Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer both paid tribute to Eric Gordon, the founder of the Camden New Journal, who died earlier this month, aged 89. Their interest was natural enough, as MPs in neighbouring boroughs – Camden and Islington – where the CNJ’s owner, New Journal Enterprises, publishes newspapers (its third title is in Westminster). But the story of this independently owned local news organisation has a significance that stretches beyond the capital.
Launched after a journalists’ strike, in 1982, Gordon’s papers are proof that local outlets that put community before profit can still survive and even thrive – albeit on a tight budget. With important local elections coming up, this lesson has rarely been more important.
Recent decades have been punishing for local and regional as well as national print media, as digital competitors led by Facebook and Google have sucked up advertising and audiences. The phenomenon is not limited to the UK. Last year, the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan published a book, Ghosting the News, examining the decline of local reporting in the US, and arguing that the disappearance of trusted information sources is linked to the decline of democracy. Even “citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts”, she suggested, is jeopardised when the closure of thousands of titles is accompanied by Trumpian rhetoric about “fake news”.
The BBC’s local democracy reporting service was set up to fill the gap created when British local and regional press owners closed titles and shed jobs (JPI Media, for example, which was sold for £10m in December, halved its staff in five years from 2007 to 2012, when it was still Johnston Press). The 150 BBC-funded reporters make a valuable contribution, and not all media businesses take the same approach to cutting costs. DC Thomson in Scotland, for example, is seen as having taken a longer-term view than some of its intensely profit-focused competitors. But the direction of travel is overwhelmingly down, with the pandemic acting as an accelerator. Last month, Reach, owner of the Daily Mirror and hundreds of regional titles, announced that it would close offices in places including Leicester, Stoke and Derby and rely on remote working.
In some cities, hyper-local titles and community organisations have added a fresh ingredient. Bristol was home to one of the first local papers: the Bristol Post Boy, from 1702. Now, it boasts a pioneering startup, the Bristol Cable. In the US, philanthropic donations are helping to support some news initiatives and their role as protectors of civic space.
These developments do not, however, amount to a solution. News reporting cannot be left to clusters of sparky campaigners, Facebook groups or private donors. Local authorities wield enormous power over people’s lives, with the role of Kensington and Chelsea council in the disastrous refurbishment of Grenfell Tower a good example. The courts, too, ought to be vigorously scrutinised. Arguably, recent cuts to the justice system might have been less severe had the public been more aware of the chaos caused.
There was no golden age when power was held so tightly to account that there were no abuses. Newspaper proprietors always sought to make money and protect their interests. But without a free press, there can be no democracy. As Gordon understood, boroughs with reliable news sources, and journalists committed to keeping readers informed, are less likely to rot.