Legacy local news
The rise of the Silicon Valley giants has had major impacts on UK news publishers. Revenues have plunged, thousands of jobs have gone and public interest journalism has been particularly adversely affected.
Academic studies have demonstrated a clear link between this decline and falling community engagement with local democracy (such as voter turnout) as well as negative impacts on the accountability of local institutions and public finance management.
Other studies have shown that trust in news has declined alongside trust in other civic institutions.
Large traditional news publishers, struggling under the weight of pension fund and debt liabilities, corporate ownership structures and an inability to innovate, have failed to create new business models to support the continuing supply of these essential public goods at local level.
Just four publishers now control 80% of the UK’s local and regional titles. Consolidation has had damaging consequences:
- Since 1985, more local public interest news articles have come from managed media sources than reporters attending council or public meetings – since 1995, less than 10%.
- More than half of UK parliamentary constituencies and nearly two thirds of UK local authority districts are no longer served by a daily local newspaper.
- 96% of local authority districts have only one, dominant local newspaper publisher.
Reach plc (called was Trinity Mirror until May 2018) has been the UK’s largest regional news publisher since October 2015. Since then it has embarked on further consolidation, rolling multiple local titles into single regional delivery platforms while cutting editorial staff.
The company was in financial trouble long before the pandemic: losses/writedowns were £108 million in 2018 and £200 million in 2019. It sacked 12% of its workforce in 2020 and its shares fell 25% last year after costs soared. It announced another 200 redundancies in January and its shares lost a fifth of their value after another profit warning.
“We need institutions that have the ability, both financially and culturally, to bring news that other institutions and individuals cannot.”
Carl Bernstein, Washington Post Watergate reporter
Devon media in perspective
Reach dominates Devon news coverage, with just a handful of Tindle and (ex-Archant) Newsquest titles found in satellite towns and a smattering of marketing glossies packed with adverts and advertorial.
The company is also redeploying hundreds of reporters from regional to national content production as it seeks to maximise online traffic by publishing national news stories on its regional websites. It employs clickbait headlines intended to generate as many page views as possible driven by targets imposed on individual journalists who have been described as “battery hens”.
Devon Live (which combines seven local print titles) claims two million monthly page views, but only 10% of its readers are located in the ITV South West region. Exeter constitutes just 6% of this population – equating to just 12,000 monthly page views.
The closure of the company’s Exeter offices means it now relies almost entirely on covering the city from its regional office in Plymouth, while content policies are remotely determined by the financial priorities of a conglomerate which owns more than 250 regional and national titles.
Exeter Express & Echo, its legacy local print title, is now published only once a week. ABC-accredited figures show its circulation fell 55% from 11,700 copies in 2017 to 5,278 in 2021 – including its East Devon edition.
Meanwhile the company’s shareholders received a £14 million half-yearly dividend and its CEO and CFO both received 700% pay increases which raised their combined 2020-21 remuneration to £7.4 million.
This publishing model, which is both reductive and destructive, is driven by digital platform algorithms and their effects on advertising revenue returns. It incentivises the stimulation of vicarious interest and the production of ephemeral articles that rarely represent the public interest or even cover local issues at all.
It cannot support serious reporting and analysis of public policy and decision-making that affects Exeter and the wider region, with the consequence that local people are significantly less well-informed about important issues that affect them, their families and friends and the communities in which they live and work.
“News organisations that deploy resources to really gather information are essential to a functioning democracy. It just doesn’t work if people don’t know.”
Bill Keller, New York Times editor 2003-2011
A local fourth estate
The complex, multifaceted, deliberative culture that surrounds national policy- and decision-making cannot be replicated at local level, where many fewer actors are in play, local government lacks capacity and the consultancy firms on which it relies will not bite the hand that feeds them.
An effective local fourth estate can compensate for these limitations by fulfilling several important functions, representing multiple perspectives for multiple audiences, offering critical appraisal of policy options and decisions and enhancing accountability by providing rigorous scrutiny.
However audience-oriented publishing business models are not, alone, sufficient to produce public interest journalism: like algorithmic incentives they can also stimulate echo chamber effects.
At the same time political contexts vary across spatial geographies, so a generic approach cannot deal with important detail.
In addition, the public interest is not objectively defined but must instead be determined on a case-by-case basis by actors with the necessary expertise and independence to make considered, responsible judgements.
Regional media publishing hubs that rely on churnalism and cheerleading often simply amplify content marketing, public relations puff and local government media releases, which are themselves routinely more marketing message than public information.
Only publishers with the operational capacity for editorial independence can produce and distribute journalism in the public interest which fulfils the role of the fourth estate at local level.
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Exeter Observer is published by Exeter Observer Limited, Community Benefit Society No. 8435 registered under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014.
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