Thursday, 30 December 2010

The importance of local newspapers

Being influenced by those around you is nothing new. Basic sociology - I got a B at A level - describes patterns of human interaction that shape how we behave. Communication between individuals, groups of individuals and within these groups drive feelings such as belonging or pride which in turn help to influence how people act. All human beings are different, but these feelings can, in turn, help determine the things we do and the way we treat the world around us including whether or not we graffiti, drop litter, let our dogs use playing fields as toilets or commit worse crimes.  

Living in South London it is hard to feel part of a community, I know few of my neighbours and don't feel particular pride towards where I live. Where I grew up - in Evesham in Worcestershire - things were much different. Neighbours were also friends, community spirit and a sense of belonging were strong.

With the rise of social media, many of us interact with people far more than ever before. For example I'm a member of professional groups on LinkedIn, log onto websites like ConservativeHome, I follow what friends are up to on Facebook and share thoughts or argue with people on Twitter. I could spend my day interacting, sharing, debating on these communities. These relationships are virtual so, while I may enjoy sharing ideas on crisis communications on LinkedIn, and any advise I give that group may help someone in Sydney or San Francisco, it isn't enhancing my immediate world.       

I'm a fan of social media, from a professional point of view it is a fantastic tool to build coalitions, monitor or change opinions. It is here to stay and will only become ever more woven into all our lives. The problem is, are the communities - real not virtual - we now inhabit strong enough to shape our actions in a positive and robust way?

One way of helping to bond local communities has been through a strong local newspaper. One that isn't afraid to question councillors, highlights charity work and applauds achievements of sports teams. While the quality of journalism or the level of news isn't always that strong, these papers play a powerful role in many communities.

Local media has a unique and powerful connection with its audience; there are currently 1,200 regional and local, daily and weekly titles. However, ninety per cent of paid-for weekly local and regional papers in the UK recorded year-on-year falls in circulation in 2010, the last few regional Sunday papers are unlikely to last much longer. As ad revenues fall, budgets continue to be slashed, jobs cut, standards are difficult to keep up. The good news is web traffic is increasing but the revenue from these sites is simply not enough.

The decline of local and regional papers is a significant social change and should be recognised as such. The Government's move against local council freesheets should be welcomed as one way to support this sector. I have in front of me a couple of recent copies of The Guernsey Press, it sells 16,000 copies a day and is read by 80 per cent of the population. It is the perfect blend of community news, sport, charity events and civic notices. It is rare success story which helps to bind the people of Guernsey together.

Ultimately there is a shift against paid for media as we all consume news and opinion in different ways. Social media is global and builds communities, but is also one way our local communities are under threat. Finding ways to help individuals interact and build groups and allegiances locally, is as challenging a task as trying to halt the decline of local newspapers. Both tasks are worth pursuing to build local pride and a sense of belonging which are vital for our society.  

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