‘News deserts’: if local newspapers are dying, will local democracy die with them? | Regional & local newspapers

“Do you have lots of stickers?” asks a mother with a buggy and two small children as Evelyn Akoto takes a break outside Coffee #1 in Trowbridgeduring a day of knocking on doors.

If the national polls are correct, Akoto is in with a decent chance of becoming the first Labour MP for the South West Wiltshire constituency, where the Conservative incumbent Andrew Murrison is defending a 21,630 majority.

In the past Akoto might have stopped off at the market town’s local newspaper office on the campaign trail. But the main Trowbridge office of the Wiltshire Times, part of Newsquest and ultimately US-based media group Gannett, closed in 2019 and was redeveloped for housing.

These days political campaigns are as likely to target local voters on social media as through the columns of regional newspapers or local radio or television, where cutbacks mean far fewer journalists having to cover larger areas.

According to the Charitable Journalism Project, there are probably fewer local newspapers in Britain now than at any time since the 18th century, and the number continues to decline: more than 320 local titles closed between 2009 and 2019 as local newspaper advertising revenue fell 70% between 2010 and 2020.

A paper seller in Dundee in 1955. There are 28 ‘absolute’ news deserts in the UK, the Public Interest News Foundation says. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

Trowbridge was one of seven places including Whitby in North Yorkshire and Lewisham in London which was analysed in-depth in 2022 by the Charitable Journalism Project in a report on local news deserts in the UK which described the collapse in reporting as a “slow-burning crisis”.

Its 2022 report found that Facebook pages were increasingly supplanting local newspapers for residents. It noted that Trowbridge has a population of more than 45,000 and more than 31,000 people were in a single Facebook group. Spotted in Trowbridge, the Facebook page, now has 38,000 followers who post on topics ranging from job requests to crime.

The Public Interest News Foundation, a charity that supports public interest journalism, found in its latest report in April that there are 28 “absolute” news deserts in the UK lacking any coverage from a local news outlet – with Lewisham the largest one by population. Wiltshire was middle ranking with 2.3 outlets for each 100,000 people.

Akoto, who spent 10 years as a councillor in Southwark in London, says a vibrant local newspaper is important: “People don’t realise the power of local media … councils cannot get away with doing what they are doing if there is someone looking at what their decision-making process is. That is what local journalism is there for and should be doing.”

Bret Palmer, who is standing as Liberal Democrat candidate in South West Wiltshire, agrees. “If you do not have any kind of local scrutiny you are missing part of your local democracy,” he says, adding that younger people are difficult to reach even on social media as popular platforms such as TikTok are not localised in the same way as Facebook pages.

Murrison has lived through the decline of print media during his 23 years as the local MP. “In the past journalists would turn up to the local magistrates court and report proceedings. That all went years ago but … the local press down here are trusted by the community,” he says.

Across the UK, the contraction has meant reduced scrutiny of councils, hospitals, police and criminal courts.

Douglas McCabe, the chief executive and director of publishing and technology at the research group Enders Analysis told the House of Lords committee in February that the 13,000 journalists in UK local media before the 2008 financial crisis has shrunk to about 4,000.

Reach, which publishes the Liverpool Echo, has cut 800 roles. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

In the past 12 months alone, Reach, publisher of the Liverpool Echo and the Manchester Evening News as well as the Mirror and Express titles, has slashed 800 roles in several bruising rounds of cuts which it partly blamed on Meta-owned Facebook and other large media platforms moving to deprioritise news. London’s loss-making Evening Standard last month announced it would go weekly.

Not everyone agrees with the gloomy outlook. “I am very keen to counter this narrative that people don’t read local newspapers any more because that is clearly a nonsense,” says Henry Faure Walker, the chief executive of Newsquest.

“I heartily reject this idea of a news desert in Trowbridge … it’s a bizarre market to choose. I would say we are more than adequately covering the local news, the local politics, the local sports and the local community space.”

About 65% of the population in Trowbridge read the Wiltshire Times website once a month and 7,000 Trowbridge adults are “loyal users” returning 15 times or more a month online, he claims. The Wiltshire Times gets 1m article page views a month and writes 45 local stories a week about the town and surrounding areas, he adds.

Newsquest has 20 journalists across Wiltshire and three dedicated reporters for the Wiltshire Times including covering Trowbridge, he says adding that, while the Trowbridge office has closed, Newsquest has offices in Swindon and Salisbury. (Swindon is 25 miles or a one-hour drive away; Salisbury is 25 miles or a 1 hour 10 minute drive away.)

Many commentators believe what has declined in local newspapers is detailed political scrutiny of local government and investigative journalism.

An independent report on the future of the British media by Dame Frances Cairncross in 2019 warned the industry’s collapse poses a threat to the long-term sustainability of democracy and concluded there should be an investigation into the dominance of Facebook and Google in the advertising marketplace.

The report mentioned work done by Dr Rachel Howells for her 2016 doctoral thesis at Cardiff University which looked at Port Talbot in south Wales, which lost its weekly newspaper in 2009. Howells found a decline of almost 90% in reporting by journalists at Port Talbot local council meetings, public meetings or political party meetings over the period from 1970 and 2013. She discovered some interviewees were even getting news about road closures from graffiti.

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Natalie Fenton, the professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths University, says: “There is not as much scrutiny as there once was about who is the sitting MP and local issues. Some newspapers like the Liverpool Echo and Yorkshire Post do important investigations but they are in a minority now. When local newspapers closed their town centre offices and relocated to industrial estates miles away they broke that link with their communities.”

Dr Rachel Matthews, associate professor in journalism at Coventry University, says: “One thing local newspapers did really well was to cover political issues from the point of view of constituencies. Trust in local newspapers is much higher than in national newspapers and they have a really good handle on issues and political manifestos and would package it up so all the hard work has been done for readers.”

In Trowbridge, Colin Kay, the vice-chair of the Town Hall Trust charity, recalls walking into the local newspaper office during his time as a headteacher in the town.

“Newspapers do not have the journalists to send to do actual journalism… so they depend on press releases by different organisations,” he says. “There is not the degree of regular scrutiny as in the past and it is easier for councils to hide things or not communicate things.”

Michael Williams, who lives in Trowbridge and is a former chief executive of the Wessex Association of Chambers of Commerce, adds: “It’s difficult to find news in depth – that’s what’s missing. There are alternatives such as word of mouth and Facebook.”

In 2020, government-commissioned research found a positive and significant correlation between daily circulation of local newspapers and local election turnout.

Stewart Palmen, a Liberal Democrat councillor and the leader of Trowbridge town council, said turnout in local elections was usually near the national average at about 30%. In the 2019 general election for south west Wiltshire voter turnout was 70%.

But other polls get less attention. Last May the town council held a non-binding advisory “parish poll” on whether residents supported a 3% cap on future increases in its precept or charge.

Of the eligible 27,436 electorate, just 438 voted – a turnout of 1.6%. The poll, which cost an estimated £24,000, was opposed by the Liberal Democrats on the council who called it “pointless”.

A Conservative councillor, Antonio Piazza, who proposed the poll, which was reported by the BBC and outlets such as the Wiltshire Times, says it “received limited coverage from local media, which would have been more comprehensive in the past”.

Palmen said he uses his Facebook page, where he has almost 1,000 followers, to communicate directly with residents as well as speaking to local media. “For me it’s great because I can say there is a planning application through the centre of town … I can run a poll and can get a lot of feedback very quickly,” he says. “I think a lot of people do get their news, if they are tech savvy, through Facebook.”

Two years ago businessman Simon Tesler and his wife, Carey, renovated Trowbridge’s Parade House, a Grade I-listed Georgian townhouse built in 1720 by the wealthy cloth merchant Robert Houlton.

The former headquarters of Ushers brewery had been due to be converted into a house of multiple occupation (HMO) but is now an events space complete with an underground bar and cinema.

“The big problem now is that social media … has destroyed the feeling among many ordinary people that they need to go to an official outlet,” says Simon Tesler, looking across the ballroom of Parade House with its decorated tables and vases bursting with flowers. “Social media is where people of Trowbridge get their news – although they get some news from the Wiltshire Times.”


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