Go find those marrows

Sally Feldman mourns the demise of local papers and regional television

November 26, 2009

Read all about it: have-a-go grannies, Diwali celebrants, road protesters, killer bouncy castles, parish meetings, brave beat bobbies, cleaning ladies (excellent references), and a turnip with Winston Churchill's face. All of them are long-stay inhabitants of that dying institution, the local newspaper.

At our undergraduate conferment ceremony two weeks ago, the journalist Nick Davies, accepting the award of honorary fellow, told the congregating graduands that this was where he first learnt his trade: traipsing across wet moors, banging on the doors of the bereaved, hanging around courtrooms and attending parish council meetings. This was, he said, the perfect preparation for his later career as one of our most distinguished investigative journalists, and one who has produced major reports on education, poverty, racism, the recent uncovering of celebrity mobile phone hacking, not to mention the savage attack on his own industry in last year's book, Flat Earth News.

But the experience of the truly local paper may no longer be available to the next generation of journalists. Britain's local newspapers are folding. Last year more than 50 disappeared while others are merging, and some formerly proud titles are huddled together in one cluttered newsroom serving up to a dozen different areas. Some pinched publications have resorted to the so-called "hub and pod" system. The hub is an editor squashed in an office in the middle of nowhere. The pod is a lone journalist, plus car, phone and computer, filing copy in isolation.

This collapse of the regional press was cited by the BBC Trust as one of the main reasons for not allowing the corporation to develop internet video material to accompany BBC local radio news. It was considered too great a threat to the struggling local news services. But the gesture hasn't made a lot of difference to the slow, painful demise of the local papers. And it hasn't helped that they have been so slow to adapt to the digital age and the opportunities for extending their presence on the web.

Even if they had got their act together, it's far from clear that internet news would have helped much. Rupert Murdoch may be gearing up to charge for access to News International websites, but there's no evidence that paid subscriptions can make up for the huge losses in advertising revenue that are plaguing all areas of the press. And no evidence, either, that anyone used to surfing the net for free content would suddenly be prepared to pay for the content even of respected national broadsheets, let alone local papers.

It's not just local newspapers that are vanishing; regional television, too, is under threat. The Government's proposed Digital Britain legislation will relieve ITV of the obligation to provide regional coverage. Instead, there will be the opportunity for new players to fill the gap by forming independently financed news consortia. That is an opportunity that Van Gore, the entrepreneurial vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, is keen to explore. As Times Higher Education reported earlier this month, he has been negotiating with ITV Meridian to establish just such an arrangement, offering it a location at his university in exchange for teaching and other student involvement.

His argument is that, since public money has been invested by universities in broadcasting facilities, it makes sense for those same universities to share their resources with the broadcasters: "If you can have teaching hospitals, why not a teaching TV station or newspaper?" For the industry, it would save jobs, create efficiencies and probably improve content, since the new breed of journalism student will be comfortable with the new digital delivery systems. And for the students themselves, such an operation would provide a real-life learning environment with all the tensions, deadlines, breakneck decisions, fights for studio space, rush edits, overnight vigils and rough camaraderie that should be the lifeblood of newshounds.

Here at the University of Westminster we're about to launch a slightly different version of the same principle. TheHA1.co.uk, named after the local postcode, is our new student-run community website - an online version of a local newspaper. Student reporters will have to attend court hearings, get to know the churches and the mosques, the art groups and the youth clubs. They'll have to put into practice what Nick Davies emphasised at our ceremony were the most important tools of the reporter: the ability to build relationships, cultivate networks, win trust and find out what's really going on. This is the stuff of newshunting, too often ignored in today's busy newsrooms where contacts have been replaced by Google and telephones by Twitter.

I have high hopes that our new enterprise will harden up our students, sharpen their antennae and turn them into decent professional hacks. But of course it won't all be local versions of Watergate and MPs' expenses. When they're not uncovering vicar-related scandals and stumbling upon financial indiscretions, they'll also be having to do what everyone used to start out doing: frying eggs on scorching pavements, confronting noisy neighbours, tackling trespassing tree-huggers and, if they're really, really lucky - photographing a giant marrow that looks exactly like Gordon Brown.

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