Wednesday 6 November 2013

Local papers, local assets

The parliamentary group of the National Union of Journalists met with culture and communications Minister Ed Vaizey MP yesterday as part of Stand Up for Journalism day. They put forward the idea that local independent newspapers should be given community asset status.

Incidentally, my own MP Jonathan Edwards proposed this over eighteen months ago.

As a reader, I don't think its such a bad idea. Local independent reporting is an asset and an invaluable service to residents and readers. Many local papers are struggling, largely I'm sure to the dominance of online news and instant social media. The plan, which would be covered by the Localism Act could prevent overnight closure and put the future of the paper out to public consultation allowing interested parties, including perhaps the local community, to consider a take-over.

It would also involve a degree of public funding of course and some will see it as yet another public subsidy for a failing business but others, including myself, will see it as a means of protecting vital investigative and independent journalism. The practicalities would naturally need considerable ironing out, and one suggestion was a 'public benefit test' with requirements such as "a commitment to reporting council meetings and courts and providing a forum for the local community".

As for public expenditure, I would rather it helped to secure the future of my local paper, the independently minded South Wales Guardian than used to churn out the Carmarthenshire council propaganda rag six times a year as is currently the case.

With the possibility that the requirement for councils to advertise public notices in the papers will soon be dropped, there could be a further marked drop in revenue adding to the problem, but on the up-side, councils would no longer have local papers over a barrel. Community asset status would provide something of a safety net and also help prevent editorial independence being compromised by reputation conscious Town Hall dictators. Which is also currently the case.


Anonymous said...

Except that in some places local newspapers are so dependent on council advertising (road closures, jobs, planning notices etc) it can create something of a conflict of interest and lead to "safe" reporting which is little more than regurgitated press releases.

It takes a brave journalist and editor to put public interest first in those circumstances

Owen said...

I'd echo what Anon 12:43 said. I think more sustainable (yes, I hate that word) business models are the best way forward for local papers. Perhaps that can include some limited public funding based on the "public benefit test" you outline.

Any central pot for subsidies would be best controlled by a body independent of government like the Welsh Books Council (similarly to how they do things in Norway). We would be on the road to hell if it were down to councils or the Assembly and/or Welsh Government. You probably already know, but I covered issues surrounding the press back in September.

caebrwyn said...

Thanks Anon and Owen for your comments.
Yes Owen a road to hell, perhaps I didn't make it very clear that an independent body would most definitely have to control any funds.
Thanks for the link - Excellent article and I suggests anyone interested in the subject of the press/media in Wales has a read.