How does our press emerge from lockdown? Part one: Local Weekly Newspapers

In the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot from the concerned voices representing various of our local industry sectors, all of them understandably concerned about how Covid-19 will impact their sector and how they will emerge from it. All legitimate concerns that we should share. But as yet we’ve heard little from the sector, I believe could be the biggest casualty of all, and one we would never be able to replace – the local newspaper industry.

News outlets occupy distinct markets. Yes, it’s true that people have turned away in big numbers from the big nationals and regional papers, never to return. It may be too late for them.  I’ll deal with that in a future article. But the most immediate casualty is the one we can least afford to lose – our local weekly newspapers.

Northern Ireland has always been particularly well served by strong local newspapers. The sector in England never recovered from the onslaught of free newspapers in the 1980s, a phenomenon never replicated here. All of our key towns have at least one long established weekly and often two – a Protestant one and a Catholic one (and those antiquated terms are the correct ones – just look at the death notices and church reports if you don’t believe me!). I know from experience we have been the envy of publishers across the water, which is why so many of them bought local groups a couple of decades ago.

Many of our local papers have been damaged in recent years – possibly beyond repair in some cases. In most cases this has been the result of GB-based corporate owners unable to pay off debt run up during the profligate days prior to 2008, when newspapers changed hands for amounts way above their real value.  Page numbers have been significantly reduced, accompanied by ridiculous increases in cover price to maximise short term income. Town centre offices have been closed and staff numbers have been cut at a suicidal rate, to the point where a journalist in some groups can be expected to cover 3 or 4 different papers. A dilution of quality is inevitable. One very good editor I worked with told me a few years that his staff had been cut to such a degree that his paper wasn’t able to cover first communions in his most populated area (see what I mean about the Protestant/Catholic thing?) and was rapidly losing traction with his base. Court reporting – which sells thousands of papers in its own right – has been maintained but under real pressure across the sector. Once that information is lost where do we get it from?

Local newspapers historically had tremendously strong business assets.  But they were squandered with the advent of the internet – and mostly through bad decision making. The development of the web heralded trends for which publishers were unprepared. Classified ads disappeared quickly, display ads were under attack, and free content eroded print sales. For many regional and daily newspapers, the sharp decline in revenue occurred rapidly, meaning staff layoffs, falling share prices and lost circulation.

So why save them? There are myriad reasons to say the weekly press is a vital and irreplaceable component of any community.  For a start, no other media can provide what they do. They give readers the strongest available news, sports, features, lifestyle, and advertising that their self-contained, often inward-looking communities need each week. The good ones work hard to maintain and develop relationships with readers, businesses, community groups and more. They’ve done it in well over a century in most cases and those relationships are both essential and irreplaceable. We all need this, and we need to believe that what we’re reading is accurate and has an understanding gained from within. Only local journalists and advertising can deliver that. This week the family owned business that owns the Newtownards Chronicle and County Down (Bangor) Spectator – two very strong papers – announced they were ceasing publication for the duration of the crisis. That’s a lot of people – many of them older – deprived of a vital link to the outside world. A very unhealthy situation.

Take sport. The Ulster Herald in Omagh (I’ll confess a prejudice as I worked for the parent group until recently) provides up to 20 pages of high quality sports coverage including club and county GAA (all codes), Irish league Football, Fermanagh & Western League, Rugby and the widest range of minor sports. How would these sports and the players be promoted without a strong local press? They wouldn’t. No one else could do it. That alone would make them vital.

Early I mentioned first communions and their importance to local readers. That’s just one component and bear in mind this is Northern Ireland. Orange parades, St Patrick’s Day Parades, Remembrance events of all sorts, even graduation and wedding photos and local obituaries are all important to many thousands of people in towns and villages everywhere. Lose your local weekly and you lose this. You won’t get it back.

We would all agree that history shapes a community and being there, providing consistent coverage, and serving as a record of events is part of the role of local papers. Just look at the archives of these weekly newspapers. When most of them were launched there was no border, today there is a border. They fully covered the events of 1912, 1916, 1921, the World Wars, the Border Campaign, the events of 1968-1998 and beyond. Uniquely they covered these events as they affected their own local communities and reported and commented on them from the unique perspective of their local communities. Can we afford to lose a resource like this?

The internet broke the model that made newspapers what Lord Thomson once described as “a license to print money”. That has been damaging papers for at least the past fifteen years. That has crucified the metropolitan dailies. But weekly newspapers haven’t gone down the road of placing all content online. They still have unique markets which are valued. In Fermanagh, for example, there are two competitive weeklies (one pale orange and one pale green) that collectively sell around 20,000 copies per week in a county with not much more than 30,000 households. Granted that’s pretty unique in 2020 and the county’s remoteness from any major metropolis is a factor. But both papers retain a high pagination, realistic cover price and a decent staffing level. Will they be able to do that after weeks/months of lockdown in the county? I don’t know but I wouldn’t be optimistic.

We’re all going to be at home for the next few weeks. If you haven’t bought your local weekly for a while check it out. You’ll have plenty of time on your hands and not a lot to do with bit. Reconnecting with your local paper might open your eyes a bit to what’s really going on around you, or even what’s not going on over the next few weeks. You’ll be helping boost something unique to you and your community. It’s worth a try.