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The importance of local voices
With nine hundred job losses since last summer in regional and local newspapers, and a scaled down independent television offering for regional audiences, local news has fewer traditional outlets to reach the public.
Will the printing press survive?
Some commentators believe social networking sites on the internet can fill the gap but Kurt Barling wonders whether this development will have implications for local accountability.
The media landscape is changing dramatically. Technology has been a great driver of this new environment in which it is now practically possible to share information with people in real time.
No need to wait for the journalist to gather the story and have it approved by an editor, have the pages set and then sent to the printing presses. Now communication with a potential audience takes as long as posting a blog on the Internet; a matter of seconds.
Making a difference
The big unanswered question is whether this will make a difference in people's lives. That after all is an important part of journalism. At least that's what I was taught as a student thirty years ago and what I imagine the increasing numbers of journalism students are still lectured on.
Over 13,000 students are currently signed up for university courses this coming year. If you like, the function of the journalist is not only to let people know about the world about them but in extremis to hold those in power to account.
This is what is meant when the press is referred to as the 'Fourth Estate.' The eighteenth century politician Edmund Burke is attributed as having identified journalists in the public gallery of the House of Commons as set apart from the three estates in Parliament (Clergy, Lords and Commoners) and as being as important in scrutinising the government’s work and its impact on the governed.
In a society which has much decentralised government decision-making, and where those decisions can have a major impact on people's lives, the local press has become a part of an extensive Fourth Estate.
The purpose of journalism
There is of course no manual which tells you precisely what purpose journalism serves in our communities but certainly over the past century (if less so before) the convention has emerged that one critical part of its function is for those in public authority to communicate with electors and so those who vote, have a channel (other than the ballot box), to hold elected officials, and their agents, to account.
Journalists ask questions. Sometimes the answers lead to greater clarification. Often they lead to more questions and open debate about a given issue. Not all debates are dramatic enough to attract national scrutiny.
The closure of a local school, the opening of a new hospital, the election of a new council, the failure to collect the rubbish, inadequate street lighting or even the winning of a beauty pageant are all local issues which need local debate.
Local campaigns & identities
In areas where the local paper is being scaled back or lost there is an argument that without a local journalistic institution which is independently credible, debate can become skewed or even stifled.
It is unlikely that a website set up to save a local hospital will turn its attention to saving local playing fields should that also be issue. In the Internet world the old adage those who shout loudest get heard is no less true. But that is not always a reflection of the most deserving causes.
Papers are a vital part of democracy
A century or more ago local newspapers didn't necessarily start with a mandate to serve their communities with more than gossip or the tittle-tattle of local dignitaries.
We're a long way off from that now and if local and regional outlets begin to disappear it is difficult to see just how communities can preserve and develop their local sense of identity.
Of course the big problem is the business model for the newspapers disseminating local news has been dependent for a long time on advertising for revenue not the revenue from sales. Now that the advertising market has become so competitive it is proving difficult for some businesses to commercially justify keeping titles open.
It seems no-one has the foggiest idea of how regional and local journalism will look in ten years time. In the meantime all of us need to retain a degree of trust in what we see, read and hear about public matters in order to make informed choices.
It is difficult to see, if people don't have a chance to engage in local debates about things that matter directly to them and their families in every day life, how this cannot pose problems for the way in which our democracy works.
Social networking on Twitter
Can you trust the web?
Information will still circulate, of that there can be little doubt, but there are serious questions about the likely quality of that information if the purveyor has few checks and balances on what they disseminate.
Put your local area's name into an Internet search engine and see what you come up with. Guaranteed it will take you days to work out what is, and what is not, useful or reliable
Ultimately, the Internet will be a major source of information for your locality but putting faith in something untried and untested fails to recognise that our representative democracy has come to depend on the local press more than we often accept.
last updated: 21/04/2009 at 15:17