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August 17, 2010

Local press is crucial

For many communities the local newspaper plays an important role – keeping everyone informed and involved in local affairs and acting to reinforce local identity. But for years now the newspaper industry has been in decline. While the national press grapples with the challenge of making a profitable transfer to online content, new research by the Media Trust suggests the implications of this decline are even more serious for the community press

Lorraine Connolly, Community Newswire

People across the country believe the decline of local newspapers has disempowered them, according to research published today.

Meeting the News Needs of Local Communities, commissioned by Media Trust, said the decline of local newspapers had left many people feeling disempowered, unheard and irrelevant and may significantly hinder the emergence of the much debated “Big Society”.

The report, written by Professor Natalie Fenton from Goldsmiths Media Research Centre, highlights the link between strong local media and proper accountability and democracy.

Caroline Diehl, Media Trust founder and chief executive, said: “This report undeniably makes the case for a vibrant local media as a cornerstone of democracy, accountability and social enterprise.

“If communities are to respond to the Government’s call to hold the authorities to account, there needs to be an effective independent mechanism for doing so.

“Transparency is meaningless without free and easy access to information and the means to test, challenge and debate it.”

The research showed members of the public wanted to get their local news from old-fashioned newspapers.

Ms Diehl added: “There is a latent demand for the rapidly disappearing, truly ‘local’ newspaper, for quality investigative journalism that can represent and reflect local concerns, underpin accountability and arguably, be the key tool in bringing back a sense of community.

“The respondents and focus groups involved in this research wanted to see and know local journalists, wanted them to ‘walk the beat’ and engage face-to-face.

“They want journalists, local news and local newspapers back at the heart of their communities.”

Those interviewed for the report said that while online news could provide a solution to local accountability and information, it was still a long way from filling the gap left by local papers.

Even communities that had local and hyperlocal websites still wanted a local paper with news about their neighbourhoods and communities.

In the report’s executive summary, Prof Fenton called for local news hubs, supported with funds from local authorities and foundations.

Media Trust said it believed such hubs could act as a local catalyst, bringing together communities and professional journalists alongside training, volunteer mentors and technical support for communities to engage in identifying, investigating and reporting local news.

Such hubs could act as a new and accessible source of news stories for existing local and regional media, and they could possibly start a new layer of local papers – run as commercial, or not-for-profit, social enterprises.

Ms Diehl said she believed this solution would be positive for the wider media industry: “We have long believed the BBC should take positive action to increase the range of services, viewpoints and engagement accessible to communities and citizens.

“The BBC could play a vital role in setting up and resourcing such hubs – especially in mentoring and training staff, and promoting attachments and secondments.

She also said news must, by its nature, be independent: “There is no place for local authority newspapers and ‘news’ websites. This direct control of the local news agenda is not only undemocratic but an unsustainable and ineffective use of taxpayers’ funds.”

Ms Diehl said she felt a fraction of the £450 million local authorities spend on communications could be matched by funds from Big Lottery and local community foundations to provide seed funding for news hubs, which would provide a new source of dynamic local news content, freely available to all media.

She concluded: “They would hold local powers to account – the new GP fund-holders, local authorities, parent-run schools and post offices – and encourage local participation in decision-making and democracy.”