Corbyn seeks to revive local papers

By Rhys Handley, Monday 03 September 2018

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For each ally Jeremy Corbyn wins, he seems to make a new enemy too.

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Hyperlocals serve communities otherwise starved of good news reporting

Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival in late August, the Labour leader extended an olive branch to the dwindling number of independent news outlets operating in the public interest, while squaring up against nationwide publishers and big tech firms.

He stressed the need to democratise the media landscape “to break the stranglehold of elite power and billionaire domination over large parts of our media”, and outlined ambitious proposals for reform of the market, including granting charitable status to not-for-profit journalistic outfits and the creation of an independent fund for public interest journalism. 

A Labour spokesperson said: “Local journalism is the lifeblood of local democracy. For many people, local news is the only news they consume. But over the years, local newspapers have been swallowed up by a handful of big companies and their staff and resources have been cut to the bone.

“Good journalism takes on the powerful – in the corporate world and in government, centrally and locally – and helps create an informed public. But good journalism needs investment.”

The Labour leader’s proposed fund for public interest journalism would likely be made available to community news ‘co-ops’, freeing them to report on issues that matter in their local areas.

Indeed, all Corbyn’s proposals, although yet to be formally incorporated into party policy, could extend a helping hand to the fledgling independent locals that have recently sprung up in a number of areas across the country.

These ‘hyperlocals’ have emerged to serve communities otherwise starved of thoughtful, thorough local news reporting – and have been a welcome alternative to the increasingly homogenous and corporatised local titles.

Up in Dartmoor, the Moorlander serves a readership of 4,000 people and has now begun to turn a profit two years after its establishment by ex-Fleet Streeter Stuart Clarke.

Tim Dixon, former Western Gazette editor, launched the print-only Paper for Honiton to cover “local and longer” stories in the Devon market town, selling 700 copies of its first edition at 50p each.

In Gloucestershire, journalists Simon Hacker and Matt Bigwood founded the monthly Wotton Times to serve the villages surrounding Wotton-under-Edge. Now in its fifth month, the Times has a circulation of 3,000 – reduced from 4,000 to more directly target its audience – in 17 independent shops around the South Cotswolds.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” says Hacker. “Shareholder-driven newspapers are treating readers with shameless cynicism, expecting decent advertising revenue when they have cut editorial integrity beyond the bone.

“I find the term hyperlocal carries an inevitable negative connotation. If local editors can convince their publishers to stop putting all their wares online and make their paper print-first, I think they might not need to be hyperlocal to restore reader faith.”

And responding to Corbyn’s proposals, he says: “Yes, please. My door is open, we would love to talk. 

“Labour’s thoughts on the hegemony of these giants are sure to find traction among the public, if they are somehow not systematically denigrated by the publishers he might seek to change, of course.”

Even fresher to the fray is the Isle of Wight Observer, which hit the streets on 10 August. It is stocked by around 250 outlets across the island, with sights on a circulation of 20,000 while fighting off competition from Newsquest’s County Press. It is now on the hunt for journalists and salespeople to join a growing team.

News editor Joe Burn, who joined from Reach title Get Surrey, says: “We have been massively well received – I went around with the first issue and introduced myself. One lady had tears in her eyes. People want proper, local journalism.

“Some areas have been left behind and that is the gap we want to fill. People have their entire lives on their screens and we are offering a printed product that looks and feels good and tells them stories about their local area. It’s obviously been missed.” 

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