Two strikes were announced recently in London. The first, a 24 hour walkout by tube workers, sparked national headlines, but the second, a 12 day strike by south London journalists, seemed to go unnoticed.
Like their tube-driving counterparts, members of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) are in dispute with management over pay, conditions and staffing. Both are engaged in negotiations at arbitration service ACAS and both sets of talks broke down, leading to strike action.
Journalists working on the south London publication, News Shopper, walked out in June over owner Newsquest’s plans to merge the Shopper’s operation with that of the South London Guardian. If the plans go ahead, staff face job losses and the closure of their office. Newsquest is one of the UK's largest regional newspaper publishers with more than 200 newspapers, magazines and trade publications.
'Public bodies are not being held to account'
South London isn’t the only place which is losing a lot of its local news coverage — in 2014, Trinity Mirror closed seven papers, including the Harrow Observer, while Newsquest has revealed that four newsdesks covering east and north London will be centralised into one based in Watford.
So who's keeping a watchful eye on councils and bringing local residents up to date with news? Local news and politics is increasingly being covered by an uneasy mix of cash-strapped local newspapers, council freesheets and bloggers. We spoke to Greenwich blogger Darryl Chamberlain, who runs 853blog:
"Nobody knows what goes on down at the council, so it's nice to be able to tell people. There's not been a proper paid-for paper in Greenwich since the 1980s, and the free local papers started cutting back their distribution in the 2000s. So I went years without really seeing local news, and when I first went to see a council meeting in 2009 — and witnessed the then-mayor be rude to a man struggling with council procedures while presenting a petition — it was a massive eye-opener, and a shock to realise there were no journalists there to watch this.
"There's a deep-seated distrust of the media in the council which goes back decades. Producing Greenwich Time means it can control how its policies and initiatives are seen, as well as hammering home a particular view of the area."
"I started the blog because I enjoyed LBTH shenanigans and felt the local paper was no longer scrutinising the council properly. I think the blog has played a significant part in recent events. Even Lutfur's advisers believe that without it recent history would have been somewhat different. So I encourage every journalist to spend some of their spare time examining their local authority and holding it to account."
The London Assembly has also thrown its weight behind local newspapers, calling on London Mayor Boris Johnson to "urgently write to Newsquest expressing the concerns raised by the London Assembly and seeking assurance for the staff of Newsquest". Waltham Forest Guardian (a Newsquest publication) editor Tim Jones said:
"Where there is injustice our job is to highlight it and do our best to hold local authorities of whatever political colour to account. Even if you think local papers are not doing enough of this, who else is there to speak out on behalf of residents apart from us?"
Town Hall Pravdas
Former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles took on London councils over the use of taxpayers' money to publish what he called 'town hall pravdas'. A ruling limiting them to four publications per year was passed in January, but Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Lambeth and Greenwich all ignored the ruling. While publishers of local newspapers welcomed the fact that someone in Parliament was prepared to try and save independent local news reporting, Pickles's subsequent failure to enforce it hasn't gone down too well. It looks like the councils are prepared to put their money where their mouths are too — Greenwich council leader Denise Hyland admitted that the legal costs to save Greenwich Time look set to reach £120,000. We aren't the only ones to think that the £590,000 cost (PDF) of producing it could be better spent elsewhere. Darryl Chamberlain said:
"Greenwich is a borough where everything comes from the top and councillors are remote from their constituents. The cash would be better off going to some real engagement with residents such as neighbourhood forums or assemblies — things we simply don't have here."
Both Ted Jeory and Tim Jones mention the cost of producing the freesheets — Jones called the £500,000 annual cost of Waltham Forest News 'outrageous', while East End Life is said to have cost around £1m to produce.
Aside from the cost of producing them and the implicit lack of impartiality, do council freesheets undermine newspapers in other ways? As anyone who's flicked through a local newspaper knows, advertising revenue is vital to their business. Both Chamberlain and Jeory say councils can undercut advertising revenue at the same time as diverting money from their own frontline services. Ted Jeory said of East End Life:
"As an example, Children's Services needs to advertise a new foster family recruitment drive; it has to do this in EEL. But that's not free for the CS department. It has to pay for EEL for that advert. That's real money that comes out of its frontline services budget, money that can be spent on children and families. Instead, EEL takes the revenue and nets it off against its £1m running costs so it can tell the world its 'net costs' are much lower. Of course the net to the council as a whole is cost-free for that advert but it's an accounting scam designed to benefit and prolong the life of EEL.
"The other alternative for the department is to get a quote from the local East London Advertiser, but its cost base is higher (because as a company it has to account for costs properly) and so its advertising rate is higher. In this way EEL crowds out/undercuts the ELA to the detriment of local journalism, because local journalism relies on ad revenue."
Darryl Chamberlain highlights a near-identical situation in Greenwich:
"As a weekly, Greenwich Time has certainly damaged the local media by undercutting ad rates and by saturating the borough in copies of the paper, which means it'd be hard to start an independent weekly here unless you had deep pockets."
Whose fault is it anyway?
So what's to blame for the decline in local newspapers? To borrow a Facebook phrase: It's Complicated. Both Jeory and Chamberlain acknowledge that while they don't help matters, council freesheets have a part to play in keeping the community informed, and they do some things very well. Which pretty much brings us back to the News Shopper strike.
Despite Newsquest CEO Gracia Martore receiving a salary of £7.5m, the company's journalists are among the capital's many workers who don't get the London Living Wage (LLW). Ted Jeory said newspaper publishing companies' 'terrible pay' is partly to blame for journalism students bypassing the traditional entry into local reporting and heading straight for the nationals. Darryl Chamberlain doesn't have a whole lot of sympathy for the publishers either:
"The big press barons have inflicted wounds on themselves, relentlessly squeezing costs and cutting back on distribution, which is crazy as you end up with journalists writing stories for free papers that are only seen by a handful of people, either in print or online."
London is fortunate in that it has a great many local bloggers who are knowledgeable and engaged with their local communities. Broken Barnet and the Barnet Bugle for starters (in fact, Barnet seems to be awash with bloggers). But ultimately they are people with jobs and as Chamberlain puts it, 'watching any London council is pretty much a full-time job'. Others like Brixton Blog and London SE1 have made the transition between blog and community newspaper.
Arguably, this shift could also be part of a wider change in how people read news, with bloggers stepping into the breach where newspaper publishers aren't investing money, or even making cutbacks to coverage. But as the people of south London are about to find out, if you try to use a couple of journalists to cover everything from Kingston to Bromley, it's inevitable that important things which impact communities will be missed. And so will people's opportunity to scrutinise their elected town hall representatives. In the words of the London Assembly:
"We need local papers of a reasonable quality to ensure democratic scrutiny, accountability and encourage an informed and active citizenship."