Tuesday, 5 April 2011

How important are local newspapers to the community?

This was a question that I wrestled with when asked to fill in a survey recently. Even at the time I thought this a complex issue that could hardly be answered by ticking one box over another box.

This wasn’t even the question on the survey, but my own thought. The actual question was over communities and whether newspapers are an essential part of an effective local community. My answer is no – but that is doing newspapers a disservice.

Why did I say no? Community does not need newspapers partly because there are alternatives from the old fish wives gossiping to social media and beyond. Partly because local newspapers are so different and their role is so diverse that you couldn’t really identify what its core purpose is. Finally, what is a community and how big a geography does it cover? IS it even bound by geography?

What it is true to say is that local newspapers are a social glue. They bind people together by imparting information and requesting feedback. This isn’t just a noticed board for events and minutes of meetings. It also offers information over crime and punishment, emotional stories and pleas of help.

If I think of my own area, there are several layers of newspaper that make layers like an onion of community information. Starting at the Wharfe Valley Times, the news is focused mainly on charitable events, school projects and sports news. In fact, the main reason people read it isn’t the news but the car and house adverts. Go up a layer and you have the Yorkshire Evening Post, a good metropolitan evening paper focusing on crime and human interest stories. There’s also the Wharfdale and Airedale Observer, a rural focused weekly looking at life towards Ilkley and awy from Leeds City Centre. Then there is the Yorkshire Post, the newspaper read by the business community and those in the know from Scarborough to Sheffield.

Comparing local papers also gives you a flavour of key interests and how fast paced life is. I grew up with a weekly paper focussed on the rural community a world away from the Barnsley Chronicle.

But if I do what local information, is the newspaper the best or only way of accessing it? With an increasingly open information society, public information is increasingly available and, if you don’t understand the figures, there’s sure to be some person developing an app. to explain it. There are blogs, twitter feeds, community message boards and real events which allow me to engage in the community at a deeper level. My sense of community is not dictated to by the news agenda.

Equally, community has become disjointed. Is my community where I live? Where my children go to school? Where I work? Where I play sport? They are all of these things. When I was growing up all were available in reasonably small area, but now I can travel to different areas to engage with different areas of my life.

I think this is why newspapers have struggled. There is information relevant to me in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, the Harrogate Advertiser, The Wakefield Express and the Bradford Telegraph. It would be unfeasible for me to buy all these newspapers. Add in the school publications, the parish magazines, the sports club quarterly newsletter and it’s a mass of information I don’t necessarily have the time to consume.

Newspapers also have never recovered from the age of the internet and still struggle online. Their role has been superseded whether its small ads, selling homes and cars, message boards and piped information services. They also struggle with the balance of free information over paid for content.

Each person has their own communities they want to keep in touch with and newspapers are so restrictive in how you can access and consume information. To be effective, they need to be that social glue – responding to the needs of their community and not trying to dictate the agenda. They need to look at what is required and bundle those services in a branded offering. It is different in different places. They also need to look at how I could get the business news from the Evening Post, say, the sports reports on Bradford City from the Telegraph and Argus, my Facebook feed of friends and the message board from my sports club. People are already creating piped services that cut out the newspapers and people can create their own feeds of information.

The difficulty is working out who pays for the service at what point. Technology and newspapers can engage communities whether geographic or virtual. The final question is whether we want to remain a disparate group of individuals flitting between communities, or whether we want to go back to living in a local community where all our needs are met within a small geography. There are benefits and disadvantages to both, but personally I feel we have become a little too well travelled and need to discover what’s on our doorstep and re-engage in our locality. May be we would value our local newspapers more if we did.

Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

1 comment:

  1. [Comments via John Baron]

    Some interesting points here, Thomas.

    How important are local newspapers to their community? My answer is VERY - as long as they're funded and run correctly. And for me, personally, therein lies a problem.

    Take, for example, my old paper the Wharfedale Observer. I spent five happy years between 99-04 at that paper. Aireborough legend Barrie Pennett was a major inspiration for me. He covered his patch for some 50-odd years, he knew everyone in that community - he couldn't walk through Yeadon or Guiseley without being stopped at least half a dozen times. Everyone knew him.

    The Wharfedale was a broadsheet and was highly respected. I remember sitting through hours and hours of Pool Parish Council meetings - if I learnt nothing else, there are problem with slippy leaves on the footpaths of that village (!).

    My point is that it was a paper that was close to its community - it had its roots in everyday life, and had close ties with local groups.

    I'm not knocking the folks who are there now as I know many of them and there are some good people, but what's happened to the Wharfedale is indicative of the decline of local printed media.

    It no longer has an office in Otley. Reporters work from home or in Ilkley, but there's no physical building to focus on - it feels as if the paper (rightly or wrongly) has pulled out of the community.

    Secondly, it doesn't exist as its own entity any more - it's merged with its sister paper the Ilkley Gazette and become a tabloid. Instead of being focussed on Otley, Bramhope Aireborough and Horsforth, its empire now extends all the way out to Addingham. Horsforth and Addingham have nothing in common with each other, believe me.

    I don't think parish councils like Pool get regular attention as they did before, certainly not to the extent of a reporter sitting through hours and hours of meetings as I did.

    There are fewer staff. It's subbed centrally in Bradford instead of in the towns themselves. It doesn't have its own dedicated editor - Keighley News ed Malcolm Hoddy (a very accomplished local journo and experienced ed) has taken it under his wing. It doesn't have a deputy ed any more. There are fewer journalists working for both titles. It doesn't have its own fulltime photographer any more. The title doesn't, I believe, have its own dedicated sport editor since the wonderful stalwart Rachel O'Connor left. Barrie's sadly no longer with us. Lost are his knowledge and contacts.

    Now, I've seen the paper since its recent relaunch, and it doesn't do a bad job at all if you don't now the area and there are some issues that affected both patches (such as traffic congestion on the A65) that are now comfortably housed in the same title, but for me it's lost its localness, its community feel. It's focus. And that's sad.

    When I first started in journalism some 17 years ago on the Leeds Weekly News, an old journalist called Dennis Casson told me that a good local paper could galvanise the local community, take up the fight for - and that its patch journalist was genuinely a part of that community.

    How many papers can really claim that now? Not many. As a result, papers are less relevant to people. Journalists generally don't embrace the digital side of the operation.

    All these are real issues as far as I'm concerned.