James Naughtie on local newspapers: Change or decay?

 
Headlines on British newspapers at a newsagent shop in London

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As Johnston Press, one of the biggest regional publishers, predicts that more titles will disappear in the next few years, the Today programme's James Naughtie, a former newspaper man himself, examines the challenges and opportunities facing the UK's local press.

A few years ago, the newspaper and radio entrepreneur Sir Ray Tindle heard on the grapevine that the weekly West Wales Observer had gone bust, and was closing. Was it for sale?

He bought it on the spot, and persuaded the staff to get out the next edition at two days' notice. And he did something else. He restored the original name, the Tenby Observer. It's publishing still.

Sir Ray, who owns about 200 weekly newspapers and has been in the business for 65 years, is a phenomenon. He is an optimist, and cares about newspapers.

Jame meets Pete Lazenby James meets Pete Lazenby

He wanted the Tenby Observer to get its original name back because it had fought a notable battle in 1908 - getting the law changed to allow journalists access to public meetings from which some authorities had been excluding them.

The story is a useful antidote to the pessimism that has settled over regional newsrooms, reminding everyone that there is still life in old newspapers, and there is still a reason for cherishing them.

They need all the help they can get. With a remorseless plunge in advertising revenue, newspapers - particularly evening titles - have been in decline for many years. A number of publishing groups, who used to extract healthy profits from the business, are responding the shift from print to the web, and the recessionary bite, by swinging an axe.

Editors' jobs going in Edinburgh and Leeds, dailies turning into weeklies in the East Midlands, jobs disappearing in Lancashire and Birmingham, on-line editions taking over from street sales. Shrinkage everywhere.

James Naughtie in Trinity University College Leeds James Naughtie gives some words of advice to trainee journalists in Leeds

I took a little trip to the north of England, and inhaled some of that gloom, but I also discovered some cause for hope.

Sitting in Leeds with Pete Lazenby, veteran Yorkshire Evening Post man, we shared stories of the days of ink and hot metal type, when deadlines were attended by the clatter of the presses starting up and papers seemed to be the engines of their communities.

Change is inevitable - who can complain about a mobile phone or a computer? - but Pete regretted, with me, the passing of some of the crusading spirit. Were the owners of today still interested in what newspapers were for?

Webward move

But I tracked down some optimistic souls not far away. At Leeds Trinity University College, where a respected training course for journalists has been running for 20 years, I found a group of postgraduate students who were brimming with enthusiasm for the trade - committed to print, and to the business of good writing and brave journalism.

Jesmond's hyperlocal bloggers Jesmond's hyperlocal bloggers

Suitably cheered up, I headed for Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

In another era, I was a graduate trainee there before being sent to my first paper in Aberdeen, and I think the first story I ever had published was in the Evening Chronicle, a court report about a 15-year-old fire-raiser.

They were happy days in the Bigg Market and I was one of many, in Fleet Street and in broadcasting, who passed that way. The Chronicle today is different - only one edition, published at breakfast time. But its sales are decent, and it has a good website for breaking news.

Darren Thwaites, the editor, runs a paper that still covers the city with gusto - its burghers and people, its crime and its football - but the shift is webwards. And how do you make it pay? No-one has cracked the conundrum yet.

At a national level the Times finds its paywall an impediment to readers; the Guardian finds its world-renowned website is a financial drain. Until that problem is solved, the squeeze on the regional press will continue.

So where are the signs of life? At Jesmond Cricket Club, in the north of the city, I found some. A community website and newspaper, deliberately small, which is trying to give do-it-yourself journalism a good name.

Ian Wylie, who's worked in Fleet Street and freelanced for national papers, is running boot camps for local enthusiasts who want to help to run the website and an accompanying magazine - Jesmond Local. They know people want it, and they know that it's filling a gap left by the shrinkage of the established regional press.

We spent a happy evening, and I came away cheered up.

People still want to be journalists. There's life in some of the old papers, and there are new ones on the way. Don't let's wallow in gloom. All is not yet lost.

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 37.

    Another HYS on another non-subject.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 36.

    Like the weekend nationals, you need to plough through a lot of paper to find anything of interest.
    Sadly, when there are contentious local issues, my local weekly sometimes seems to take a position rather than ensure balance.
    Out of date and not really local news seems to predominate, but I suppose we're all a bit impatient.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 35.

    Whilst I couldn't read the freebie chip paper that masquerades as a local newspaper (it's empty) I do miss the 'Manchester Evening News' of my youth.

    Are we happy that our locale is no longer newsworthy? The local rag is a local voice - shouldn't we want that? The 'locals' need to forge a new identity; investigative, relevant & challenging. There must be local characters to lend colour to.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 34.

    Local papers are too expensive. The so called news they print is either out of date or of no interest to the average punter. The only thing of interest to most is the death announcements. 90% of the paper is adverts which nobody reads anyway. National papers are bad enough the Mail has a daily vendetta against John Terry & a love in with Harry Redknapp for England. Very boring.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 33.

    It didn't strike me until recently that I rarely buy a paper these days - I used to do so daily. I have my phone and my iPad and I use them on the move. No inky hands either! They are becoming obsolete and no reinvention will save them from a quick death (give it five years).

  • Comment number 32.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 31.

    Newspapers are dying regardless of whether they are regional or national. Its just taking the national ones longer. I get up to the minute news when I want, where I want online or on my iPhone. Why would anyone buy a newspaper that provides information that is out of date even before you bought it?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 30.

    General problem with the news both print and online - is the reporters and editors do not report all the facts - they give their opinion on what just happened and many times they are wrong. Locally we have some give-away papers - and one year it was the only way I knew we were having a town election - and its the only way to know who won.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 29.

    Local newepapers used to have a deviil atitude to the local comuniity.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 28.

    An apolitical, atheistic, investigative, wide-ranging and fearless local paper that wasn't two thirds advertising? I might even buy it. But the ones that come through my door tick none of these boxes. They seem to exist to promote their politics, their 'isms', and a very wide range of products and services. They don't actually offer anything I'd be prepared to pay for.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 27.

    There is no need at all for any printed newspapers, especially local ones. Any that (unfortunately) come through my letterbox - despite the notice not to post them - go straight in to the recycling bin without even reading the headlines. I can get all I need from the internet, it's time "Local Papers" woke up to the internet and began sending their "paper" via that medium.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 26.

    I do not support subsidies for local papers. Even although they are supposed to cover surrounding areas they do not, so have not bought one for many months especially as they are quite pricy. Also although they have a goods for sale section, unless you can send by the website there is a high charge & as area they cover is small it is not cost effective to the seller. They must pay their own way

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 25.

    Ask yourself a question, what is news and to whom? Local news is only of interest to those involved, they are far more effective in individual one issue campaigns and in my experience, those are few and far between. Bring in more investigative journalists.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 24.

    I live near to Birmingham, but not within the boundaries of BMC, and I find that the local dailies, even those that are supposedly for the Black Country, just deal solely with Birmingham news, therefore I never buy any of them.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 23.

    the leicester mercury is printed in nottingam.....?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 22.

    I believe there is a place for UK Press - for that early morning read on public transportation, or evening read on the way home.
    This is especially true for local news that may not find its way to the Net.
    In some unique manner these papers stand a better chance if they are highly participative, making the readership feel like a tight community.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 21.

    Liverpools local paper is no longer a local paper merely an outreach of its London based parent company. It isn't even printed in Liverpool anymore.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 20.

    I worked for a free magazine that would be distributed by hand at places like London tube and rail stations, we slowly shrank from four titles down to one and vanished after advertising revenues fell away as did their volume, the last magazine was thin indeed. You get survivors though, a number of evening free newspapers came and went but the Standard, now free, seems to be thriving.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 19.

    I stopped buying a local newspaper years ago. my problem with them was that they were full of stories in which I had no, or little, interest in. Stories about someones kid who had won a race at the local fair, pages of ads, lazy stories (the sort with no investigative journalism), pictures of newly weds I didn`t know. In the end I just thought I was wasting my money

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 18.

    Reading this story on the BBC website says it all

 

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