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Good news at last for local newspapers – but too late?

Martin King
hunter Good news at last for local newspapers   but too late?

Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, said he would ease the existing regulations on cross-media ownership (Getty Images)

The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt promises new local television stations run by companies freed from cross-media ownership restrictions  (ind.pn/localtelly).  It is a pledge that should head straight to the top of the agenda for the harried managing directors of Britain’s local newspapers.

That sector has seen accelerating decline in the 38 years since I joined it (a coincidence, I hope). Many circulations have tumbled by two-thirds in the past 20 years and the remnants struggle to maintain any credibility, let alone influence, in their areas.

Frustrated by cross-media restrictions on local radio and TV ownership, the local newspaper still had neither the vision nor long-term determination to capitalise fully on the internet explosion. Think beyond their former stranglehold on local news, but also of what was once their richest asset – classified ads.

Protectionist attitudes, a flawed scepticism and a failure to develop a cross-sector product for classifieds ensured they forsook their virtual monopoly to eBay and the like (and, to be fair to print, a boom in niche publications).

In short, the sector stuck to its communities of locality and missed out on changes that developed stronger and broader communities of interest. People were less interested in their city council shenanigans and magistrates’ hearings than they are in a model train club, book group or kite-flying society.

And that incidentally is bad news for democracy and justice, and even social cohesion. A strong local media can be a force for good – and is essential if the coalition government ever succeeds in decentralising its powers.

So local newspapers must be bold as they size up what local TV can provide. A stronger local media could even prove another opportunity for local newspapers to reverse into some credible online position.

It’s hard to see them getting another chance.

* Martin King worked for local newspapers for 23 years, and has been on national newspaper websites for 15.  He is online editor of independent.co.uk

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