Most people would now acknowledge that there are serious structural issues facing regional and local news in Britain just like in the US. The UK’s main commercial broadcaster (ITV) says it’s too expensive and it will stop providing it unless the government makes it worthwhile (see Michael Grade’s piece in the Telegraph). Local newspaper circulations have been dropping virtually non-stop for the last few years and, more importantly, their advertising and classified revenues keep falling. As a result news organisations are cutting local staff, closing offices and shutting down newspapers (see Job Cuts Timeline at journalism.co.uk, Roy Greenslade on Archant shutting offices, and the FT on newspaper closures).
Some local areas have it worse than others. This week two Welsh politicians called Wales a ‘media wasteland’ where stories of public and political interest simply go unreported – despite the devolution of power to Wales a decade ago. “Since 1999”, Dai Davies said, “we have seen a vast increase in powers to politicians in Wales and yet more and more journalists losing their jobs, and less and less reporting of politics and political debate and decision-making” (from BBC News Wales).
Now English politicians are also starting to become animated about the decline in reporting and lack of political coverage. Ashok Kumar, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland says he is next week going to ask the government to provide state support for the regional press (from Press Gazette).
Kumar and other politicians follow a growing number of voices from within the media itself who are suggesting the government should subsidise local newspapers. Most notably Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who wrote back in November:
“Is there any reason why local newspapers – whether in print, on broadband or broadcast – shouldn’t compete with the broadcasters for some form of subsidy in return for providing the public service of keeping a community informed about itself?”
But subsidising the local press is not, IMHO, a good idea. For at least three reasons:
1. An independent commercial press would be neither independent nor commercial if it was taking hand-outs from the government. The watchdog role played by the local press would be seriously compromised were it to be state subsidised. Imagine the attitude of local councillors to reporters whose salary was partly dependent on government financing?
2. There are huge changes taking place in the way news is collected, edited, published, delivered and consumed. These changes are forcing news organisations to completely rethink how they do business. Subsidising a 20th century model will not help them rethink and reform, it will just encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing
3. It would distort local editors and journalists view of who they serve. Instead of feeling – at root – responsible to the public, they would inevitably feel a degree of responsibility to the government.
This is not an argument against intervention per se. The government can set parameters – particularly fiscal parameters (i.e. tax) that incentivise people to collect and publish public interest news. But this is fundamentally different from providing a subsidy, however arm’s length, that organisations can apply for.