Review: What Do We Mean By Local? Grass-Roots Journalism – Its Death and Rebirth, edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler and Ian Reeves

by Julie Freer, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK

Much has been written by media commentators about the economic and technological squeeze that broke the business model of the UK regional Book Reviews press.

Loved by the Stock Exchange in late 90s and the early years of the new century when acquisitions were aplenty, margins were high and money was to be made, quick profits masked declining circulations. Attention was fixed to the share price rather than meeting the challenges and grasping the opportunities of the digital age.

By the time the recession hit post 2008, the availability of content away from the mainstream gave readers fewer reasons to be loyal to their local titles. Advertising drifted away to the emerging online sites and the regional press was in trouble.

What Do We Mean By Local? Grass-roots Journalism – its Death and Rebirth, edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler and Ian Reeves draws together 33 chapters which chronicle why the regional newspaper industry and local radio fell into decline. The book also looks at how local media is trying to re-invent itself through hyperlocal sites, local TV and various other digital distribution tools. In conclusion, it examines the bigger picture and the impact of the decline on local democracy.

It is described as a ‘hackademic’ volume in that is a collection that ranges from the fully referenced academic paper to media commentary and personal anecdote.

While it may not be one for the academic purist, the more personal chapters offer some of the more interesting and salient points.

Chris Oakley in his chapter ‘The men who killed the regional newspaper industry’ concludes: “In a couple of decades, managements who overpaid for acquisitions, over promised to City investors and failed to recognise the threat and opportunity of the internet, have come close to destroying an industry.”

He tells the story of his own role in management buyouts, subsequent flotation on the Stock Exchange and sale of titles, and asks the reader to judge his team’s culpability in creating the financial climate that brought this about.

He also makes the crucial point that if the industry had supported the Fish4 digital advertising site, regional newspapers would have sewn up the property, cars and jobs market and sites such as Rightmove would not have been the success they are.

While the future may be hyperlocal, Richard Jones in his chapter on his Saddleworth News hyperlocal website points out that while there is job satisfaction to be had, the responsibilities of a mortgage and a child meant it wasn’t sustainable in the longer term.

The site is now being operated by students at the Oldham campus of Huddersfield University. Indeed, he believes there is untapped potential in university journalism department in terms of underused equipment and talented students.

In a later chapter, David Hayward asks whether universities can save local journalism. Drawing on the US model, he cites examples where teaching has been combined with real quality practical journalism and where partnerships are being created between news organisations and the universities.

More radically, he points out universities could launch their own news start-ups. With universities’ own business models being challenged and pressure on staff to create new income streams, it is a model that could work for mutual benefit. While universities are not in a position to give away their facilities nor should they should they be seen as a source of cheap labour, a report by the New America Foundation quoted in this chapter points out the industry could do more to financially support innovative thinking, research and curriculum development and in turn, universities should increase coverage of communities.

What Do We Mean By Local? Grass-Roots Journalism – Its Death and Rebirth, edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler and Ian Reeves, published by Abramis, 2012. 268 pages. ISBN 978-1-84549-540-4; RRP: £17.95. 

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