Friday, 27 September 2013

Quotes of the Week: From confesssions of a spin doctor to Stephen Fry ashamed of British press

Damian McBride, Gordon Brown's spin doctor, in the Daily Mail: "Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat; ministers, MPs or advisers; if they'd ever shared their secrets with colleagues in Westminster, the chances were that I ended up being told about them, too. Drug use; spousal abuse; secret alcoholism; extramarital affairs. I estimate I did nothing with 95% of the stories I was told. But, yes, some of them ended up on the front pages of Sunday newspapers.”

Martin Bright, who says the Brownites cost him his job as political ed of the New Statesman, in The Times [£]: "My story is a mere footnote of the Brown premiership but it is symptomatic of precisely the poison Damian McBride has identified in his confessional memoir. Imagine a country in Eastern Europe or Africa where the prime minister’s friend, an MP and millionaire owner of a prominent weekly magazine, removed the editor and political editor after they refused to print the government line. You would be rightly outraged. Well, it happened here."

Alastair Campbell in the Guardian: "When I first published The Blair Years I got offered over a million quid from News International. I am not saying I wasn't interested because we did have an unspoken agreement. But I had three sleepless nights and in the end I woke up and I said to Fiona [Millar, his partner]: 'I can't do this.' Once you take that sort of money for a book you have no right whatsoever to stop them taking whatever they want, what headline they want. My gut reaction when I heard that he [McBride] had sold it to the Daily Mail was I thought it was sickening but unsurprising."

Peter Preston in the Observer on Damian McBride's book: "It's a tawdry collation of muck and threat. Who wants to put politicians and their propaganda squads in charge of press regulation, you may well ask as the autumn leaves of Leveson begin to fall anew? But any news organisation, concerned about journalism's ethical standards, has one or two grisly questions to grapple with too. Such as: when you're a reporter fed a tale about carousings past or present by a press secretary serving a minister in Labour's house of cards, what exactly is the story? That someone may have drunk too much? Or that this stuff is being leaked from on high? The facts of the McBride connection are a heavy duty commentary on the morality of power. Wasn't that true then, when the sewage flowed? Wasn't that the much bigger story?"

GingerElvis@GingerElvis on Twitter: "Can't believe the public sometimes. They keep phoning up expecting to talk to reporters. We're a newspaper FFS. We don't have any reporters."

Lloyds List editor Richard Meade on the decision for the newspaper to go digital only: Lloyd’s List first started in 1734 as a notice pinned to the wall of a coffee shop in London offering customers trusted shipping news and information. That aim has not changed, but the technology has and our customers are now accessing the industry’s most sophisticated intelligence source in any coffee shop, anywhere in the world 24 hours a day.”

Peter Oborne in the Spectator: "As any newspaperman will recognise,  Daniel Finkelstein has never in truth been a journalist at all. At the Times he was an ebullient and cheerful manifestation of what all of us can now recognise as a disastrous collaboration between Britain’s most powerful media empire and a morally bankrupt political class. He is, however, a powerful manifestation of the post-modern collapse of boundaries between politics and journalism."

Ian Burrell in the Independent "The truth is that neither the Mirror nor The Sun can look to a new dawn. Irrespective of the merits of either of their different digital strategies, and whether their refreshes and relaunches please the eyes of their readers, Britain’s two biggest tabloids face a turbulent future. The storm clouds heading from the direction of New Scotland Yard will see to that."

on Twitter: "Those blank pages in the Mirror made me think of all the times I've had to fight to get extra space. Self-indulgent tossers."

Martin Regan publisher of newly launched Macclesfield Today on ProlificNorth: “We are creating a paper for ‘clever’ people. There will be no cats up f*****g trees coverage in our titles."

'Kendo Nagasaki' posts on HoldTheFrontPage about the Bristol Post highlighting positive news: "Ignore the focus groups, people love bad news. Nobody is going to sit down in a focus group and say 'actually, I would like to read about more rapes and murders'. But the truth is people revel in the depravity of mankind. Look in your local bookshop – shelves and shelves of books devoted to the doings of killers and criminals. Not many books about people helping the elderly across the road. That is human nature. Ignore it at your peril."

“We are creating a paper for ‘clever’ people.
“There will be no cats up f*****g trees coverage in our titles.
- See more at:
Regan would be that: “We are creating a paper for ‘clever’ people.
“There will be no cats up f*****g trees coverage in our titles.
- See more at:
Regan would be that: “We are creating a paper for ‘clever’ people.
“There will be no cats up f*****g trees coverage in our titles.
- See more at:
Regan would be that: “We are creating a paper for ‘clever’ people.
“There will be no cats up f*****g trees coverage in our titles.
- See more at:
Stephen Fry "I spent this morning doing an hour’s filmed interview for a foreign news crew who are doing a ten part series about England and what it means to be English. 'Is there anything that makes you ashamed to be English?' I was asked. 'Yes,' I said. 'Our printed press.' 'Oh,' he said, resignedly. 'That’s the answer everyone gives.' I wonder why."

[£] = paywall

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

InPublishing: How the press got back its mojo

I've written an article for InPublishing about some of the brilliant public interest stories published by the press this summer: How the press got back its mojo - and its regulation in first.

Among the stories I've highlighted are the victory by the Sunday Times over crime boss David Hunt (top); the Guardian's revelations that undercover police tried to smear the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence; politicians caught in lobbying scandal; The Times on grooming gangs; the Guardian vindicated over the Ian Tomlinson case; the Independent on the 'other' hacking scandal; the Guardian scooping the US press on the NSA mass surveillance spying story; the naming of health officials involved in a cover-up; and the culmination of the Liverpool Echo's campaign on behalf of the families of the Hillsborough victims.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Media Quotes of the Week: From Leveson attacked as 'disastrous' by Guardian legal chief to Daily Mail defends the BBC against politicial interference

Leveson: 'Worst of all worlds'

The Guardian’s director of editorial legal services Gill Phillips on the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry, as quoted by Press Gazette: “What Leveson has come up with is the worst of all worlds. His attempt to please everybody and avoid being a dusty footnote on a shelf somewhere has led him down a road that has proved to be pretty disastrous. We don’t have anything that could be perceived as effective or credible by either side of the debate.”

Peter Oborne praises Ed Miliband in the Telegraph: "For roughly three decades all senior British politicians had deferred in the most demeaning and improper way to the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Mr Miliband refused to go along with this, thus helping to remove a giant stench from the heart of British public life." 

Russell Brand in the Guardian on the GQ awards: "We witness that there is a relationship between government, media and industry that is evident even at this most spurious and superficial level. These three institutions support one another. We know that however cool a media outlet may purport to be, their primary loyalty is to their corporate backers. We know also that you cannot criticise the corporate backers openly without censorship and subsequent manipulation of this information."

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet in a statement on 75 more job cuts at the BBC: "We are in this position because of the former director general Mark Thompson's shabby, behind-closed-doors, deal with the government. His decision to agree to freeze the licence fee until 2017 and take on an extra £340 million in new financial responsibilities, such as the World Service and the provision of fast broadband, has proved a disaster for the corporation. Last week we watched Thompson and members of the BBC Trust defending £1 million pay-offs to former executives, this week we hear hard-working journalists committed to the BBC and public service broadcasting are to be shown the door."

Grey Cardigan on TheSpinAlley takes issue with the NUJ and general secretary Michelle Stanistreet's support for members to clock off at 5.30pm on September 25 [Go Home On Time Day]: "The day of inaction is planned for a Wednesday, which also happens to be deadline day for a whole host of weekly newspapers. The NUJ obviously doesn’t know this, but if Ms Stanistreet can point me to a single editorial employee of those titles who will be able to leave at a notional 5.30pm on that particular day, I’ll show my arse in Woolworth’s window." 

Roy Greenslade on his blog: "Suggestions that the 'new' Sun on Sunday (SoS) would move closer to the old News of the World proved to be unfounded.It was a damp squib that amounted to a succession of very average news page leads." 

Mike Harris of Index on Censorship, in the Guardian on proposals that libel litigants should only have to pay their own costs: "We are concerned about the implications for freedom of expression in that someone could sue a newspaper vexatiously because they know they don't have to pay the costs even if they lose." 

Sir Ray Tindle, quoted by HoldtheFrontPage: "One swallow doesn’t make a summer but I’m pleased to tell you that, for the first time for a considerable period, last week every one of our London titles went into profit.” 

Richard Sambrook in the Guardian on the BBC: "Newspaper editors should pause before rubbing their hands in glee. If the government can push the boundaries of interference under this guise of transparency and accountability, what hope for a truly independent post-Leveson settlement?" 

Daily Mail in a leader: "If politicians are given influence over the BBC’s output – as they would be, under this plan to transfer the Trust’s functions to Ofcom and the National Audit Office – this will fundamentally undermine the Corporation’s independence and, with it, the public’s right to know. Indeed, any scrutiny of Ofcom – that nest of politically-correct Blairites – should demonstrate how unsafe it would be to entrust it with rulings on what the BBC may and may not broadcast."

Friday, 13 September 2013

Media Quotes of the Week: From Huhne hammered over Guardian column to BBC execs have 'betrayed fearless and brilliant reporters'

 Matt in the Telegraph

Chris Huhne in the Guardian: "The News of the World sparked the end of my marriage, but another Murdoch title, the Sunday Times, then groomed my ex-wife until she told them about the speeding points."

The Telegraph in a leader on Chris Huhne's Guardian column: "A more self-delusional and morally contemptible article would be hard to imagine. Many people have swapped speeding points, he wrote, as if this made any difference to his breaking the law. Moreover, he claimed that a newspaper investigation into his affair with another woman “sparked the end of my marriage”. It seems not to have occurred to him that his adultery was responsible for that."

Janice Turner in The Times [£]: "And no coincidence Huhne wrote his mea non-culpa for The Guardian. Randomly drop in the phrase “phone-hacking”, note you were exposed by The Sunday Times, invoke the name Rupert “Beelzebub” Murdoch himself and hope a liberal conspiracy will swirl up like marsh gas to obfuscate your crime."

on Twitter: "Not a "Murdoch press target". A Neville Thurlbeck target. My source, my story. & it took a year to persuade the ed to run it." 

John Gapper in the Financial Times: "Exerting pressure on the BBC is a political pastime. When Ian Katz, editor of the Newsnight television show, mistakenly tweeted what was intended to be a private message this week which (correctly) described an interview with Rachel Reeves, a Labour shadow minister, as 'boring snoring', Labour complained that he was not being impartial. That is laughable."

David Cameron to the Commons liaison committee, as reported by the Guardian: "To be clear I am committed to the cross-party charter. We all signed it, we agreed it. We should progress it but it would be good if we could find some way for everyone to see that it would be better if you ended up with a cross-party charter that the press seek recognition with. But it is a cross-party issue so this is something all party leaders have to address."

on Twitter: "Telegraph hires supreme digital editor from Washpost, AoL and PBS. Rather like Man U buying £85 million striker from Yeovil and Fulham?"

Charles Moore in the Telegraph: "Tony Blair is right. I realise that this is not the most persuasive way to start an article in a modern national newspaper, but it is the columnist’s task to shock, as well as to please."

Henry Porter in the Observer "What the Guardian-New York Times stories of last week tell us is that we are much less free than we supposed and that unrestricted surveillance will become a menace to us all. That should be a vital concern for journalists, even at the BBC."

Libby Purves in The Times [£] on the BBC executives involved in the payoff row: "They have betrayed fearless and brilliant reporters: whenever I hear the clear-sighted and humane Hugh Sykes bringing Middle Eastern tragedies to light and understanding, or see a patient weary correspondent, sleepless in a hot foreign night, explaining a specialism for the tenth time that day to yet another news anchor, I wince at the way decent and dedicated people were traduced and laid open to contumely for being part of a 'bloated' and 'scandal-hit' BBC. They have been shafted by those whose job was respectfully, humbly and wisely to enable their endeavours."

[£] = paywall

Friday, 6 September 2013

New industry-backed press standards regulator IPSO could be up and running early next year

The Independent Press Standards Organisation, the planned press regulator backed by the majority of the newspaper and magazine industry, could be up and running early next year.

IPSO is supported by the Newspaper Society, Newspaper Publishers Association, the Scottish Newspaper Society and the PPA, representing the magazine industry. It has been rejected by the Guardian, which claims IPSO would be too much under the control of the big newspaper publishers.

Paul Vickers, chairman of the Industry Implementation Group, said in a statement: "The Industry Implementation Group – including representatives from across the national, regional, periodical and Scottish press - met earlier this week to finalise the legal and contractual documentation that will establish the new press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

"Very significant progress has been made. A number of suggestions, both from publishers and from other parties, have been incorporated and the four key documents will shortly be ready for a final consultation across the newspaper and magazine industry.

"Work is also well under way on the financing arrangements for IPSO; and the Foundation Group under the Chairmanship of Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers is undertaking the task of selecting an independent Appointments Panel to appoint the first Board.

"We hope that we will therefore be in a position to begin signing contracts that will establish IPSO during late September and October, with a view to implementation of the new regulatory system, fully compliant with the Leveson principles, in the early part of the new year."

Media Quotes of the Week: From Tony Parsons' progress to a little bit of spin from PR Week

Tony Parsons on leaving the Mirror after 18 years: "I am going now but I wish nothing but the best to this great old newspaper, to my brilliant colleagues who remain and – above all – to you, dear, beloved Daily Mirror reader.You see, I know you, and I have known you all my life. You are the family that raised me.You are the hearts who loved me.You are the sharp, ­questioning minds who put books into my hands and taught me to look at the stars. You are the faces who looked at me across the breakfast tables of my childhood and said 'Haven’t you finished with that paper yet?' It has been a privilege, a joy and an honour."

Tony Parsons on joining the Sun Sunday, as quoted by Press Gazette: "Every footballer wants to play for Real Madrid, every actor wants to work in Hollywood. And any journalist who truly wants to reach millions of the British public wants a column in The Sun."

on Twitter: "Frost-Nixon interviews described on BBC today as one of greatest exclusives ever. Frost PAID Nixon. Tis a wonder Op Elveden didn't nick him." 

Chris Oakley warns in the updated edition of What Do We Mean By Local? of a "Kafkaesque nightmare vision – citizens with no local pub, no local post office, no local newspaper, no knowledge, no informed opinion on anything that should matter to them or their families.  Times are always changing, but if good men and women - and good journalists - can do nothing then change can destroy rather than create progress."

Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, quoted in the Guardian: "The protection of national security secrets must never be used as an excuse to intimidate the press into silence and backing off from its crucial work in the clarification of human rights violations."

Grey Cardigan on The Spin Alley: "BBC director general Tony Hall announces with a smirk of self-satisfaction that half of regional breakfast show hosts will be female by the end of 2014. Why? Is he saying that half the men currently doing the job aren’t up to scratch? And, if so, why haven’t local managers done something about it and sacked the useless sods?  Or is he saying that perfectly capable presenters are going to be turfed out of a job just to meet some artificial quota? Either way, the employment lawyers must be rubbing their hands with glee, the money-grabbing bastards."

Keith Vaz, chairman of the home Affairs Select Committee, quoted by the Daily Mail says the Serious Organised Crime Agency should identify the organisations who were clients of corrupt investigators: "We give you until Monday to publish this list, if you fail to publish it on Monday, we will publish it because we think it is in the public interest to do so. We’ve taken legal advice." 

Unemployed Hack on his blog takes aim at professional trolls: "A lack of principle and no journalism ethics means they’ll produce right-wing shite for The Sun and less right-wing shite for The Guardian so long as the money goes in the bank. These trolls,of course, exist alongside the lesser 'celebrity' hacks but together they create a predominantly white, middle class, myopic clique of London-based writers who condemn, judge and make a mockery of our lives and our journalism. It’s a nasty trend that sees columnists paid to share their ill-informed views – sometimes with intent to cause offense -  while investigative journalism falls by the wayside and real journalists struggle to to find freelance or staff jobs."

PR Week puts a bit of spin on the news it's going from weekly to monthly publication: "The communication industry's leading title PRWeek is preparing the biggest overhaul in its 25-year history with the launch of a monthly magazine and a series of digital products next month." 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Ex-newspaper chief Chris Oakley: 'Monty's editor-less robots' won't save local journalism

Former regional newspaper editor and chief executive Chris Oakley warns in the updated edition of What Do We Mean By Local? of a "Kafkaesque nightmare vision – citizens with no local pub, no local post office, no local newspaper, no knowledge, no informed opinion on anything that should matter to them or their families.  Times are always changing, but if good men and women - and good journalists - can do nothing then change can destroy rather than create progress."

He writes: "Imagine: your circulation is up, one of just 13 out of the 373 paid weeklies in the country … and that’s despite a 35p cover price rise to 90p. What’s more, your  title turns a profit. As editor, your duty is clear. It is time to call the editorial, circulation and ad sales teams together, crack a few celebratory bottles on the company and wait for the congratulatory phone call from the boss.

The phone rings all right … and you’re fired. Well, not quite. In these enlightened days, you are being considered for redundancy and during a period of consultation every effort will be made to explore a number of potentially suitable options for you. But, actually, your name is on the list and, in reality, that is that. Even a petition by Press Gazette and a Facebook campaign by local readers, advertisers and national celebrities cannot save you.

Now what management would get rid of a successful editor, alienate the customers who make the newspaper profitable and hand the job to a part-time editor commuting 20 miles from another publishing centre two days a week?

The answer is a management who cannot put their customers first, who cannot even afford to keep successful staff but are compelled to focus on only one priority – paying down the company’s bank debt.

The Decline Quickens

Just over a year ago, I contributed a chapter, The Men Who Killed the Regional Newspaper Industry, to John Mair’s book What Do We Mean by Local? (2012). In the months since then, the decline of the established regional press has quickened.

The average fall in the sale of paid weekly and daily regional newspapers in the most recent six-monthly Audit Bureau of Circulation figures  (December 2012) was 6.4 per cent. That figure is distorted by titles which have merged circulation areas or gone part-free. More than 15 of the 77 paid daily titles lost more than 15 per cent of their sales and almost 20 paid weeklies lost more than 20 per cent.

Yet the decision by Johnston Press to make Jon Stokoe, one of its most successful weekly editors, redundant was not perverse; it was inevitable. Stokoe  has lived in Whitby for more than 30 years. He is a presence in the town, giving after-dinner speeches, handing out trophies, giving careers guidance in schools as well as producing his newspaper, feeding its website, keeping a presence on Facebook and Twitter.

It is a model that worked long before life went online and, judging by his rising sales figures and those of editors like him, it still works. But that is immaterial. Ashley Highfield, the chief executive of Johnston Press, inherited a mountain of debt. He simply cannot afford to have an editor, however successful, at every one of his titles. In total, a quarter of Johnston Press’s 5,000 staff were made redundant last year. The company may have made an operating profit of £57 million in 2012 at a remarkable 17 per cent margin, but the group’s total turnover, down by 12 per cent to £328 million, did not  quite match its debts and the cost of persuading the banks to renew those loans.

Interest on the debt, incidentally, is 10.5 per cent, more than £30 million a year, reflecting the banks’ scepticism about whether those debts will ever be repaid. Highfield must hit fixed repayment targets to avoid an even more penal interest rate and, at best, to stand a chance of negotiating more favourable terms on the outstanding debt.

To do this, he intends to achieve a profit margin of more than 30 per cent, an objective in the present climate and given the cost reduction necessary about as likely as Del Boy making good on his perennial promise: ‘This time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires.’

The City jury remains as sceptical as the banks. Although the share price has risen with the markets to around 17p, it is a far cry from the £4 plus of five years ago, and values the company at £120 million, just over a third of its debts.

A Future Without Editors

Johnston Press is not alone. Trinity and Newsquest face similar pressures, the former from its bank debt, the latter from its hard-pressed US parent company. And then there are the new big boys on the block, Local World. In November 2012, David Montgomery, the chairman of this combination of Northcliffe’s 100-plus titles and Yattendon’s 25 titles, outlined his vision for the future of journalism in this regional group, now the third biggest with a 20 per cent share of the market.

Editors, he said, were pretty well redundant, sub-editors were a thing of the past, journalists were actually content managers, manipulating material submitted by the community for transmission in print, online, by mobile. He told MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee: ‘We will have to harvest content and publish it without human interface. Journalists collecting stories one by one are hugely unproductive.’

Since then, Montgomery has rowed back from this vision of an army of robots processing content fed to them free of the costs which inevitably accompany professionally researched and produced stories … but not by much.

He told Press Gazette: ‘Local journalism is moving more towards self-publishing – by journalists and by an increasing number of self-serve contributors. Journalists will not be going through antiquated editing processes in future, they will be publishing directly on to different platforms.’

Content created by journalists and by those Montgomery terms ‘others’ would not be edited. He sees journalists as ‘generators of content, managers of content and publishers of content without intervention from their colleagues or senior editors.

All journalists will be editors in their own right’. Since then Local World has terminated the contracts of the 25 freelance journalists running their hyperlocal sites relying, instead, on user-generated content, and closed the weekly Loughborough Mercury and Bedford Midweek, both launched last year. Asked about the future of face-to-face interviews, investigations and exclusive stories, Montgomery points to the example of a story, published in Local World’s North Devon Journal which he says went global.

It was about WI members who dressed as pirates to hear a speaker who had been held hostage in Somalia and was ‘harvested’ from a report sent in by the WI. Of course, it is an amusing local story that in days gone by would have been followed up by the nationals and is now sent global by online publishers desperate for free and harmless content. But if Montgomery truly believes this is a great example of his vision for the future, pity the poor readers of Local World titles, in print and online.

It’s Free but is it True?

An entire chapter could be devoted to discussing the flaws in his vision. Without editors how will any consistent standards or policies be implemented across the various media? How will this submitted content be verified? Without verification how can it be trusted? Will contributors really be prepared to provide free material, day in and day out? Special interest groups may do so, but who will provide the broader picture? Who will cover local courts and councils and be the impartial watchdog of the community? Will any serious attempt be made to cover those local disputes and protests which can be fraught with legal pitfalls?

Yet Local World is not alone in this stampede to irrelevance. Johnston Press has a target for 50 per cent of all its content to be contributed free by community correspondents. Trinity has a similar policy. Of course, local readers must be involved in the creation of their community’s newspaper, in print or online; they always have been. But it is unrealistic to expect from them the wideranging, impartial coverage trained journalists should provide.

In the United States, newspapers soon found that the volume of free content contributed by the community for print and online publication by was insufficient. To fill the gap, agencies sprang up offering cheap hyperlocal content – basically press releases lightly and often badly re-written by workers based in the Philippines … workers who not only never set foot in the community the agencies pretend to serve; they never even set foot in the country.

A study by the Annenberg Centre for the Digital Future, Is America at a Digital Turning Point (2012), found that more than 60 per cent of users believe online sites lack credibility and that this percentage is rising sharply. Without credibility, such online news sites and their print twins have nothing worthwhile to offer.

Maximum Profit and Slow Liquidation

In Philip Meyer’s book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age (2004), he says that ‘community influence is a paper’s most important product’. The foundation for that influence is credibility. Journalists understand that but it appears to have no place in the brave new Local World vision or that of other major regional publishers.

Meyer goes on to write of American proprietors unable to sell their declining businesses who embarked on what he terms ‘the slow liquidation’ of their newspapers by charging more and giving readers less. This allows them to siphon off maximum profits in the short term at the expense of the newspaper’s standing in the community and at the cost of losing readers and advertisers.

Meyer adds this may be presented as ‘temporary economising to be reversed once business conditions improve or even the exploration of a new business model … but don’t be fooled’. Slow liquidation is precisely the policy being followed by major regional groups here.

Deloitte’s latest Media Consumer Survey (June 2013) has particularly bad news for regional dailies. Only 39 per cent of newspaper readers now say print is their preferred way of reading their favourite daily title, a staggering reduction from 79 per cent the previous year, but settling down with a weekly paper still has a more enduring appeal.

The growth in online readers, more and more often using mobile platforms, offers some encouragement for newspaper publishers but it is far from certain that the cost of investment required to compete online can be justified by the revenue it will generate. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global Media and Entertainment Survey 2013-2017 states that, while online newspaper revenues are growing, they are expected to account for only 11 per cent of total revenue by 2017.

Success in a Desolate Landscape

It is tempting to despair of the future for regional journalism, but there are faint rays of hope. More than 80 new local print titles have been launched in the UK since 2008. One success story is that of Richard Coulter, a former assistant editor of the Bristol evening paper who grew tired of Northcliffe’s continual editorial cuts and left to set up his own monthly news magazine in the suburb of Filton.

The Filton Voice was profitable from its first issue, now has sister titles in two other Bristol suburbs and Richard hopes to launch four more titles this summer. The plan then is to support other publishers in expanding the concept  beyond the Bristol area. John Stokoe may no longer be the Whitby Gazette Editor but he, too, is back in local journalism as a columnist on the newly launched 96- page Whitby Mag and as a sub-editor – perhaps THE sub-editor – for Local World.

In the U.S. there are student-run newspapers, supported by universities, filling the void left by traditional media. Closer to home, Cardiff University has set up a centre for community journalism to build a network of local news websites and to turn them into sustainable businesses. Students on the university’s media courses will staff them.

Coventry University has launched an online newspaper for the centre of its city and is now exploring ways to turn this into a commercial venture. More universities should develop such initiatives. Law faculties offer a probono legal service to help those who cannot afford legal advice and to give their students real case experience. Media students would gain invaluable practical knowledge producing a monthly newspaper, in print, online or both, as a service to their community.

However, even those who have launched titles to meet the demands of local communities would admit they have a desperately long way to go and lack the financial resources to provide the coverage given by the traditional local weekly or daily.

Another route forward for regional publishing may be through the growth of ‘philanthro-journalism’, not-for-profit operations funded by individual donors or charities. In the US, foundations have donated at least $250 million to nonprofit journalism in the last decade. A high profile example is Pro-Publica, set up in 2008 and the winner of two Pulitzer prizes. Like most such organisations, Pro-Publica gives its content away, often to cash-strapped newspapers whose reporters use the leads and legwork to develop local investigations.

In Britain, such donor-supported journalism has been hampered by the difficulty in securing charitable status and the tax benefits to donors that go with it. In contrast, the US authorities grant tax exemptions for non-profit journalism.

Neil Fowler, a former editor and associate of Nuffield College, Oxford, suggested last year that the government might help by encouraging the endangered big groups to negotiate an orderly default on their debts with the titles sold to local businessmen or communities. Since then, Lloyds has gone down this route by writing off the £25 million debts of the Dunfermline Free Press group to allow a management buy-out to go ahead in return for a 90 per cent shareholding in the company. But while the big groups stagger on, and with zombie publishers paying the banks’ exorbitant interest rates, the price of default would be high and many larger titles are too damaged to attract buyers.

The Legacy of Leveson

Yet there can scarcely have been a time when we have needed more a robust, inquiring local media than in the post-Leveson shambles. The apparent assumption by Lord Justice Leveson that arms of the state can be trusted to regulate themselves in the public good, as unworldly as it is unrealistic, is already having a pernicious effect. Police officers have been arrested simply for talking to journalists and one, April Casburn, has been jailed for raising legitimate concerns that anti-terrorism resources were being wasted on celebrity hacking inquiries.

Secret arrests, with those held not being named, are increasingly frequent. Whistleblowers, in the health service and other public sectors, have their careers trashed and are forced out with gagging orders underpinned by financial penalties for talking to the press. I have no doubt that from government to council chamber, from neglectful NHS hospital to avaricious drug company, from expense-fiddling and lobby-fee-trousering MP to greedy banker, it would be blissful if a press, cowed or shackled as a result of Leveson or by self-inflicted commercial constraints, is prevented from shining a light into the dark corners that those with power would prefer to remain un-illuminated.

We already have almost 60 journalists whose homes have been ransacked by police, whose most personal belongings are retained by the authorities, many of whom have been remanded on bail without charge for longer than terrorism suspects – all without a squeak of protest from the Establishment or, for that matter, from human rights groups. Yet there have been no arrests of those in blue-chip companies and law firms who, it transpires, used phone and computer hackers more than the media.

Can Local Newspapers still Make a Difference?

Those who seek to shrug off the precipitous decline of the regional press say readers now have access to more and more sources of news and comment – but, as the Annenberg Centre’s research shows, users may read but trust little of the content which is simply recycled unverified from one medium to another.

A strong, independent regional press has always played the critical role in every journalist’s mission to hold those in authority to account and to tell readers what they need and ought to know but its influence is waning, diminished by the inevitable dumbing down that an avalanche of unedited contributor content brings.

Are we content for the banal, superficial triteness of social media and the unverified guesswork of Wikipedia to inform the shallow thinking and short attention span of the next generation? It is a Kafkaesque nightmare vision – citizens with no local pub, no local post office, no local newspaper, no knowledge, no informed opinion on anything that should matter to them or their families. Times are always changing, but if good men and women - and good journalists - can do nothing then change can destroy rather than create progress.

It was almost always the local newspaper story, the call from a whistleblower to a reporter on the local paper that lead to the exposure of a national scandal.

The Wolverhampton-based Express and Star first exposed the conspiracy of shameful silence at Stafford Hospital where 1,000 patients died through negligence or ill-treatment. Reporter Shaun Lintern, who covered the story for almost five years but is one of the thousands of journalists no longer working in the regional press, said: ‘If my newspaper had not existed, those families had nowhere else to get their voice heard. I believe we made a difference for them.’ But he went on to say the newspaper could no longer investigate such a story because of staffing cuts, adding: ‘If we are not going to resource stories like this, what kind of news coverage are we giving to our readers?’

It’s not a question those who run today’s major regional newspaper groups want to address or, indeed, that those groups are financially capable of addressing. It’s not a question that those who control the levers of power want to hear when diminishing scrutiny enables them to sleep easier in their beds. But it is a question that should concern every individual.

Where will they turn when their elderly relative is mistreated in hospital, when they fear their daughter is being groomed by a local gang, when social services exceed their powers to take away their child or fail to act on a tip-off about abuse, when police ignore the cries for help from a persecuted teenager, when out-of-hours medical care collapses?

One thing is certain. Monty’s editor-less robots won’t be any help."

  • Chris Oakley is the former editor of ther Liverpool Echo who went on to lead the £125 million management buy-out of the Birmingham Post and Mail. Oakley dropped out of sixth form to join his local newspaper as a trainee reporter, earning three guineas a week, less ten shillings for his typewriter. He is a past president of the Newspaper Society and Guild of British Newspaper Editors (now the Society of Editors). Oakley chairs a print and online regional business publishing and event company, an ecommerce digital agency and is financial trustee of the charity Television for the Environment which makes international documentaries and social media films.
  • What do we mean by local? The rise, fall and possible rise again of local journalism edited by John Mair, Richard Lance Keeble with Neil Fowler, published by Abramis on September 1, 2013. ISBN 978-1-84549-593-0. Price £19.95 or as a special offer to readers of this blog £15.00 from
Other extracts from What do we mean by local?