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
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Life & Style
life
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Business, Marketing and Tourism Volunteer Projects

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: As part of an ongoing effort to support local...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit