A common feature of London council meetings over recent years has been the almost complete absence of local newspaper reporters.
Just a couple of examples: in July 2017, the Haringey Advertiser closed (along with six other London local papers); a year later the Hampstead and Highgate Express, covering Haringey through its Broadway edition, saw its editor made redundant, a new editor also overseeing the Hackney Gazette, Islington Gazette and Brent and Kilburn Times, and a merged news team based in Stoke Newington.
It was a sad outcome for the “Ham and High”, which in the 1980s (when I worked there), had something like eight NW3-based reporters covering Camden, Haringey and Barnet councils comprehensively.
The story of the decline of local newspapers is depressingly familiar: falling revenues, falling circulation, low pay, less training and a squeeze on staffing. Across the country some 200 local papers have closed since 2005, some London boroughs have no weekly newspaper at all and by some accounts the number of local paper journalists has halved in the last decade.
While the London local paper market has proved relatively resilient, this has been largely due to consolidation, job cuts and consequent reductions in “on the ground” reporting despite online growth, as detailed in the London Assembly’s comprehensive 2017 report The Fate of Local News.
The result, according to contributors to the Assembly report, is a growing democratic deficit.
Eric Gordon, veteran editor of the independent Camden New Journal, told the inquiry that fewer journalists inevitably meant less investigative reporting, while Linda Quinn, Editor-in-Chief, Brixton Bugle, warned that if people “do not know what is happening in their name, it is very difficult to form a judgement to hold the council to account”.
With traditional local press in decline though, the gap is increasingly being filled by community newspapers and websites, some of them, such as Inside Croydon, specifically seeking to offer “a real voice in your community, so often missing from council events or the established media”.
A veteran in the field is the Hackney Citizen, which celebrated its tenth year in print last summer. “The focus has always been on readers,” editor Keith Magnum told Press Gazette. “We thought there was space for something that provided more informed debate and in-depth analysis”. Without local journalism, he added, “there isn’t any democracy”.
Further north, another survivor is the Waltham Forest Echo, launched in 2014 by Social Spider community interest company, which has gone on to launch the Tottenham Community Press and, in October last year, the Enfield Dispatch, following the 2017 closure of the Enfield Advertiser, chronicling its progress in a Medium blog here.
South of the river, online and print titles include London SE1 and 853, covering Greenwich and “doing the stuff the local press gave up doing a long time ago”, and the Peckham Peculiar, Lewisham Ledger and Dulwich Diverter series.
The independent Community News Network facilitated by the Cardiff University Centre for Community Journalism now has more than 100 members. There’s an interactive map of titles here, many of them in London.
Can they survive, run as they often are by committed individuals and kept going through advertising, subscriber schemes and unpaid contributors?
While the government-commissioned Cairncross inquiry into how to safeguard independent news in the digital age is yet to report, the BBC has thrown a lifeline both to the community and the traditional sector through its Local News Partnership scheme, funding reporters across the country to “fill the gap in local democracy reporting”, and Facebook is funnelling £4.5 million for community reporters via the National Council for the Training of Journalists.
But, as the Assembly report concludes, viability remains a major problem: “Without addressing the challenges that the industry is facing, and finding solutions, we are at risk of losing one of our most important democratic functions”.