In the week that Bedfordshire Midweek closed and the Cairncross Review was launched to seek ways to safe-guard the future of independent journalism, Paul Hutchinson shares his views on the evolution of local media:
The inevitable closure of Bedfordshire Midweek is a perfect example of how big corporations are complicit in the demise of local news. By refusing to evolve and adapt to the way their readers access news and information, they’re essentially part of the problem that has seen access to local news slowly eroded away. They claim they’re the victims of reduced print ads, yet they have done very little to seek new revenues with the impact resulting in local communities having less contact with each other, less access to local democracy, less awareness of what’s happening on their doorstep, and less opportunity for those in power to be held to account.
Back in 2003 I started my first full-time role as a journalist. It was as a field reporter with a local radio station in Watford and I had a simple target of finding, researching and writing five local stories each day. They could be about anything I wanted, so long as they were original, local and emotive. This ‘OLE’ mantra was drummed into me and my colleagues every day and if the stories we put before our editor didn’t live up to it they were rejected.
The radio station I worked for was part of the same company that owned Chiltern FM and it wasn’t long before I was promoted to Broadcast Journalist, moved to Bedford, and started reporting and reading for 96.9 Chiltern FM. Again, the same targets applied and back then we had three and a half minutes each hour to fill. It doesn’t seem very long but compare that to the news on Heart, the station Chiltern has become, 60 seconds covering four counties makes those three and a half minutes seem like a life time, and how often do they talk about Bedford these days anyway?
Reporting in Bedford was an incredible time for me. I was in a new town, I was meeting new people, I was developing new skills and I was forging a great career as a journalist. Back then we also had two strong newspapers in town and being on the scene with those reporters was something I didn’t appreciate enough at the time. I enjoyed the fact that I would be returning home from the scene of a news story and it would be on the air within the hour, quite often days before my print journalist colleagues would be able to report on the story. However, I was always aware of how they had more time to investigate and perhaps move a story on in time for their print deadline. Our collective reporting had the town covered. We were all based in Bedford, we all lived in Bedford, and while we may not have always agreed on each other’s editorial stance, we were all passionate and protective of Bedford.
It’s a great shame to see that 15 years on we no longer have a genuine editorial news desk in our town.
The demise, no, let’s call it what it really is, the abandonment of the Bedfordshire on Sunday (BOS) is a kick in the teeth to the people of Bedford. You may not have always liked the editorial stance of the BOS but they were fiercely loyal to a mantra that many journalists live by, the commitment to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I always respected the journalists, editors, and many staff who worked hard to bring us genuine local news every Sunday morning.
Yes, the Times and Citizen (T&C) still exists but it’s a shell of its former self. Now based in Milton Keynes the tiny team of journalists cover many papers, not just our own, and find it near on impossible to actually attend stories in the town, relying on phone conversations and press releases. This isn’t to say the team producing the paper each week don’t work hard, of course they do, but they’re a victim of a corporate direction that doesn’t consider Bedford important. Johnston Press, the company that owns our now only local newspaper, are based 350 miles away in Edinburgh. They own 300 weekly titles and 18 daily titles. Owning that many local titles you might think that Johnston Press are doing everything they can to protect local news, to ensure local news across the UK is envied the world over. Sadly, it appears that’s not the case. Just a few days ago it was announced that a restructure will see one of their editors cover titles 92 miles apart, locally The T&C is just one of eight titles across three counties that their editor looks after. Exactly how much time or energy do they have to think about our town?
There will be many in the newspaper business who will blame falling newspaper sales for the reason so many titles are disappearing, and that staff are being stretched so thinly, in a way they are right. Sales of newspapers have been falling, but what they won’t tell you is that newspaper sales have been falling since television first became popular in the 1950s. They will argue that the internet has dried up print-based advertising, removing a lucrative revenue stream that has forced them to close titles. This also is true, but when you consider that the Bedfordshire on Sunday’s Facebook group was pushing 80,000 likes and had multiple stories each week reaching thousands of people across the social network, the argument that print was the only option for revenue just doesn’t wash.
Last week, in his closing editorial for the last ever Bedfordshire Midweek, which unceremoniously replaced the Bedfordshire on Sunday in October 2017, Editor-In-Chief, David Bartlett, did in fact blame lack of print advertising as the reason for the paper’s ultimate demise. Why then did the owners, Trinity Mirror, not keep a Bedfordshire based website open? Why then did we Bedford readers have to visit a Cambridge based site to read our ‘local’ news? Why was the paper edited outside of Bedford? Exactly how hard did the owners of The Bedfordshire on Sunday and Bedfordshire Midweek fight to keep these titles going? The evidence seems to suggest they didn’t fight at all, that their interests are driven by a preference to other areas and pleasing the bean counters. For people who claim to be journalists that is a crying shame.
Calling the Bedfordshire Midweek a community paper, when all it did was copy and paste press releases, present national advice columns as local, and offered no true editorial investigations or attempt to understand its readers, shows just how much large publishers have lost touch with their local readers and how much they underestimate the passion, desire, and pride that Bedfordians have in their town.
So, is local news dead? No, of course not, so long as we are all still interested in where we live, who we’re living next door to, what’s happening at the weekend, and if the people we’ve placed in positions of power remain as honourable as they claimed on election night, there will be a need for local news. The problem is not the lack of local news, it is the lack of a desire to adapt to how local news is told. A recent Ofcom report showed that accessing news online is the only news medium showing growth, whereas a study by The Reuters Institute last year found that the internet is the main source of news for 18-44 year olds. Also, 76% of Bedfordians responding to a news consumption survey last month said they accessed local news via the internet, mostly on mobile devices.
Local news isn’t dead, it just needs a new home. Somewhere that will evolve along with its readers, somewhere that offers local businesses a place to reach their current and future customers and puts editorial where local readers are looking for news. Local News isn’t dead, local news is alive, local news is about to evolve.