Anyone who pays any attention to the news cannot have failed to hear of the swingeing cuts in staff being made at newspapers and magazines up and down the UK. Thousands of journalists jobs have disappeared over the last year. Some papers and magazines have been closed down. Over the last couple of weeks, people have suddenly started to realise that when reporters are shed from the local press, local news and thus local democracy is threatened. One example – if no journalist is available to sit in on a council meeting, how do constituents know what their councillors are doing?

Just over 2 weeks ago, it was announced that 150 jobs are to be slashed at Manchester Evening News and the 22 weeklies in and around Greater Manchester, that are all owned Guardian Media Group. Of those job losses, 78 will be journalists – 39 journalists at MEN will lose their jobs (that’s half the journalists there), the remaining 39 cuts will be spread across the 22 local titles. Some local weeklies will see their premises shut and staff transferred to MEN in central Manchester. So this really does mean that much local scrutiny will no longer happen. The reporters from the Accrington Observer, for example, will need an hour to get to Accrington from the MEN office and an hour back again to write up their stories. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that many meetings of Accrington Council will simply not be covered. And people living in Accrington won’t know from reading their paper just what their elected representatives may or may not be doing.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is an unhealthy situation, or to work out that local communities will lose a lot of their history as it will no longer be preserved in the local newspaper archives.

I’m not going to blog here about national job losses or the future of newspapers. Others have already done it very eloquently elsewhere in the national newspapers and on media blogs.

I spent two hours this evening at an NUJ meeting called to discuss the cuts and see what can be done to try and save these jobs. More than 100 people crammed into an overheated room at Manchester Town Hall – people were sat on the floor and side tables when the chairs ran out, and at least 20 were forced to stand. We had a round of speeches from various local and national union reps, chapel heads from outside the region fighting similar cuts and some stirring support from Manchester City Council’s deputy leader. Then the floor was opened.

This is where it got very interesting. Most of the union speeches were not the usual hot air but basic setting out of the facts of what’s happening. So it was really gratifying to discover that many on the floor were local councillors from across Greater Manchester, local community activists doing great things in their neighbourhoods, ordinary locals who just really care that they might no longer have a local newspaper covering their area. Even the Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for Cheadle turned up to stand shoulder to shoulder with self-declared union Marxists because he recognised the importance of having a local paper. Sure, there were quite a few journalists crammed into the room, but I suspect they were outnumbered by the ordinary public.

These are the people who will go home to spread the word about why local papers matter. What they may achieve is likely to be far more important than the forthcoming ballot on strike action at MEN. Because they will be the ones writing to the letters page of their local paper asking awkward questions about cuts and closures, among other things. The next few weeks will be crucial for local journalism in Greater Manchester and that grassroots support for these 23 papers may be a tipping point. We’ll see. I’m usually quite cynical about union meetings but I left tonight’s feeling a little more hopeful that all may not be lost. The only downside was the pair of Socialist Workers trying to flog their own paper outside before the meeting, who then had the cheek to come in and sit through it for 2 hours without saying a word before a second attempt to sell the party rag as people left. Parasites.

* This will be the first in a series of sporadic posts about Manchester media. Despite the shockwave across the city when the MEN cuts were annnounced, Manchester is the UK’s biggest media hub outside London and new publications are still launching here. Only lack of time has stopped me blogging sooner about some of these initiatives, but watch this space…

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]