My first job in journalism was as a trainee reporter in Neath in South Wales. Every Wednesday, when the paper was published, I couldn't walk down the main street without being stopped every few paces by someone eager to discuss – or, more likely, to take issue with – something in that day's paper.
There was nowhere to hide for a local reporter: you were connected to your public, and that helped breed journalism that was fair and responsible. It was a clear illustration to me of the central role a local newspaper plays in the life of a community, and the decline of Britain's local papers is something we should all take seriously.
There is no register of closures, or of downsizings, or of the transformation of paid-for titles into freesheets – the fate of the Neath Guardian – but those reported in the past month are merely the latest examples of a long-term trend.
Media groups all over the UK face pressure to drive down costs, and many local newspapers are simply dying. A respected media analyst told a committee of MPs not long ago that up to half of the UK's local papers could close by 2014.
Such closures may not have the visible impact on a community of, say, the closure of a shop. But the gaps they leave are serious. The most obvious is the shortfall in the reporting of local affairs and politics, leading to a general disengagement with local politics, and dismal turnouts in regional elections. Public-spirited individuals are doing their bit, through websites, blogs, newsletters and the like, to make up this democratic deficit. But in many areas there is a big vacuum where reporting on local councils used to be, and in the worst cases this vacuum is taken up by councils themselves.
Journalism has a bad reputation at the moment, but we'll miss it if it's not there.
Simon Kelner is chief executive of the Journalism Foundation, which supports independent journalism in the UK and overseas
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