I spent a highly entertaining evening this week in the company of John Stapleton, the veteran TV presenter and journalist. Stapleton, like me, comes from the Manchester area and we both support the same football team. Ostensibly, we were at a dinner to discuss football matters, in particular how the balance of power has swung from red to blue in Manchester, but inevitably we ended up talking about journalism.
For two old farts like us, these conversations inevitably end up taking the form of recollections to illustrate how things were much better in our day. John deeply regrets the decline of local papers, and the subsequent harm this does to our democracy. As a cub reporter in Oldham, he used to cover every council committee meeting, and now many local papers don't even report from meetings of the full council. The local paper was a focal point of a town back then, and district reporters played a significant role in the life of the community.
Print journalism was vibrant in a way that it is scarcely possible to believe today, and John told me that, after leaving school, he applied to 33 papers in the area for a job as a trainee. That's right - 33! There were 33 papers in the vicinity that all had an appeal for an ambitious young journalist. But our discussion was more than a lament for times long gone. I pointed out to John that while local papers are finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet in the modern media environment, the need for local journalism remains undiminished, and people's thirst to find out what's happening in the next street is something that will never die.
Curiosity is as much part of the human impulse as breathing, and will not be quelled by short-term economic reality. All around the country, community websites have sprung up, providing local news, covering local politics and engaging local people in the affairs of their area. Many of them are alive only because of charitable donations and through the hard work of public spirited individuals. But it is only a matter of time before some of these initiatives work out a way to make themselves financially sustainable, whether it be by subscription, or through advertising revenue, or by an as-yet-unknown model.
Everyone from Rupert Murdoch down (or up, depending on your viewpoint) hasn't cracked this particular nut, but one thing the Internet age has proved is that there is a market for niche information, like highly specialised financial reports, or news targeted at obscure interest groups. And what could be more niche than the parish pump aspect of local papers: the results of a regatta, a campaign to build a new pedestrian crossing, a row in the council chamber over rubbish collection.
A local journalist knows his or her patch. Sometimes too intimately. John Stapleton told me that he was once at a planning committee meeting and one of the items on the agenda was the proposed demolition of a row of houses. One of his colleagues on the press benches stood up and remonstrated with the councillors: “You can't do that,” she said, “my auntie Edith lives there!”