles such as the family-owned Isle of Wight County Press and cooperative run West Highland Free Press have written this relationship into their business model, and are working to preserve community values while turning a profit.

The socio-local newspaper model is not a cure for local media’s problems, but it helps start the conversation about how the value of local media is quantified, and what titles which benefit communities might look like.

If these newspapers are to have a sustainable future, they need to be rescued from the tug of love battle between profit and community which has beset them for 70 years.

Rachel Matthews is principal lecturer in journalism at Coventry University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.