Northcliffe local news: not so local, less of the news

dirtypaper by Just_Luc on flickr(Photo by just.Luc, licensed under Creative Commons)

Northcliffe Media are cutting the equivalent of 30 full time posts on their West and Wales titles, including nine jobs from my area, Bath. One ex-employee of the Chronicle believes this will leave the Chron with an editorial staff of 12 – including the editor, dep ed, four reporters, sport, subs and pictures – to cover a city of 80,000 people. Some of the subbing will be moved to a Bristol-based hub, where four “sticklers for detail with a flair for layout” are being recruited to cover the Chron, BEP, WDP, Gloucester Citizen, Gloucestershire Echo and the Western Gazette.

Consolidation is superficially appealing when a business is trying to hold down its losses – and as the West and Wales papers already share content and some subbing will remain in-house, this central unit won’t be expected to do the work of seven distinct daily and weekly papers. And perhaps Northcliffe subs can be a tiny bit relieved that their entire profession hasn’t yet been rationalised our of existence, per Greenslade. But it does mean that local news production will be still further removed from the area it’s supposed to cover.

Does that matter? Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror Group, spoke to the Media Show about TMG’s closure of nine local papers, and was asked whether these “rationalisations” would affect the quality of local journalism. She answered:

I think that’s a great misnomer […] the new technology that we’re equipping our journalists with now means that they don’t actually have to come to a building necessarily. They can spend more time on their patch, spend more time in their communities.

Bailey’s comforting vision of reporters filing copy to a faraway office from deep within their region leaves the newsrooms as ghost towns. No face-to-face communication between the team, every decision mediated by email and telephone, no opportunity for an editor to oversee and train his staff.

That’s one way in which cuts hurt local news. It’s also likely that reporters will simply be too stretched to know their area fully: if the Bath Chronicle has four reporters, it seems impossible that they can give dedicated coverage to the courts, council, schools, hospital and all the other authorities and services that make up an area. Is it really possible for four hacks to know enough people in Bath to find out everything that’s going on?

The same goes for subs. How will subs in another city be able to pick up on a geographically implausible street name, or a misspelt parish councillor? Probably they won’t. And as over time errors and omissions accumulate and readers realise that, actually, their local paper isn’t anything of the sort anymore, probably they will stop buying. Journalism is what newspapers sell. Fewer editorial staff means less journalism, of lower quality – immediate savings that must be balanced by long-term, incalculable losses.

© Sarah Ditum 2009. Thanks to Phil Chamberlain for help researching this post.