Johnston Press announced last week that every staff photographer working for its Midlands operation would be made redundant. That’s right, every JP newspaper in the Midlands will be left without an in-house photographer.
The presumption is that JP will instead rely entirely on freelancers – or just as likely, on “user-generated content” and other snaps from whomever happens to be in the vicinity with a mobile phone next time something newsworthy happens.
Leaving aside the effect getting rid of all staff photographers will have on the appearance of its newspapers, what JP is effectively saying is that local photojournalism doesn’t really matter.
Even more worryingly, JP’s plan to get rid of local snappers isn’t a isolated cull. It’s part of a pattern of events where the number of professional news-gatherers is slowly being reduced.
Last week’s announcement follows on from a depressing announcement made late last year by Local World on the future of its journalism. It said local journalism would now be focused on “content harvesting”, rather than digging up stories in the traditional way. The language may seem New Age, but what is strikingly clear is that across the country content is suffering. The fewer well-trained journalists are out there gathering news and breaking stories, the worse the standard of stories becomes generally.
So how did our local press manage to get itself into this situation? A few years back, a wave of consolidation in the regional press saw the vast majority of local titles corralled into four big media groups. Since then, dozens of papers have been merged or closed, content has been increasingly shared across several titles, and journalists have been let go. It’s a bad state of affairs and local democracy suffers as a result.
From the owners’ point of view, cutting jobs and other costs is what needs to be done in order to increase margins. This is especially important now, given the collapse of print advertising since the 2008 financial crash. But decisions made by corporate bosses with one eye on the share price have direct results on the ground. As we have seen, fewer journalists means less news. Poor funding generally leads to poor quality local papers.
But before you despair too much, it’s worth pointing out that all is not lost. There are still great local papers out there, if you know where to look.
The Bayliss Media portfolio of titles, including the Maidenhead Advertiser, have been held in trust since the 1960s, ensuring their independence and local focus. They do a good job of it, by and large.
Even more intriguing is the West Highland Free Press. It offers a glimpse into a possible future for many more local papers. The Free Press became the first co-operatively owned local newspaper in the UK back in 2009. Why more papers haven’t taken this route yet is almost beyond me. The co-operative model seems to be a great route forward for virtually everyone – communities get a genuinely local newspaper that represents their interests, the big companies get unwanted titles off their balance sheets without having to close them down, employees get the additional security and control, and the government gets a shining example of its faltering Big Society initiative.
At a time when local government is feeling the squeeze of centralised cuts more acutely than pretty much anyone else, we need local media that stands up for its readership. It may not be the sexiest issue in media right now, but it affects all of us.