SDLP suggestion for saving the press welcome, but publishers must dig deep too

Earlier this month I uploaded two articles here asking how our local press might emerge from lockdown and sharing my concerns about the ability of some of them to do so. Since then the future of regional and local newspapers all over the UK has become a pretty hot topic, with staff being furloughed at most papers and others even indefinitely suspending publication.

Local journalists – including quite a few very good ones of my acquaintance – have been tweeting regularly with online subscription offers to at least keep some revenue coming. Very worrying times, and as a veteran of both daily and weekly press, I share those concerns. They are justified.

I was interested to read SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole’s call for the Assembly to take urgent action to help save and safeguard the future of the embattled local and regional press in Northern Ireland. Matthew makes a pretty compelling case for local press and the part they play within local, often small and rural communities, and his intentions are clearly positively motivated. They need to be fully considered.

The essence of the proposal is a one-year rates holiday for local publishers, “subject to 50 percent of savings being reinvested in either recruiting new journalists or developing new digital products”. That’s an idea well worthy of support and the Executive would do well to implement it at the earliest opportunity.

But a rates holiday, while highly beneficial to our independent, local owned publishers, wouldn’t be as beneficial as in the past to some of those owned and run by UK based corporates. I know of one publisher here that has closed at least ten local offices in recent years as part of a relentless centralisation (cost-cutting) drive so they won’t be able to avail of this help. That’s a stark example but it’s not the only one.

The closure of those offices is a major symptom of the problems facing some of our long-established local papers. The harsh reality is that these brands (and that’s how they are coldly viewed by their remote owners) were bought as cash cows in the years immediately prior to the internet when sales were good and advertising revenues were hitting all time record highs.

But since the middle of the last decade, costs have been taken out of local offices to the point where staffing levels have undermined their quality and their ability to serve their host communities with any sort of effectiveness. There is so much shared content between papers and in some cases page after page of generic “lifestyle” content that bears no relation and is of little or no interest to the local communities they ostensibly serve. In the meantime, courts are not being reported to any meaningful degree.

Many of them don’t even have Editors! It’s that bad. Honestly. So that rate rebate will help some good, independent publishers but it wouldn’t scratch the surface elsewhere.

Another suggestion by Matthew is that the Executive should “undertake to prioritise key local media in advertising buying, and publicly release its spending figures.”  Again, this has merit. Public Notices and public sector job advertising still use local press heavily.

But one of the things that have undermined local press in the past few years is that the Executive placed a virtual embargo on campaign advertising spend with only road safety (generally a television spend) surviving at anything approaching previous levels. This was done because of the pressure Stormont was under to reduce any unnecessary or peripheral spending.

I strongly agree with O’Toole that when government IS spending it should strongly include the indigenous press. Not least because it still works. But it would be hard for any Stormont department to advertise just to help the media. There has to be a story to be told and a message to be conveyed otherwise it’s no more than a subvention.

Of course, a side effect of deliberately increasing Government spend with local press is that it creates the very real danger that politicians – both locally and centrally – will expect some payback for this. Over the years as a Commercial Director at various newspapers, I have been accosted at social functions by senior representatives of most of our major parties (well, our two major parties) over coverage (or alleged lack of it) editors have given them or over bias (or lack of it) shown.

Parties have dangled election ad spends before publishers with the expectation of positive news coverage. That’s not a uniquely Northern Irish thing. I was once summoned to meet a high-ranking officer of a Scottish City Council to be warned of the potential commercial impact of our imminent appointment of an Editor who had come into conflict with a council elsewhere in Scotland. He still got the job, but that threat related to a level of spend that if lost could have cost the company dozens of employees. But that’s the danger of being in the debt of politicians.

Overall, I would be supportive of the intent and some of O’Toole’s recommendations, including no brainers like improving the ease of home delivery in more remote areas with older communities. But to receive any level of public subsidy or support, publishers need to play their part.

I don’t think that would be a problem with locally owned operations that have always tried to live within their means without damaging quality or needlessly losing jobs. The papers here that have suspended publication are all locally owned, but they are generally good papers with owners dedicated to maintaining their place in their communities. They deserve consideration and whatever help is possible and reasonable. But corporate owners need to be brought to book before we even consider public investment.

Also, we need to be realistic. Some papers will close. That’s nothing to do with Covid-19. Quite simply some of them have been neglected or stripped to the point where they are beyond salvation. They sell so few papers and their paginations and advertiser base are so low that there is simply no real demand for them.

Also, in some towns that have traditionally sustained a Protestant paper and a Catholic one, that’s a less practical model than in the past as the smaller of the two papers is often now close to unsustainable in towns with a dwindling population. There will always be natural attrition and that’s something we need to accept.

In conclusion, I welcome this intervention on behalf of the local press, But the help he proposes shouldn’t take any of the onus away from some publishers to simply do a better job!


Photo by geralt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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