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The Day ‘Local’ News Played Dead

local news newspaper journalism ethics BBC corporate news deserts

Corporate conglomerates pose as plucky local journalism champions to kill off BBC ‘competition’. Don’t be fooled.

The Local News Editorials

On July 3rd 2023, The Salisbury Journal, one of the UK’s oldest local newspapers, published a thundering call to action.

Under the byline and photo of its regional editor, Kimberley Barber, it splashed an editorial headlined ‘Why BBC plans are a threat to local news’,

The Journal channelled all the righteous indignation and outrage one might expect from a title first published 1729, honking a warning of an imminent existential threat to their community’s imperilled and cherished local treasure. The editorial began:

As your local news title, we believe firmly in the importance of trusted local journalism to communities up and down the UK.

It made absolutely clear what was at stake, with a ringing defence of the importance of local news:

Local news titles…invest in trained journalists who seek to challenge authority and hold power to account on your behalf, bringing you the news that matters when, where and how you want it.

It fearlessly pointed the finger at the bullying bogeyman threatening to ‘irrevocably damage local news’ with its ‘highly controversial plans‘:

A huge public outcry continues to surround the BBC’s ‘Across the UK’ plans…some of the money would be diverted into boosting the BBC’s digital services, ramping up its provision of local news online.

For anyone in any doubt about the critical importance of local newspapers as the foundation of democracy, the editorial spelt out the gravity of the threat:

It is no exaggeration to say that some local newspaper titles in the UK may be forced to close if the ‘Across the UK’ plans are not stopped.

The consequences, not just for local papers but for entire communities, were spelled out with chilling clarity:

That will place pressure on our resources, at a time when we are grappling with a host of other challenges. In parts of the country, that could cause some local titles to call it a day. And that would be a disaster for the communities affected. Far from boosting local journalism, the BBC’s ‘Across the UK’ plans will in fact irrevocably damage local news.

Hang on a mo…

Even if they knew or cared nothing about the BBC’s ‘Across the UK’ plans, sharp-eyed Salisbury Journal readers will have spotted at least three weird things about this article.

The typo

Any Journal readers outraged enough to reach the penultimate paragraph may have had to read this sentence twice, to replace the missing word:

The ‘Across the UK’ plans could wreak untold damage on our vibrant local journalism sector. We cannot allow that happen.

Sharp-eyed readers might forgive the Journal this wee mistake at the end of such an impassioned and sincere appeal, but still…

The ‘Regional Editor’

They might also wonder why this editorial was written by the Journal’s ‘Regional Editor’, and not the Editor. If it’s so important, surely the Editor of a local paper would out-rank any ‘Regional Editor’.

On deeper reflection, they might wonder why on earth a local paper, especially one struggling so hard in their role of defending local democracy, even has a ‘Regional Editor’. What does that even mean?

Does it mean the Journal, despite all its unspecified pressures, still have sufficient resources to have a specialist editor covering a wider beat, reporting Wiltshire or South West stories they can convince the Editor are relevant to Salisbury’s citizens?

Or is it ‘regional’ in the hierarchical sense, where a national editor outranks a regional editor, who supervises local editors? In that case, if the Journal is the staunch local champion it’s claiming to be, which parent is telling them what to print?

The Call to Action

The editorial concluded with a rousing and specific call to action.

We need your help to tackle this problem. By contacting your MP and asking them to write to government about this issue you can make a real difference. Your MP can express concern about the impact of the BBC’s ‘Across the UK’ plans and ask government what steps it is going to take to get the BBC to change course.

Local papers have a long and glorious history of campaigning for change, as well as reporting on it. They understand the levers of power. They know the potential leverage of a coordinated campaign is multiplied manifold when it appears to come from ordinary people.

Their readers are the voters who will determine their elected representative’s fate.

Two voices to bend a politician’s ear

Parliamentarians have two types of voices appealing to them to vote in a certain way. One whispers in dark corners, the other tends to shout in public.

The lobbyists

Operating in the shadows, smoke-filled rooms and fancy restaurants are the lobbyists hired by big business. They exert their influence with honeyed words, implied threat, and financial support.

Their expressions of ‘concern’ about upcoming legislation, and the strings they attach strings to their ‘campaign contributions’, happen out of sight. The more they can conceal their ‘influence’, the more effective it is. Nothing spoils an industrial lobbying campaign quite like a front-page scoop pointing it out to the public.

It takes feisty, fearless, independent-minded journalists to sniff out this kind of voice, and expose their attempts to ‘influence’ power.

The Voice of the People

Then there’s the vox populi, the ‘voice of the people’. Ordinary people. Voters. Local newspaper readers. This is more how democracy is supposed to work, but it too takes place in the shadows. Voters may express themselves in more robust, unsophisticated terms than professional lobbyists, but their opinions aren’t always expressed publicly, by hecklers and egg-throwers.

More powerful is what used to be called the constituency ‘postbag’, now the politician’s email inbox. Only the politicians’ office staff know how many emails they receive, and who from. Only the politician knows how many it takes, and from which kind of voter, to sway them.

The double megaphone

Imagine how powerful it would be for a politician to hear these two voices saying the same thing.

This very rarely happens, as the interests of big business usually come at the cost of ordinary people, so hearing the same message in a discreet corner of a Mayfair club, and ‘on the doorstep’, would be a compelling reason to take action.

This technique is well known to Big Oil. It’s why oil companies spend so much money setting up apparently neutral ‘industry bodies’, ‘think tanks’, and ‘research units’. It’s why they pay PR professionals to coordinate arms-length ‘astroturf’ (i.e. fake grass roots) campaigns, manipulating members of the public into opposing any actions that might threaten business as usual, from banning plastics to opposing low traffic zones, cycle lanes and low-emissions zones.

This trick depends on corporate wolves dressing up in sheep’s clothing, using the public as a ventriloquist’s dummy, and tricking turkeys into voting for Christmas.

So what has this got to do with the Salisbury Journal’s editorial about the BBC? Our investigation now leads us from the south west of England to its far north west…

Meanwhile, in Cumbria…

The Cumberland News & Star, founded in 1910, can’t claim the same history as The Salisbury Journal, but its century-plus history includes many awards for the quality of its local journalism.

A paper of the News & Star‘s pedigree would be alert for any dodgy dealings, quick to jump on any evidence of plagiarism, foul play, scornful even of ‘economy with the truth’. 

Yet on July 3rd, the News & Star published an article, with the byline ‘Staff Reporter’ that began:

As your local news title, we believe firmly in the importance of trusted local journalism to communities up and down the UK...

The News & Star then repeated, verbatim, the same 800-odd words of copy that appeared in The Salisbury Journal. Including the typo in the penultimate paragraph.

This wasn’t the only local paper to run this article word-for-word. The Lancashire Telegraph did too, except theirs carried the byline and photo of ‘Richard Duggan, Regional Editor North West’.

…and so on. Hundreds of ‘local’ papers, all over the country, published exactly the same article, down to the same typo, with different bylines suggesting they were locally-generated content.

What do all these ‘local’ newspapers have in common? 

The same corporate owner. 

Like around 200 other UK local titles, all the papers listed so far are owned by Newsquest. Here are some facts the editorial they all printed omitted to mention:

  • Newsquest is the biggest of the handful of conglomerates that collectively own around 90% of Britain’s surviving local newspaper titles
  • Newsquest is owned by Gannett, the 2nd-biggest such media accumulator in the US.
  • Gannett, along with GateHouse, America’s #1 local newspaper agglomerator, is owned by the New Media Investment Group (NMIG).
  • NMIG a highly-leveraged New York based hedge fund that has been a generous contributor to Donald Trump.

Confused? Maybe this family tree will help:

So far from being a ‘local’ paper bravely standing up to a bullying state broadcaster, all the newspapers carrying this editorial are corporate cogs.

Of course, journalists employed by hedge fund investors can still commit proper journalism. The See Through News Newspaper Review Project has ‘Review’ groups holding all the corporate giants and each of their ‘local titles’ to account for their journalistic ethics.

As they explain in their ‘About’ descriptions, their beef is ‘with the boardroom, not the newsroom’, and they make a point of praising rare examples of proper local journalism as well as pointing out all their corporate dirty tricks. Here’s a recent example from the Newsquest Review Group, praising a News and Star reporter shortlisted for a national investigative journalism award.

It’s not the journalists’ fault that nearly all the paying jobs available in local papers require them to generate shareholder value for hedge funds. This is why you won’t see any reporting on this in their pages, and why they hide their corporate ownership as far as the law allows (you have to scroll right down to the bottom of their websites to discover who owns your ‘local’ paper).

Were they allowed to follow the journalistic training they received at university, no doubt these local reporters would follow the trail further.

Any investigative journalist determined to sniff out the truth would then do an online search of the cut-and-pasted editorial, see where else it was published, and check the ownership of those titles.

Like this…

…meanwhile in Belfast….

Belfast Live is not owned by Newsquest. It’s owned by the UK’s other corporate-owned local news behemoth, Reach PLC.

On July 3rd, the Belfast Live published an article headlined ‘Help us tell BBC Northern Ireland to ‘Be A Better Neighbour’.  There was no byline, no photo, and they corrected the typo in the penultimate paragraph.

Otherwise, the article was identical to the one carried in all the publications of its supposed commercial rival, Newsquest.

By now, you probably know Belfast Live wasn’t the only Reach titles to published this article:

These are just a few of Reach’s couple of hundred local news titles to publish the editorial. 

You may only have heard of Reach as defendant in the ongoing phone-hacking legal action against its national titles, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Express, but it’s Britain’s other local news giant. 

Reach’s ownership differs from Newsquest, but only in that it’s comprised of a few hedge funds and venture capital investors, rather than one.

In all important ways, its business model follows a similar business model to Newsquest and all its other corporate-owned competition.

…and throughout corporate newsland

The same editorial, with the same typo but different bylines, was also published by smaller corporate fry.

The Shropshire Star, part of the regional conglomerate Midland News Association, also published the whole editorial, unredacted and including the typo, under the byline of its Editor, Martin Wright.

Even the relative little guys, it seems, have to join ’em in order to beat ’em.

Does it matter that these details were absent from these thundering editorials claiming to champion the importance of local journalism, complaining about being bullied by the BBC, and urging their readers to lobby elected members of Parliament to protect their commercial interests?

The editorial they all published is vague about the cause of the crisis in local journalism, and its solutions:

It is no secret that the business model for local journalism is facing some challenges, but we remain fully committed to finding a truly sustainable future for our sector. And we will get there. We just need a bit of space and time to do it.

By now you may be curious about all these coy euphemisms. What is the ‘business model for local journalism? What are the ‘challenges’? What exactly is a ‘truly sustainable future’? Is blocking a non-commercial rival really the best, and only, way to get there?

Current state of ‘local’ news

The feisty local champion, speaking truth to power and holding power to account described in the editorial published by all these corporates, is a reasonably accurate description of what local news looked like before the advent of The Internet.

It also describes most of the 10% of existing local titles that are still, somehow, independently owned.

But it bears little relation to the output of Newsquest, Reach, Iliffe, MNA and the handful of corporate conglomerates who’ve hoovered up the rest.

The process is evidenced by various media watchdogs, academic projects, and by the See Through News Newspaper Review Project.

Once they’re absorbed into corporate maw, these once-venerable local titles are sucked dry of journalistic ethics. They become zombie titles, exploited to squeeze out any remaining goodwill from readers who remember them when they were proper local papers. No longer local community champions, they’re now cogs in a corporate clickbait machine.

Ironically, given the editorial’s fearmongering about losing local news sources, these corporates routinely close down titles, or absorb them into new regional online portals. Eviscerated, then cast aside, these venerable local titles join the UK’s expanding archive of defunct papers.

Far from being the last bastions of journalistic ethics against a dominant state broadcaster, it’s the corporates who’ve created the concept of ‘news deserts’. The Hussman School of Journalism and Media describes news deserts thus:

Many newspapers have become ghosts of their former selves, both in terms of the quality and quantity of their editorial content and the reach of their readership. This puts large swaths of the country – especially those that are rural and economically struggling – at risk of becoming news deserts. We define a news desert as: a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.

Not Just a British problem

For any non-British readers wondering what this has to do with them, remember the family tree. All those hundreds of UK ‘local’ titles are actually owned by a New York hedge fund.

The ‘business model’ the editorial refers to, without describing, was invented by and exported from the USA. It has been adopted throughout the Anglosphere, and beyond.

From Canada to Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Mexico, Japan, The Philippines and Hungary, ‘70%+ of all surviving ‘local’ newspaper titles are now owned by a handful of corporate conglomerates following the same cost-cutting business model. Often there are only one or two corporations owning more than half of all local titles.

This concentration of media ownership has become the rule, rather than the exception.

Except you’re unlikely to hear about it, as the facade of local respectability is important to trick readers into believing they’re still on their side, trusted local champions rather than dodgy distant capitalists.

If you’re wondering why you’ve not heard about this before, consider where you would have read about it. In your local paper? The ones that hide their corporate affiliation in the small print on the inside pages, or at the bottom of their websites?

Causes of news desertification

The corporate business model is optimised for shareholder value, social media engagement, at the cost of the kind of ethical journalism the editorial claims to be defending.

The business model of these corporates involves:

The business model that had kept local papers independent for centuries – selling newsprint and classified ads – collapsed following their disastrous decision to give away their content for free to the social media giants.

Like Newsquest, Reach hoovered up these moribund or bankrupt titles, expanding their market share. 

What was once a pointilliste composite mosaic made up of hundreds of feisty independents has become an increasingly crude collection of Mondrian blocks.

Is this worth saving?

Despite the corporate whinging, the cynical posing behind the fig-leaf of ‘local’ titles, the huge errors of omission, the sly attempt to trick readers into promoting their corporate interests, it’s only fair to ask if these corporate giants have a point.

Even if they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing, Goliath’s posing as Davids, does their survival depend on the BBC abandoning local news and leaving the playing field for them alone?

It addressed square on possibility that some readers might still trust the BBC, as a non-commercial public service:

That would lead to the BBC becoming the lone voice in some local communities – a voice, by the way, that doesn’t have the same freedom to campaign on your behalf like we do, because of impartiality requirements.

The binary choice was laid bare:

For anyone who believes in freedom of speech, as we do, that’s a worrying prospect. The problem lies with the BBC’s unique power – granted to the corporation by the licence fee – and the impact of this upon other news providers. The licence fee enables the BBC to do things the commercial sector simply cannot do, such as running websites with no advertising or paywalls on them. We are always up for fair competition. Fair competition drives innovation and quality in many different sectors. Under the plans, online readers – and the commensurate revenues which we use to pay our local journalists – will be sucked away from our websites to the BBC’s.

The BBC has, after all, become increasingly hard to defend as a pillar of journalistic ethics and editorial independence, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

And it’s a strange rallying call, isn’t it? Would you feel just a little bit gaslit if you took to the streets waving banners calling for a ban on ‘news websites with no advertising or paywalls on them’.

The wrong solution to the wrong problem

Instead of getting sucked into a culture war debate pitching hedge-fund-owned corporate conglomerates against eviscerated public service broadcasters, let’s ask a different question.

The right question is, inadvertently, hinted at by the editorial they’re all pretending to publish individually. 

Why make such a big deal of posing as independent local champions? Their claim to be such champions bears no scrutiny, but it does prove the notion of speaking truth to power, and holding power to account, remains an ideal. It’s just not an aspiration demonstrated by the people asking us to lobby our MPs.

Maybe it’s possible for Newsquest, Reach, Gannett and GateHouse to U-turn, return to these values, and still stay in business, but there’s no prospect of this happening, nor is that even what they’re promising.

Judge them by their actions, rather than their fine copy-and-pasted words, and they all fail.

The question should rather be, 

‘How can we defend and promote truly independent local journalism?’

This is not a rhetorical question. 

Nimble local journalism is still thriving in certain countries that have successfully resisted the hedge-fund-backed globalised corporate predators. Many of the measures that promote such journalism are inexpensive, and there are many available models to emulate

They do, however, depend on effective government regulation and enforcement. Corporates like Newsquest and Reach know this – that’s why they want us to email our MPs.

Here’s an alternative. If, having read this article, you feel sufficiently outraged, cheated or hoodwinked, why not email your MP, but with a different message. 

Instead of lobbying our politicians to promote the interests the corporate giants seeking to kill off their last surviving public competitor, why not ask them to support the tiny number of surviving independents, who aspire to the ideals so corrupted by corporate news conglomerates?

Specifically, you could ask them to:

Now that might make a difference.