Leading article: Decline and fall of the local press

 

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In Victorian times, any sizeable British town was home to several competing local newspapers, some of which, like The Manchester Guardian, Newcastle Chronicle, or Leeds Mercury were major forces for progress.

Most of that competition was squeezed out as production costs eliminated all but titles with the largest circulations. By the latter part of the 20th century, a large city might be host to one morning, one evening and a Sunday paper, all owned by the same company and operating from the same headquarters, while most smaller towns were served by just one weekly. Most of the local press was owned by a handful of large companies.

Even then, there was no doubt that the British public loved their local papers. Their combined circulation was enormous. Their news content was written by professional journalists working, and usually living, in the communities they covered. Less combative and less racy than the national newspapers, they were judged on the whole to be fairer and more reliable.

But for the past five years it has been a story of shocking decline, as local papers have floundered in the torrent of competition from the internet. Titles that were a major presence in the areas they served a few years ago have either vanished or become shadows of what they were.

Corby's Conservative MP, Louise Mensch, has put up a valiant fight against a decision to reduce the Corby edition of the Northampton Evening Telegraph from a daily to a weekly, including securing a debate tomorrow in the House of Commons. She wants the Government to act to save the industry.

This is one of those instances in which it is far easier to set out the problem than to suggest a solution. The problem is that the internet can do most of what local newspapers have been doing for decades, such as telling people what is on at the cinema or giving them a medium through which to buy or sell a car. What the web has yet to acquire is the ability to monitor the council the way that the local reporter in the press gallery once did. But though the newspapers may all vanish, for the sake of our democracy local journalism must survive.

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