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Does the decline of local journalism pose a threat to democracy?

7th March 2018

Sam Gavin, a Senior Account Manager at Grayling Birmingham, investigates the role of local journalism in democracy

As the UK Government announced a review into whether state intervention is needed to preserve the press, PM Theresa May claimed that the decline of local journalism is a threat to our democracy, fuelling the rise of fake news.

Noting that advances in communication technologies were having “a profound impact on one of the cornerstones of our public debate – our free press”, May lamented the “danger[s] for our democracy. When trusted and credible news sources decline”. In an age when it is so easy for communities to congregate online, creating forums and discussion, why is local journalism still such an important function of our democracy?

The regional press has long been a vital tool for communication between local government and the electorate. It tells the story of a community, keeping local issues at the forefront of the conversation and informing the public on the matters that affect them. This in-depth understanding of the community, and the issues that affect it, is often the primary mover that educates voting behaviours as individual communities react to the issues that impact the local area.

Trained journalists are skilled at holding those in power accountable. They provide an independent voice for the local community, which is often more impactful than the voice of citizen groups or local blogs and forums. Writing after the Grenfell tragedy Gordon Ramsay, the deputy director of King’s College London’s Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, argued that the lack of local journalism in the vicinity of Grenfell Tower allowed the pressing safety concerns raised by the Grenfell Action Blog to fall on deaf ears.

While in no way arguing that a more prevalent local press could have prevented the catastrophe, what Ramsay did acutely articulate was the ability of local news to “monitor and make sense of failures in local public life and in local public policy”, the kind of strong accountability that is as important to our notion of democracy as the right to spoil a ballot box in your local church hall.

As journalism becomes centralised, moving to large online outlets with a national or even global outlook, the intricacies of the local community get lost. The stories that affect you at home aren’t relevant a few junctions down the motorway and suddenly the topics that have a material impact on your daily life no longer have a space to be articulated.

The decline of local journalism is an undeniable reality, with large online platforms becoming the average consumer’s main news source, local politics moves away from the agenda. According to the Press Gazette, the number of local newspaper journalists in the country has halved in the past decade and a 2015 King’s College London study showed that over two thirds of local communities are not served by a dedicated local daily newspaper.

With the important institution of local media seemingly falling by the wayside, Government backed intervention might not seem like such a bad idea. But there are already organisations working towards redressing the democratic deficit presented by the decline of local media. The BBC has invested 8 million pounds in training and recruiting 145 local journalists, who will be dedicated to reporting on the issues that affect local democracy. Former culture secretary John Whittingdale has called for social media giants Twitter and Facebook to invest in the local journalism, which often populates its platforms. A version of this industry first intervention seems sensible if we are truly interested in preserving a free press.

The Grayling network is built on a keen understanding of the power of the local press. A core part of the Grayling DNA is having a presence in regions across the UK, giving us unparalleled local knowledge. It is this ability to gain insight across the UK that makes our agency unique, and it is this insight that affirms our commitment to working with regional press.


Sam Gavin

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