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More support needed to halt damaging decline of local journalism, DCMS Committee warns

25 January 2023

The quality and coverage of local news will continue to decline without new support from the Government, MPs say today, in a report that warns of the damage a reduction in provision can cause to democracy and society.

Today’s DCMS Committee report on the sustainability of local journalism outlines how many local publishers, with smaller audiences and reach, have struggled to adapt to the shift away from print towards an online world which favours larger players. Between 2009 and 2019, more than 300 local newspaper titles closed, with surviving news providers often operating with diminished resources and fewer journalists.

The Committee highlights the harmful impact on communities of the resulting decline in access to local news, including a decrease in participation in civic life, less scrutiny of local government decisions and increasing levels of polarisation and misinformation.

To support the sector to adapt to the new market, the report recommends that the Government establishes an innovation fund for news as proposed in the Cairncross Review. It should also explore ways to make it easier for local news publishers to achieve charitable status and encourage more philanthropic funding of local journalism.

More must also be done to ensure that support reaches smaller publishers of local news, and long-awaited digital markets legislation must enable news sites to negotiate a fair commercial relationship with online companies that host their stories, such as Google and Meta.

The Committee also calls for the BBC to reconsider its proposals for its local radio stations to share more content across regions as part of its digital first strategy. The corporation wrote to MPs since the report’s agreement saying they had adapted a number of proposals, although the main changes of concern to the Committee will still go ahead.

Chair's comment

Damian Green MP, Acting Chair of the DCMS Committee, said:

“With the shift towards online readership swallowing up traditional print revenues, many local newspapers which have served their communities for years have struggled to keep their heads above water. While hundreds have already folded, those that remain are faced with a lack of resources to conduct quality journalism, forcing them into a downward spiral of decline, as readership and therefore revenues continue to fall further.

The disappearance of local news providers, which have always acted as the eyes and ears of their readers and held local decision makers to account, has ripped a hole in the heart of many communities. Worryingly it is the most deprived areas of the country that are most likely to miss out on coverage, compounding the disadvantages they already face.

While there are many success stories of innovation, the very nature of having smaller audiences and limited reach means local publishers find it hard to float in a market that rewards scale. The sector can have a sustainable future, but without more support and a rebalancing of the rules to help smaller publishers, the decline in local journalism and all the negative impacts associated with it will continue.”

Main findings and recommendations

The state of local journalism

  • Despite the collapse in revenues and challenges for surviving titles, there are encouraging examples of innovation by local news publishers. The sector can be revived and have a sustainable future with the right support.

Support for local news

  • The BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter Service (LDRS) has had a positive impact but more could be done to expand it across different platforms and to give access to a wider range of news providers. It should be protected during forthcoming BBC Charter negotiations.
  • The Government should build on the Future News Pilot Fund – set up in response to the recommendations of the Cairncross Review – and create a long-term public interest news fund to support innovation, start-ups and new technology.
  • Statutory notices are an important revenue stream for many local news publishers and the requirement that councils place them in local newspapers should be kept. The rules and practices for placing them should be reviewed, with an assessment of how this revenue stream can be made more accessible for new entrants to the local news market.
  • While market consolidation has ensured the survival of newspaper titles, the Committee is concerned that some of the approaches of the largest publishers may be reducing the quality of the local journalism produced by their titles. The largest publishers taking a disproportionate share of available support may be stifling much needed innovation. There should be an audit of public money that supports local news and an analysis of whether this could be distributed more fairly.
  • The Government should consider how it might make it easier for local news organisations to achieve charitable status and how to encourage more philanthropic donations to local news publishers.

Local television and radio

  • The BBC should reconsider its proposed changes to local radio provision. The strategy for digital first should not come at the expense of local radio.

The role of online platforms

  • The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill will be vital in redressing the unbalanced relationship between the large digital platforms and local news publishers. There should be clear and explicit provisions for ensuring smaller publishers are fairly remunerated.

Further information

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