David Prosser: It is time to protect local newspapers

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The Independent Online

Outlook Britain's local newspapers have been at the sharp end of the advertising slowdown during the recession, dependent as they are on classified advertising, particularly relating to the stagnant motoring and property sectors.

Calls yesterday from MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee for an inquiry by the Office of Fair Trading into council-run newspapers are therefore welcome. Up and down the country, the difficulties of local newspapers have been amplified over the past two years by the publication of freesheets produced and paid for by councils. These papers compete head on with the commercial press, driving down circulation and advertising revenue.

Local newspaper groups must take some of the blame for their demise: in many cases they have been starved of investment and are now pale shadows of their former glory. The freesheets are thus credible rivals in a way they would not have been 20 years ago.

Even so, this is a peculiar way to use council tax-payers' money: rather than improving the lot of the communities they serve, many local authorities are spending it on ventures that deprive members of these communities of work.

If the jobs of the staff of local newspaper groups do not move you, consider this. Is a council-run newspaper really likely to do a decent job of holding members of the local authority to account? Most of the freesheets make no pretence of even trying to grapple with this role, vital though it is to democracy.

The threat from such titles to well-run, properly resourced local newspapers would be great at the best of times. During a damaging recession it has been disastrous.