Long live regional and trade media: will quality journalism receive government support?
By Rachel Murray
A couple of recent news items have reminded me of the important role played by regional and trade publications.
Devastating personal stories from what has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history are currently hitting the news as a public enquiry into the Post Office Scandal has started. More than 700 sub-postmasters and mistresses were wrongly convicted of fraud or stealing, thanks to a malfunctioning IT system. Trade publication Computer Weekly was the first to investigate and break the story back in 2009.
Meanwhile, it’s been announced that a £29m computer system installed by Greater Manchester Police will be scrapped due to serious operating problems, including a reporting failure of 80,000 crimes. Whistle blowers first brought this issue to the attention of the Manchester Evening News (MEN) which ran an in-depth piece in 2019.
Both of these stories have made national headlines, although it was far from immediate in the case of the Post Office Scandal. The Computer Weekly article by journalist Rebecca Thomson was a real scoop but, surprisingly, it was only picked up in a few regional papers. If the nationals could ignore such a hard-hitting and well-investigated story, it’s fair to say they would not have followed up on the initial tip-off and the truth may never have been uncovered.
As it happened Computer Weekly was targeted for the tip off because it is an IT publication with a proven track record of investigative journalism. Despite the lack of immediate national press coverage, the impact of the article was significant. It inspired an investigation on Welsh language current affairs series, Taro Naw, that found more affected sub-postmasters. It also “galvanised” former MP Lord Arbuthnot to listen to others in his constituency and bring the issue to the national political sphere.
Quality investigative journalism is also abundant in local media and many widely covered stories have come from reporters on the ground – as the MEN example illustrates. However, investigative journalism and regional and trade media are under threat. While the MEN and Computer Weekly are thankfully very much alive and kicking, numerous titles have disappeared, and many of those remaining are struggling to survive.
The reasons for the decline of print and local publications have been well documented and it boils down money and changing reader habits – advertisers have followed readers online. The advertising revenue generated by an investigative article is unlikely to approach anywhere near the cost of creating that content in the first place. But there’s an argument that says quality journalism shouldn’t have a monetary value and there’s a case for supporting the kind of journalism that doesn’t necessarily pull in readers with the obvious stories.
This recognition is shared by the Government: the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) has launched an inquiry into the Sustainability of Local Journalism. Much of this is based on a study published in 2019 into the future of journalism, which underlined the importance of ensuring the continued and the long-term supply of quality and local journalism. The Cairncross Review defines two areas of quality journalism that require particular focus.
It says: “One is investigative and campaigning journalism, and especially investigations into abuses of power in both the public and the private sphere. Such journalism is particularly high-cost and high-risk. The second is the humdrum task of reporting on the daily activities of public institutions, particularly those at local level, such as the discussions of local councils or the proceedings in a local Magistrates Court.”
The Review found that the reduction in democracy reporting leads to a fall in community engagement (such as voter turnout) by local residents. This marries with the widely accepted view that a free press is the fourth pillar of democratic society. As such the Review recommended state intervention in support of local media in the form of funding, tax relief and subsidies. I look forward to the outcome of the DCMS inquiry which may well result in a well-deserved kiss of life for publications that are worth far more than their ad revenues would have us believe.
The strength of investigative journalism and the impact local reporting has on public engagement prove how important it is to keep regional and trade media alive. These publications provide their readership with information that is of particular interest and importance to them, and give them a voice. This is summarised perfectly by the author of the afore mentioned MEN story, Jennifer Williams, @JenWilliamsMEN, an award winning investigative journalist who has recently joined the FT as Northern England correspondent.
She tweeted: “Anyone who says regional/local news is dead is wrong. We’ve tried – and the MEN will continue to try – to show just how important it is for our communities to be seen and heard, rather than taken for granted or dismissed.”
Rachel is an account director in the London office