What does £1.25 get you these days? Just over half a cup of latte from Starbucks, a couple of Mars Bars or you could buy a print copy of the Bury Free Press. ‘But but but,’ I hear you cry. ‘Why buy the paper when I can read it free, online?’
These are tough times for local newspapers who have seen significant declines in their print circulations over the last ten years and a steady drop in what they can make from advertising as the internet causes a shift in the balance of power from publishers to digital advertisers. Print ads have always helped to cover the huge costs of writing, printing and distribution but as sales of actual papers fall, print ads are worth less, hence the proliferation of their digital cousins. But readers seem to dislike the latter as evidenced by the comment from a reader left underneath a BFP post on Facebook last week complaining about ‘all the ads on your pages’.
I asked Barry Peters, Communities Editor for Johnston Press, about this. “Newspapers are adapting as their audience adapts and evolves. We aim to provide news when and where our growing audience wants it, be it on mobile, tablet, desktop or print. The same goes for advertisers who now have many, many different ways of reaching their audiences and we can satisfy those aspirations, too. Local journalism does cost money at the end of the day and therefore this is balanced with a sensible amount of advertising across all our platforms.”
Those ads might irritate you but they help finance free online content. Like them or not, you can’t have it both ways and the unwillingness of readers to pay for content is helping to kill local papers. And by God you will miss them when they are gone. Think about what we all stand to lose.
Barry said: “Most people you ask will say they trust the BBC website for news and views - independent, solid, quality writing. I’d go along with that. But that can’t be said for every post on social media. Yet with a local newspaper, you get people writing about communities in which they live, work and play and they understand the nuances of local politics and their county’s own idiosyncrasies.”
Local newspapers frame the conversation within their communities. Their reporting serves as public record and drives conversations forward - and engagement with readers via social media commentary is an important part of this. Reporters are able to cover national issues and imbue them with local detail. However I suspect that the business model of offering for free in digital form what is charged for in print has bred disrespect and apathy in some readers.
The American entrepreneur Warren Buffett has this to say about regional news reporting: ‘Nobody ever stopped reading when halfway through a story that was about themselves or their neighbours’ and the future of local newspapers is dependent upon their remaining the primary source of information about the local stories which are of greatest importance to readers. The accuracy of such reporting is dependent upon the rigorous training reporters undertake as Barry Peters emphasises: “We all trust newspapers - or at least most newspapers - because they have to be legally sound. Every journalist who has been through the training programme at the BFP has had the same things drummed in: Check, check, and check again. How many social media posts have the amount of integrity and in-depth writing knowledge that you get from just one page lead in a local paper? Very few.”
Bury St Edmunds has a strong and pervasive sense of identity and in this respect it is well-placed to support a local newspaper as long as it remains the primary source of evidence-based and researched local news. But with each downsizing comes even fewer resources to cover the same beat alongside greater, and possibly unreasonable, expectations from the public about what newspapers should be doing. This is untenable. What we’ll end up with is a few billionaire-controlled national papers and great swathes of opinion-led news sites masquerading as reporting. The focus will be on aggregated content and utilitarian stories, resulting in a digital hive mind devoid of local colour.
A 2014 YouGov survey found that local newspapers remain by the far most trusted and popular source of local news. Would the disappearance of Corrie Mckeague have attracted the attention of the nationals without the solid coverage of the Bury Free Press? No.
Would the local campaign to find him have acquired such visibility without the validation of a local newspaper? No.
Despite the best intentions of the many posters on social media, unverified online sources are a cauldron of half-truths, conjecture and rumours with no system of checks and measures. What local papers do is sort out the wheat from the chaff in a way that is accountable, recordable and educative.
Please, spend £1.25 and support them.
-- Nicola Miller is author of The Millers Taleblog. Follow her on Twitter: @NicMillersTale