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Local newspapers need the support of churches  

10 August 2018

They provide accountability and an antidote to ‘fake news’ — but they are under threat, says Peter Crumpler

THE news from the frontline of local journalism is grim. In the past decade, more than 300 local or regional newspapers have closed, and the number of local journalists has fallen by 6000.

In the same period, newspaper advertising revenues have more than halved: most of them have switched to Facebook, Google, and other online services. Readers are opting to get their news online — and largely for free.

The stark headlines come from a report compiled for a newly launched government review of the “sustainability” of the UK’s printed press, led by Dame Frances Cairncross, a former economics journalist.

Should churches be concerned when communities across the country are losing their local newspapers or being served by freesheets with little local journalism? I’d say that we should be deeply worried.

FIRST, let me declare an interest. I trained as a local-newspaper reporter, and have contributed to local media on behalf of churches for more than 40 years.

But my anxiety goes far beyond self-serving interest. When a local newspaper, in print and online, is doing its job, politicians and officials — as well as church leaders — are held to account, and community concerns are aired and supported. Disastrously, the lack of an effective local media was among the reasons that the valid grievances of the Grenfell Tower residents went unheard.

The local media are vital in reporting the part played by schools and businesses, faith groups, community and arts groups, and other grass-roots organisations.

In his book Reimagining Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury describes these “intermediate institutions” as “often the glue that holds local communities together”, and calls for “a benevolent ecosystem of regulation and encouragement”.

Besides being a champion of localism, trusted local media can be a powerful antidote to the spread, via social media, of “fake news” and misinformation. A YouGov poll suggested that the local press was the most trusted of all news sources.

Given the Church’s emphasis on ministry at society’s grass-roots and margins, and the Christian commitment to truth, the presence of professional local journalism is something to be valued.

Pessimists might say that the local media is a lost cause, swept away by changing consumer trends, social media, and new technologies. Yet there is light in the gloom.

Last November, the BBC — often viewed as a competitor and threat by many news titles — launched a partnership with local news organisations to fund a pool of up to 150 “local democracy reporters”. These journalists — paid for by the BBC but employed by the news organisations — will increase reporting of local authorities and other public-service organisations.

DAME FRANCES’s review is given the task of recommending whether government or industry action might ensure “a more sustainable future.” She has said: “We need to explore ways in which we can ensure that consumers in ten years’ time have access to high-quality journalism which meets their needs, is delivered in the way they want, and supports democratic engagement.”

An expert panel, made up of journalists, academics, advertisers, and technology specialists has asked for submissions by 7 September, and intends to produce a report for the Government early next year.

One of the issues that they will examine is the part played by Facebook, Google, and other technology companies (Comment, 5 January). Most news organisations make their stories available on Facebook, but receive only a “micro-payment” if readers click through to the full story. Google makes no payment to the news organisations for the numerous articles that appear on its search facility.

The news titles are dependent on the sites’ algorithms to reach potential readers, while they are populating the sites’ news feed and search results and helping to boost the technology companies’ incomes.

The chief executive of Newsquest, Henry Faure Walker, who owns 165 local and regional newspapers in the UK, has questioned “the sustainability of the economic model for local newspaper journalism in a world where much of the economic benefit is going to Google and Facebook”.

Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at City University, agrees that the technology giants “could do more to underwrite independent journalism”.

Beyond this, he proposes “transitional support, via government if necessary”, for news organisations that are willing to embrace a range of funding streams, including philanthropy from those wishing to support independent journalism; voluntary public donations, such as The Guardian currently invites; payments for some online access; and advertising. Professor Greenslade also wants to see news providers sharing resources, and the encouragement of freelance press agencies.

If high-quality local (and national) journalism is to be maintained, these ideas will have to be seriously considered.

Meanwhile, in our village north of St Albans, in Hertfordshire, we offered the church as a drop-off point for our local paper after cost cuts meant that it stopped deliveries to homes in much of our parish. People pop into church to pick up a copy.

It is part of the relationship that we have with our local media — and a small contribution to the continued survival of thriving community journalism.

The Revd Peter Crumpler is Associate Minister at St Leonard’s, Sandridge in, Hertfordshires, and a former communications director for the Archbishops’ Council and other National Church Institutions.

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