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Local news crisis: what crisis? Audiences are bigger than ever
This extract is from What do we mean by local?* is by the Newspaper Society's communications and marketing director, Lynne Anderson, who argues that "life is local" and that more people than ever are reading local and regional news…
In today's hyper-connected world of 24-hour global news, instant messaging and the blogosphere, while high streets spiral into decline and post offices and pubs close down, we could be forgiven for thinking that localness is all but dead.
But being part of a community is a basic human need that remains hugely important to British people. Its significance in our lives has if anything increased as a result of the economic downturn, fuelled by local pride and a growing need for a sense of place and belonging.
The adage "life is local" has never been more true. Most of us continue to live our lives locally – working, relaxing with family and friends, eating, shopping, and playing sport.
Research has found that 80% of us spend at least half our time and money within just five miles of home and we have a growing appetite for local news and information to help us navigate our lives locally.
People are taking more pride in their community and recognising its importance to their lives. Local newspapers support this increasing sense of local pride because they help people to feel part of their community and spur them to act for its benefit. No other medium can deliver a sense of community and belonging like the local press.
Local newspapers continue to evolve into local media businesses delivering local news and information across print, online, mobile and broadcast platforms.
Britain's local media comprises 1,100 core newspapers – ranging from large metropolitan dailies to small weekly titles – as well as 1,600 companion websites, hundreds of niche and ultra local publications and a range of other digital and broadcast channels.
But the regional and local media sector, with local newspapers at its heart, has been experiencing one of the most severe and prolonged advertising downturns in living memory.
The picture remains challenging, but publishers believe they are well placed to come through the downturn provided they are given the freedom to continue to innovate and develop their print and multimedia businesses.
It is important to remember that local newspapers are essentially profitable: the sector currently takes around £1.5bn a year in print advertising revenue, accounting for 9.3% of all UK advertising revenue.
Online recruitment advertising in the regional press accounts for another £55.2m. Total print advertising spend in the regional press is three and a half times the ad spend on radio, and equivalent to the combined total for radio, outdoor and cinema.
There has been much comment about local newspapers closing down and towns being left "without a collective voice". The reality is that no part of the UK is bereft of any local newspaper coverage.
The worst year for closures was 2009, which saw a net reduction of 60 titles. Most of those closures were marginal free titles occupying second or third position in the local market, and should be considered in the context of the significant expansion of free titles in 1980s.
Over the past 10 years, the number of paid-for titles within the sector has dropped by 1.1% while the number of free titles has dropped by 24.6%.
Ironically, at a time when its primary revenue source – advertising – has been under such challenge, the local media is reaching bigger audiences than ever before across its print, online and broadcast platforms. It delivers local news and information to 33m print readers a week and 42m web users a month.
The importance of the local press
The industry is finding new ways to cover council meetings and open up public bodies to scrutiny using, for example, live webcams, blogging and Twitter.
Despite massive growth in local media's digital audiences, print remains at the heart of the industry. Independent studies confirm the relevance and power of the printed newspaper as an editorial and advertising medium and go some way to explaining the resilience local media has shown in the face of the economic downturn.
People live most of their lives within a relatively small geographic location. They are increasingly interested in local news and information from that area and the local paper is the first place they turn to.
The vast majority of people value local news and believe local newspaper content to be as relevant as ever. Local papers are acknowledged to be the most effective of all media channels, including social media, for generating word-of-mouth conversations.
The local press has more journalists on the ground than any other medium: some 10,000 professionals focused on local news.
A study by TNS-RI (2010) found that 85% of people in the UK believe it is important that their local newspaper keeps them informed about local council issues, while 81% said they would be less informed about council budgets, plans and elections if there wasn't a local newspaper in the area.
Local papers are also the first port of call for anyone who wants to raise awareness of a local issue or problem.
The importance of the local press in disseminating vital local information is always highlighted at times of emergency and loss of essential services, such as during flooding or heavy snowfalls. The need to support this pivotal public information work has been repeatedly recognised by the government.
While the traditional pillars of community have changed, it is clear that community remains a highly valued concept. It is also clear that people feel far more positively about issues closer to home than they do about similar issues at a national level.
Five essential beliefs about local papers
Local media is clearly hugely important to all aspects of community life, helping people keep up to date with local news and issues. Research has identified what people regard as the five core reasons for engaging with their local paper:
It helps them get the best out of where they live; helps them feel part of the community; is honest and believable; is more accurate and reliable than other media; and they can rely on it for news they cannot get elsewhere.
The content of local papers is relevant to people's engagement with their local community and reflects the real issues that affect people's day-to-day lives.
So just how important is local news and the role of the local paper to the concept of localness and community? Media commentator and former Guardian editor Peter Preston summed it up perfectly in his recent article for Local Newspaper Week:
"Journalism isn't about sitting in some lofty office thinking great thoughts. It is about knowing the people you're writing for, understanding their concerns, their hopes and fears. And you can only do that if you're out there amongst them, being part of the community you aim to serve."
Peter learned his trade on Liverpool's big regional daily newspapers:
"I did funerals, Rotary Club speeches, dog shows, council rows and rugby matches. And at the end of that stint, when I moved on to cover local politics for the Guardian, I think I'd learned something precious.
That politics doesn't exist in some rarefied world at Westminster. That democracy lives, breathes and reacts in the minds and the lives of the people you catch a bus to work with every morning. That the local dimension isn't some remote stepladder on the route to the top. It's where everything begins. It's the foundation stone of society.
And that's as true today as it ever was. Your local paper, in villages, towns and cities up and down the land, is there to reflect you, yourself – your own running commentary on life…
There's been a local press in Britain for as long as there have been newspapers. There will be newspapers – in one form or another – for as long as people care about what happens around them. News is a necessity, your link to your neighbours. Prize it, relish it, support it."
Next – the final extract: A call for innovation and radical thinking by Neil Fowler, a former editor and publisher
*What do we mean by local? is edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler & Ian Reeves and published by Abramis. Available at a special Media Guardian price of £12 from firstname.lastname@example.org