Local news, local action

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…

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8 thoughts on “Local news, local action”

  1. Hi, thanks for the report, here are some thoughts – I didn’t go myself.

    Were the readers and politicians angry with the Guardian? I am. Its losses each year run into hundreds of millions yet there hasn’t been one penny of cost-cutting there. (Yet). It feels like they don’t value local papers at all.

    However, I also think due to their editorial attitude we’re holding them to higher standards than other newspaper groups. Newsquest closed its Bury office, Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror making all sorts of cuts in the north too.

    Which leads me to think that the local newspaper business is over for big business. I hope that not-for-profit organisations will spring up covering the local beat online and hopefully in print too.

    New publications are indeed launching, and more and more companies and authorities need press officers, website editors etc. So us journalists may well be able to pay the bills in these new areas.

    BUT… Most of these new publications are soft news – entertainment, lifestyle, leisure, housing – making them most attractive to advertising. They won’t go to council meetings, courts, tribunals, neighbourhood boards, public inquiries etc.

    The only new local publication that did the hard questions was the Salford Star – which can’t get any advertising so it’s on a break.

    So I’m back to square one.

    Did anyone come up with a suggestion of what happens next?

  2. There was a lot of anger towards the Guardian. It loses money, as you say, and is supported by the profits from the local papers owned by GMG. There was also a lot of anger towards the Scott Trust, although I was surprised that its recent change to a limited company didn’t get a mention. Yes, it’s now Scott Trust Ltd (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/oct/08/theguardian.theobserver). Millions of pounds are sucked out of Manchester every year and sent to London. I’d agree that GMG is being held to higher standards – one of the tactics talked of last night is using embarrassment to shame GMG over its refusal to negotiate over the cuts. Buy a print copy of the Graun on Tuesday to see the first action on the embarrassment front. There will be a strike as well, if it comes to that. That would REALLY embarrass the Guardian.

    There was also a commitment to talking to the 10 local authorities who govern the area that GMG papers cover to ensure they continue to place their advertising in the local press – Salford Council was singled out for withdrawing its advertising and there was some talk of legal action against them, as their current methods of advertising jobs and public notices may break the law.

    Everyone was pretty much in agreement that the existing business model for newspapers is broken and no one knows what the landscape will look like locally and nationally once the recession is over, but there will undoubtedly be a new model.

    Re the new publications – they will be the subject of a series of future blog posts, but in brief they are providing jobs for journalists, which is a good thing. No, they won’t provide the hard news and they won’t cover a reporter’s beat, as you say. We may well be seeing more initiatives like the Darwen Reporter (http://www.darwenreporter.com/) instead…

  3. Louise,

    I felt that the meeting was passionate and compelling. As you say the arguments were made clearly and with conviction.

    As a PR professional I was going to show my support for the journalists.

    I was of the opinion before that digital media is transforming our media in a way that is unstoppable and has to be accepted with a view to working with that change.

    The speakers opened my mind to the sheer greed and callousness of the publishing companies.
    GMG is making money still and has been making cuts at the MEN for the past two to three years.

    I am glad to see the resolve of NUJ members and others in their support. Perhaps we can all galvanize the public and politicians to put pressure on Johnson Press and GMG to be accountable for their actions.

    I am sure once the messages that were expressed at the meeting are widely understood action can be taken to ensure we keep an effective local press

    Rob

  4. Thanks for the follow-up. Here’s a response from the point of a reader,

    From the point of view of democracy, new publications like the Cheshire Independent newspaper or darwenreporter.com blog add nothing as they are self-styled good news organisations which deliberately don’t touch on crime and council meetings.

    That’s not to say there is no merit in them, I hope they do well. Being able to make a livinh off a news blog in their specialism would be the ideal scenario for many journalists.

    But we still need reporters to do the hard news. There are already loads and loads of courts in the North West without a reporter there day in day out. How many great stories are missed when newspapers only send reporters when they know there’s a big juicy case coming up?

    I hope that the Guardian Media Group will continue to send reporters to council meetings in all its boroughs (there must be about 20 of them when you include Cheshire and Lancashire ones) but my fear is that’s unlikely with so few reporters left and they’ll increasingly rely on phoning up the main parties after routine meetings and showing up at big crunch times.

    If they don’t, perhaps some out-of-work journalists will fill the gap, blogging and/or selling copy to newspapers? And maybe do the same for all the courts that already routinely go uncovered.

  5. The meeting was compelling enough for me to stay to the end, despite standing in high heels for most of it and being so hot I nearly fainted a couple of times.

    One thing I hadn’t known and really shocked me was the profit margin of 40% being sought by news publishers. Especially when you compare it with Tesco’s aim of 10%, one of the wealthiest and most successful companies in the UK. No wonder papers are in trouble when owners are sucking out the cash and not investing back.

    I was also appalled to learn that in some areas where a paper has been shut down, the former owners are taking legal action to stop people starting their own news publishing initiatives! (This doesn’t apply to GMG, btw.)

  6. Eep, my replies have gone out of sequence! The one above is, of course, in response to Rob.

    @Paul, I agree that news blogs such as Darwen Reporter are in no shape to replace the local papers and deliver hard news. Yet. But it’s a start and it’s better than nothing in communities where a paper has been shut down, or had its budget sliced so heavily it can only churn. With more people involved and a bit of monetising, there’s no reason why news blogs wouldn’t be able to cover council meetings and crime, as long as the blogs use experience reporters.

    The problem, of course, is that those papers that still exist won’t be in a position to train new talent. And all the journalism degrees and NCTJ certificates in the world are meaningless without some experience and a guiding hand from older staff who’ve done the beat.

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some of the beat reporting ended up being farmed out to freelances.

  7. I am sorry that I couldn’t get there on Friday to witness what is obviously going to be a passionate campaign to save local journalism in Manchester.

    You are correct that strike action is not the way forward at least at this stage.Instead local people getting involved and spreading the word will generate far more publicity.

    It is a shame that Guardian media group,so often held up as the model for journalism, has resorted to taking this action.

    Closing local offices to seemingly fund a local TV station is a short sighted response to a problem that needs long term solutions.

    Manchester is not a single entity which can be embraced from one central office.There are many examples of this strategy failing.Reporters become isolated from the communities that they proport to represent and community vanishes.

    I hope that in the short term local community sites can spring up and take the place of what the MEN is losing.

  8. Pingback: Lady Levenshulme's Blog | More Gloom at the MEN

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