The plight of local newspapers epitomises our diminished civil society - who will hold the parish panjandrums to account?
Newspapers are so ’yesterday’. No one looks at dead trees anymore. Get with the interweb, daddio!
Well, as Evelyn Waugh wrote in his seminal press satire Scoop - ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper’.
Consider this. Private Eye’s production values have barely changed since the 1960s, when founder Peter Cook was an aspiring judge but ‘didn’t have the Latin’. The fortnightly media institution is printed on murky paper; its website is perfunctory; and it no longer publishes lubricious exposes of what were memorably euphemised as ‘Ugandan discussions’. Yet last year Private Eye’s print circulation soared to a 30-year high, in defiance of accepted wisdom.
Why? Some point to the jokes, which do tend to be good. But the humour is a 50-year-old staple. My hunch is that editor Ian Hislop is benefiting from the space in the market vacated by daily (and some weekly) newspapers. Space that used to be occupied by the kind of routine but indispensable investigative journalism that now barely exists outside the national press (and too often, not even there).
A case in point is the Rotten Boroughs column, comprising lurid tales of municipal graft that you are unlikely to read anywhere else.
Who cares? Well, everyone should. Many local communities no longer have a fourth estate worth the name that is capable of holding the powerful to account.
Courts, police stations, council meetings – across swaths of the country these now go largely unattended by the grizzled hack (or bright-eyed Fleet Street wannabe) from the Argus or Courier. So no one knows what is happening there in our name, who is responsible and what we can do about it. Council PRs now outnumber reporters on their patch, which is hardly good for democracy. Many of them are former journalists – the money’s better.
In the early 1970s, a weekly newspaper serving a medium-sized market town could expect to have a circulation of 10-15,000. It would be staffed by an editor, a news editor, a chief reporter, half a dozen reporters, a sports editor, a couple of photographers and three or four subs. There might also be a feature writer.
How quaint. Since 2005, about 200 local papers have shut and the number of local journalists has halved. Many of those who are left are hobbled by a clickbait culture which chains them to their desks. Today they spend their time scrolling Twitter for celebrity stories, or creating ‘listicles’ (‘nine things you need to know about Kim Kardashian’) that might help them meet what often seem to be arbitrary digital audience targets. One local paper recently published an issue entirely made up of listicles - apparently without embarrassment.
Readers have noticed. As quality has declined, circulations have gone into freefall in a death spiral of mutually assured destruction. Just one regional daily now has a print circulation exceeding 50,000, and at the current rate of attrition (over 10% annually) many local newspapers won’t exist as newspapers in a few years’ time.
No one has yet reinvented local newspapers for profit in a digital age. Perhaps it can’t be done.
So what can lawyers do about this? In truth, not much. But you do share certain attributes with the best journalists, namely: innate curiosity; a facility with the spoken and written word; and a bloody-minded refusal to be cowed by the powerful and blustering.
If my trade can’t hold the parish panjandrums to account, perhaps yours can help by augmenting our diminished civil society. Go to the next meeting of your council, or police and crime commissioner, perhaps. Your country needs you.