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We still need local newspapers to keep communities working

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 09, 2012

  • WMN Editor Bill Martin presses Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw in Parliament, above, and the anti-pasty tax rally held in Falmouth last month, top

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Victory in the Western Morning News-led Axe the Pasty Tax campaign was a triumph for the Westcountry, and a triumph for the hastily assembled alliance of MPs, pasty firms, business leaders, and ordinary people on the street who took it up so quickly on behalf of the humble pasty.

It was also a triumph for local newspapers, by demonstrating once again how local titles have a unique ability to unite communities, champion their causes and fight for their aspirations and desires.

The pasty tax campaign was won two days after the end of Local Newspaper Week, when high-profile figures including Lord Coe, Sir David Jason and Sharron Davies were queuing up to praise their local papers, and say how vital they were to democracy and transparency.

Even the Queen sent a message of support, saying local and regional newspapers are a fundamental part of the fabric of our communities and we should celebrate the important contribution they make to highlighting the issues and achievements of their particular area.

At the end of Local Newspaper Week, Derby Telegraph editor Steve Hall, a former editor of the Express and Echo in Exeter, was awarded the prestigious Editor of the Year title at the Regional Press Awards.

A stellar year for his title had been dominated by the paper's An Industry Betrayed campaign, that fought and won a battle to keep thousands of jobs at the city's Bombardier factory.

All this at a time when regional papers are under increasing pressure, with experts predicting that the end is nigh for many titles. In America, a website called Newspaper Death Watch charts the decline of their industry, and in the UK, scores of free weeklies have closed and daily newspapers have become weeklies in a bid to meet the needs of the market.

In his 2004 book The Vanishing Newspaper, American academic Philip Meyer calculated that the last printed copy of a newspaper would be published in 2043.

In it, he wrote: "The decay of newspaper journalism creates problems not just for the business, but for society. One problem is basic – to make democracy work, citizens need information."

And so they do, but communities also need pillars around which to unite in times of tragedy or celebration. It is hard to imagine local Jubilee celebrations being covered with anything like the depth they have been this week without quality, strong local newspapers. It is also impossible to imagine campaigns like Axe the Pasty Tax or An Industry Betrayed having the cohesion and impact they did without being led by a printed newspaper.

In a speech during Local Newspaper Week, Newspaper Society chairman Geraldine Allinson stressed: "Despite the challenges facing all traditional media sectors, we should remember that local papers – in print and online – play a critical role which no other medium can replicate: scrutinising those in authority, campaigning on behalf of readers and supporting local businesses. In difficult economic times, 'community' becomes even more important in people's lives. Our titles are the most trusted of all media and are still the only meaningful way for people to connect with their local communities."

The Newspaper Society also revealed there were 1,100 local newspapers and 600 associated websites across the whole of the UK, operating within a £2 billion industry employing 30,000 people, including 10,000 journalists.

A total of 33 million people read a local paper – that's 71 per cent of all adults. Up to 14 million people read a local paper and don't read a national one.

With the white noise of the Leveson Inquiry still continuing, despite a distinct lack of interest among the general public, the issue of trust is most revealing for local media. When asked which media contains content they trust most, 45 per cent of people said their local paper. National papers got 33 per cent and online 32 per cent.

And 73 per cent of people picked their local paper for driving a sense of pride, the same number picking their local paper for nurturing a sense of belonging to their community.

Former Liverpool Post editor Chris Oakley spoke at the Society of Editors regional conference last month. He encapsulated the value of local newspapers brilliantly. "Our councils and our courts need to be covered, authority needs to be challenged, press offices need to be bypassed. This cannot be left to citizen journalists," he said.

"The paid-for local press grew up to be a mirror in which a community could see itself and more, much more besides. It was there to alert and to protect individuals, to build and to bind communities, to defend and to campaign for those in need of support, to be the voice of those who would otherwise be unheard.

"If local newspapers continue to disappear, where will communities turn when planners slice up their neighbourhoods, Tesco bulldozes their tennis courts and the local school or library is closed?"

The efforts that go into a campaign like the WMN's Axe the Pasty Tax, the Derby Telegraph's An Industry betrayed, or the Plymouth Herald's Fly the Flag for Devonport demonstrate how local newspapers value their communities and share their readers' concerns. It is critical for the future that their communities value them as much.

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