The Guardian, by Vanessa Thorpe
For decades the offices of the Hendon Times stood proud, if a bit dented and stained, on Church Road in London, NW4. There was even a clock grandly suspended outside, above the newspaper masthead. This was the headquarters of a weekly news empire that stretched north to Borehamwood and east to Edgware, with four local offices, each served by four or five reporters. And every weekday a steady trickle of residents stepped into reception with an advertisement to book, a story to tell, or a complaint to lodge. I know: I worked there.
This month, with the announcement that Johnston Press, the third-biggest group in the local news industry, had gone into administration, this building in Hendon, along with hundreds of other empty newspaper offices across the country, became a monument to the fragile and shrinking world of regional reporting. More than 300 titles and 6,000 journalists have been lost in a decade, creating what many see as a democratic deficit, never mind a future dearth of trained reporters.
The Times, part of the Newsquest group, still exists, but these days there is just one edition and much of the action happens online. Its webpage invites readers to send in their own news and photos, and the phone number for the news team is harder to find than the GRU’s in Moscow. When I do get through to a reporter, he is silent when I ask where he is. “Do you still have a base you can use in the borough of Barnet?” I persist, at which point he tells me to email his editor.
Newsquest, like Johnston Press, is at the centre of big changes in local journalism, not all of them bad, and it is more than anyone’s job is worth to speak off the cuff to the press. But as Barry Brennan, former group editor of the Hendon Times and my old boss, confirms, all coverage of the boroughs of Barnet and Hertsmere is now run from Watford.
“Councillors and crooks must surely feel relaxed,” Brennan says, “now that so few weeklies have sufficient space or journalists to cover councils and courts. It may sound trite, but we really are missing out on big chunks of knowledge, and that’s bad for a community.”
More cheeringly, Times reporters do still get to some Barnet Council meetings, although not many, according to Labour councillor Claire Farrier: “We don’t see them much any more; maybe when there is a big planning story. They do their best, but they often repeat the press releases we put out fairly closely – which we quite like, of course.”
If done properly, local news still has the power to shake the world. Last week a reporter on the Carlisle News and Star broke the story that an NHS psychiatrist from New Zealand, Zholia Alemi, had been working in Britain for 23 years on entirely faked credentials. Phil Coleman looked into her past after covering a court case in which Alemi faced charges for faking a will. In the coming week, as NHS employees across Britain are given proper background checks, there can be no better proof of the value of having a curious reporter on the spot.
Further fresh hope for local journalism also came last week from an unlikely source: Facebook announced a decision to invest £4.5m in a Community News Project. While sceptics have dismissed it as a short-term, face-saving exercise, the decision to train 80 “beat reporters” to work across Britain has been hailed by others as a major boost.
The journalists will join titles run by Johnston Press’s new owner, JPI Media, which has said it will keep alive all its papers, as well as titles owned by Newsquest and the other big players – Archant, Midland News Association and Reach. Their training will focus not just on the old ways, but on improving newsroom diversity and on digital journalism.
Like a kind of compensation for damage done to an old business model, Facebook’s scheme will sit alongside the cash already handed out by Google in its Digital News Initiative. Funding from the latter has gone towards Bureau Local, which describes itself as “a collaborative, investigative network revealing stories that matter to communities across the UK” and links regional news outlets with local bloggers and others to break stories.
Perhaps the biggest shot in the arm, however, has come from the BBC’s Local News Partnerships, which are funding new “local democracy reporters” nationwide. Newsquest are advertising three such jobs right now, for a salary of at least £22,000.
So is the impending democratic deficit already being addressed? And does it matter if local news is delivered online rather than in print? These issues are at the core of an inquiry into the sustainability of quality journalism being led by Dame Frances Cairncross and due to report in the new year.
For veteran local journalist Mark Davison of the Surrey Mirror, the value of meeting the people you write about is evident. As a junior reporter on the Kingston Borough Times he recalls meeting a lady who had come to buy a paper. In the 1920s, she told him, she had been taught by Enid Blyton at a large house in nearby Hook and she still had school reports written by the children’s author. These later appeared in the paper as one of a series of local history pieces that are appreciated by readers quite as much as coverage of council scandals.
For Guardian journalist Jo Pugh, who started on the Crawley News in Sussex in the early 1980s, proximity was also the key: “Our office was on the high street, so if you wrote something people didn’t like, they would come in and you had to deal with it, face to face. Character-building. People knew who you were and where to find you.”
A year ago the one-time Hendon Times trainee and former foreign correspondent Alex Spillius broadcast an elegiac piece about his time as a local reporter on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Home Correspondent. Speaking this weekend, he argued that council coverage was vital to a sense of local involvement. “If you are going to say that local papers don’t matter, you are saying that community doesn’t matter that much either,” he said.
Council-run newsletters that celebrate “achievements” and justify the council tax were no replacement for impartial journalism, he added.
Brennan, our old boss, agrees. He remembers an award-winning local government reporter, the late Bill Montgomery, whose job was “to dig up news our council didn’t want known”.
Perhaps when the Cairncross report comes out next year it will propose something radical: something akin to a series of tax incentives launched in Canada last week. Over a decade, more than 250 Canadian news outlets have closed and since 2012 newspaper revenues are down by up to 40%. Now the federal government has stepped in, offering C$600m (£350m) in new tax credits to the media industry for the next five years.
Whatever Cairncross recommends, her committee must bear in mind that it will always be hard to show exactly how local reporting aids democracy. Because you can never find out exactly what people have got away with when no one was looking.