Local news is black and
white and read – but not
all over, says Roger Ratcliffe

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I don’t know who invented the expression “local rag” for a local newspaper. It sounds derogatory, but when I worked for a weekly and then evening paper in the North it seemed to be a term of endearment. Readers said they loved their local rags.

Many of the UK’s best are found up here. I’m thinking of weeklies like the Barnsley Chronicle, Stockport Express and Westmorland Gazette, and dailies like the Lancashire Post, Hull Daily Mail and Bradford’s excellent Telegraph & Argus, affectionately known as “the T&A”.

Sadly, these are hard times for such papers as advertisers and readers move online. The industry’s trade journal, the Press Gazette, says large areas have become local news deserts. In the past decade at least 270 local papers have closed, 30 of them last summer alone.

This is bad not just for job losses and access to local news. There are implications for the role of the free press as the eyes, ears and sometimes the snarling teeth of the communities they serve. For example, I was troubled to read a study by the Charitable Journalism Project (CJP) that found that in some counties the number of people working as police communications officers now often rivals or outweighs the number of local newspaper reporters.

“The collapse of local reporting is a slow-burning crisis,” said the CJP. “Properly resourced journalism is the systematic effort to set out the truth of what matters to a community or a society in real time. For often the first time in over two centuries towns, villages and communities in Britain have no reliable and useful news.”

An important word here is “reliable”, because what now passes for local news, disseminated by social media, often seems of dubious origin to me. Yet people rely on this for information rather than buying local papers, which then have less resources for in-depth coverage of local issues. An example given by the CJP is the weekly Whitby Gazette. Its failure to probe into mass shellfish deaths on the Yorkshire coast left fishermen feeling resentful about what they saw as a failure of local journalism.

If things aren’t bad enough, the BBC has just announced it is moving into the local press’s space in some towns and cities, with websites consisting mainly of written rather than visual content and in direct competition with long established local papers. This will have the inevitable consequence of reducing sales and visits to the papers’ advertisement-driven websites.

The BBC was once the gold standard for trustworthy news. A 2018 survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 75 per cent of people trusted the BBC’s news output, but a few months ago a follow-up poll found this figure had plummeted to 53 per cent. Many people are beginning to detect a government bias in its news coverage. Some of its best journalists have left in disgust.

One of the places targeted by these BBC local news websites is Bradford, home of the much-loved T&A. When I wrote a Bradford guidebook 30 years ago the paper had 80 journalists, but because of the shrinkage of sales there are now just 15. So I fear not just for the future of Bradford’s independent eyes and ears, but for local papers in places like Hull, Sheffield, Liverpool and Preston that may one day be put out of business by the unreliable BBC.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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