Local newspapers: Read all about it? If only ...

The writing's on the wall for the local press. As more newspapers close, Ian Burrell asks what we're losing along the way

Walsall's most famous son is Jerome K Jerome, but the Staffordshire town is a little short of writers these days. When it comes to newspaper reporters, the former global capital of the leather industry couldn't even match the size of the crew of Jerome's fabled boat.

One by one, all of the newspapers left Walsall. At the turn of the millennium, a Walsallian could have gone into one of three town centre newsrooms and spoken to reporters from the Express & Star, the Evening Mail, the Walsall Observer, the Walsall Advertiser or the Walsall Chronicle, according to their choice.

But the Walsall Observer stopped its presses in 2009 after 141 years. The free weekly Walsall Advertiser is now produced from an office 17 miles away in Tamworth, while the Evening Mail is based on the other side of Birmingham and the Chronicle, a weekly free paper, is written in Wolverhampton.

Today, Walsall's nearest staff journalist is more than eight miles away in Cannock, where the Wolverhampton-headquartered Express & Star maintains a bureau, having closed its Walsall office three years ago. "What it means is that if you are a man or woman on the street and want to speak to a reporter, you can't really do it face to face," says Lee Kenny, who teaches journalism at Birmingham City University. Kenny, who is producing a documentary on the decline of the West Midlands media, said he recently made a visit to the Walsall magistrates' court and spoke with the clerks. "They said it's very rare these days that you see a journalist."

David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall North, said: "I've no criticism of the reporters. With less staff they do a very conscientious job, but there's not enough of them and they're no longer based in the town. There's undoubtedly a crisis over local newspapers which has an impact – it's bound to – on democracy."

Considering that the Express & Star is Britain's most successful local newspaper operation, the only title with a circulation in excess of 100,000, it is not hard to see why MPs will tomorrow be holding a special debate on the demise of the regional press. The adjournment debate has been called by Louise Mensch, the Tory MP for Corby, who is especially concerned by the decision of Johnston Press, one of Britain's largest regional publishers, to turn a number of its well-known daily papers into weeklies.

The Corby edition of the Northampton Evening Telegraph series is one of the papers being reduced to once-a-week publication, as are the Halifax Courier, the Peterborough Evening News, the Scarborough Evening News and the Northampton Chronicle as Johnston Press moves to a "platform neutral" strategy. The plan is to make greater use of digital content but a number of local offices are being closed.

Last night Mensch called for the local press to be given tax advantages to help ensure its survival. "The local press performs a unique function in our democracy, as often only a local paper will hold a council or MP to account," said Mensch. "Government has to look at ways of preserving Britain's most popular print media – read by an estimated 33 million people per month. When we think of so many things that are subsidised that have only limited appeal, surely there is a case for tax advantages for local papers. And if a pure profit model doesn't work, government should look at ways to facilitate local communities and businesses owning their own papers – like the supporters trust model for football clubs."

Another MP with concerns is Peter Hain, the former Secretary of State for Wales, who has seen print media disappear from his Neath constituency.

Since the closure of the 75-year old Neath Guardian in 2009, along with the neighbouring Port Talbot title, local news has been covered from Swansea by the South Wales Evening Post. "The Evening Post does a good job but the Neath Guardian is still much missed," said Hain. "You had a paper that was just about Neath as opposed to a paper that has several pages about Neath alongside a lot of material about Swansea and the wider area."

Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, said the financial situation was "incredibly serious" and could lead to a day when the Government had to consider ways of returning titles to their local communities. He pointed out that some publishing companies had exposed themselves to debt at the same time as an economic recession and extreme structural change with the growth of the internet.

"Newspapers are so important at a local level, but it's death by a thousand cuts and it's very sad... brands that have a century of goodwill built up won't be worth so much if the journalism is cut back so much that people stop respecting them."

In the West Midlands, Becky Sharpe, chief news editor at the Express & Star, said she had confidence in her Cannock-based team of four Walsall reporters, plus a journalist assigned to covering the town's football club. "Little has changed," she said. "We still have a dedicated Walsall news editor and put out a dedicated Walsall paper and it sells 15,000 a day."

But Steve Auckland, chief executive of Northcliffe Media, producers of the Walsall Advertiser, was more positive, saying that the shift in the regional press from daily to weekly publishing was beneficial to readers as well as publishers. He said that retail advertisers spent their money at the end of the week whereas Monday to Wednesday editions were often short of news, thin on pages and unpopular with consumers. “So we are saying this is a once a week brilliant product for this town and we are putting everything into it.” He said the Torquay Herald Express had grown its best-day circulation by 30% since going weekly, while keeping 82% of its revenue and saving money by cutting its reporting staff.

The Newspaper Society remains upbeat and points to research which predicts an upturn in advertising revenue coming into the regional press later in the year. It also highlights that the vast majority of newspaper closures in the past decade have been of “marginal” free weekly titles occupying second or third position in their local market. There was a significant expansion of free titles in the 1980s. A society spokeswoman said: “Overall, the number of [local newspaper] titles has declined by 13.2 per cent over 10 years. But within this, paid for titles have declined by just 1.1 per cent compared to free titles which have declined by 24.6 per cent.”

But Lee Kenny said the process of covering towns from centralised offices gave an impression of normality that disguised a worrying absence in local news gathering. "We took our students to visit the Lord Mayor of Walsall," he said. "He told us it was a problem for local democracy."

Suggested Topics
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Business Development and Analytics - TV

competitive benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Outstanding analytic expertise is req...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Business Development Manager Content/Subscriptions

£50k + commission: Savvy Media Ltd: Great opportunity to work for a team that ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker