Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn took to Twitter yesterday to make this statement:
An April Fool delivered a little too late? Sadly not – it’s a stat which has been doing the rounds all week since the NUJ published its ‘Mapping Changes in Local News Report‘ as part of its Local News Matters campaign.
At best, the statistical conclusion the NUJ has reached through this piece of work is at best misguided, and as such presents a misleading picture of the challenges faced by local journalism, making it harder to determine any useful actions for the future. Here’s why:
The NUJ’s research – carried out on its behalf by academics – is largely based on updating research carried out in late 2015 by the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College London. The NUJ presented this data in the following map, saying it show ‘local authority districts served by a daily local newspaper’:
It concludes that 57.9% of the UK population live in areas ‘not served by a local daily’ and that 273 or 406 local authority districts are not served by a dedicated local daily newspaper. ‘Dedicated’ isn’t defined.
The NUJ research links to a website called http://localnewsmapping.uk/ where the King’s data is housed. Zooming into the North West it shows the local authorities ‘served by a local daily newspaper’:
A quick glance of the map suggests something isn’t right. For example, the Manchester Evening News ‘serves’ both Trafford and Bury. The Liverpool Echo ‘serves’ St Helens. The Lancashire Evening Post ‘serves’ Chorley. The Blackpool Gazette ‘serves’ Wyre. Not on the map I’ve done a poor screen grab of, but Burnley is also in white despite being ‘served’ by the Lancashire Telegraph.
How each paper covers an area is a different matter. Some, such as the Lancashire Telegraph, have dedicated editions for some of the areas the maps suggest they don’t serve. Others, such as the Liverpool Echo, have increased their coverage of places such as St Helens in recent years. The MEN has always covered Trafford and Bury – but there will also be local weekly newspapers which cover those places in more depth. But to say they aren’t served is wrong.
What the NUJ report – remember, the document pushed into the hands of hundreds of MPs and repeated without challenge by Press Gazette and Holdthefrontpage – doesn’t explain is what defines ‘serving’ an area.
The NUJ report doesn’t make this clear, and neither does the news mapping website it links to. The source of the information, the King’s report, however does:
The King’s report makes clear it is far from an exact science counting newspapers, or the areas those papers serve. To do its research, it had to come up with a definition of serving, as outlined above from its report. To serve an area, a paper had to go into more than 5% of households in a local authority area, or sell 10% of its total circulation in that area.
The first one makes some sort of sense to me in that it demonstrates the news the paper produces is getting to one in 20 people in print. The second, about selling 10% of total copies in any one local authority makes less sense. It means I could start up the Ribble Valley Daily News and sell 100% of my 50 copies in the Ribble Valley and, in theory, count in this map, but the Lancashire Telegraph or Lancashire Post, both of which circulated in parts of the Ribble Valley in higher numbers, would not.
In a sense, however, that doesn’t matter. The NUJ report claims over half the country isn’t served by a daily newspaper. It provides no caveat or explanation for the data. What is clear is that there are many local authority districts which are served by daily newspapers, but they just don’t shift a lot of copies in those areas on any one day. Does that automatically mean those areas don’t appear in those newspapers. No.
By removing the explanations behind the data, the NUJ has essentially triggered a chain of Chinese Whispers which has resulted in the leader of the opposition claiming half of the country isn’t covered by a daily newspaper. This simply isn’t the case.
Ignoring weekly newspapers
The purpose of the King’s research was to establish if there was a democratic deficit in the UK.
The King’s report set out the summary of the allegations of a democratic deficit:
Such claims argue, local journalism is no longer performinga number of key democratic functions, notably: it is not acting as a ‘scarecrow’(monitoring local public affairs), it is not adequately informing the public aboutlocal public affairs, it is not properly scrutinising local authorities and othersources of power, it is not giving the public an effective channel through whichto campaign on local issues, and it is not providing a sense of local communityand cohesion. As a consequence, it is claimed, we are at risk of less informedlocal populations, less local cohesion, less democratic engagement, more localcorruption, and a poorer democracy.
I’m not clear what picture the NUJ is trying to paint in its report on local news changes, but it seems very peculiar to exclude weekly newspapers. Daily newspapers, in my experience, often won’t cover local democracy to same level as weekly newspapers, an result of having wider circulation areas and a desire to appeal to people across the area. Declining revenue in print has squeezed reporter numbers, which in turn creates a focus on the stories which will appeal to as many people as possible.
The definition of democratic deficit as outlined in the King’s report is surely as equally resolved by weekly newspapers – covering smaller areas, where localised issues matter to a higher percentage of the local readership. And the King’s report does include a map showing coverage of the UK by weekly newspapers:
(I think the key in the King’s report might be wrong)
In other words, the whole country is served by weekly newspapers. Or, at least that every area in the country is served by a newspaper which sells 40% of its print run in that council area.
The NUJ report points out that the closure of the Nuneaton News as a daily left the authority area without a daily newspaper. But the weekly Nuneaton News still covers the area in depth, with the Coventry Telegraph providing a Nuneaton edition since last summer. When all the facts are presented – something I feel is lacking in the NUJ’s distillation of the King’s report – local journalism isn’t doing too badly.
What about online?
The big gap in the NUJ’s report is online. It’s also a fundamental weakness of the King’s report, as it is based on print circulation alone. For example, the Liverpool Echo can reach up to 8% of the St Helens population online everyday, which more than meets the print reach criteria the King’s report outlines. This is repeated across the country.
Critics would say that digital reach is not proof of filling a democratic deficit, but truth be told, neither is print reach. What we do know online is exactly what people read. The mission at the company I work at (Trinity Mirror) is that we want to part of people’s everyday lives. The content strategy which emerged from that (which I helped create) is that we aim create meaningful relationships with people by providing them with information they are looking for so that they will listen to us when we have information we think they should be taking in.
In an era of 20% of people turning out to vote in local elections, building that relationship has never been more important.
But perhaps the bigger change online has triggered has been the ability for many ‘weekly’ brands to become at least in part daily operations too. So a planning meeting on a Thursday, the day after Clitheroe Advertiser and Times has gone to press can appear on its website within minutes of the meeting end, if the editor so desires. That immediacy can only be good for democracy as it means people see it while it is still ‘hot’ increasing the chances of it being shared and debated upon.
Which brings me back to Jeremy Corbyn’s stat that half of parliamentary constituencies don’t have a daily newspaper. The constituency/local authority break down is broadly interchangeable, but the interactive maps used are only available for local authority districts.
On one hand, it’s really good news that the future of local news is being debated at a high level but it’s a shame it’s prompted by information which is based on a construct many of us don’t recognise as being relevant. Local journalism has its challenges, and these need to be debated.
The King’s report concludes further research into the issues it raises are required. I agree, but it also needs to reflect the multi-platform age we live in. The NUJ report missed a golden opportunity to do that, instead presenting a partial part of the King’s report which has led to an inaccurate soundbite which could do more harm than good.
“Oh, the local paper? Nobody reads them anymore.” We’ve all heard it before. It’s a shame those making that claim (generally those in power) now have further firepower, and nothing could further from the truth.