Putting a value on journalism

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The Cairncross review into the sustainability of print journalism has painted a bleak picture of a newspaper industry in terminal decline with local papers particularly vulnerable.

When I started in journalism in the mid-70s, the local newspaper entry route was the way that the vast majority of young reporters got their first career break.

I was fortunate enough to join an evening newspaper, the Leicester Mercury, which then had a daily paid-for circulation of 185,000.

Based on three people reading each copy, the Mercury’s proud front-page masthead was 500,000 READERS DAILY.

That represented more than 90% penetration of the adult population of Leicester every day including Saturday when the standard edition was supplemented with a sports “pink.”

That high level of circulation, around five times greater than the current readership, plus plump advertising and classified pages, funded quality journalism, a meticulous training regime, specialist correspondents for courts, crime, local government, industry, agriculture and sport.

There was time for proper investigative journalism plus every court case would be covered, every county and district council meeting would be attended by a reporter – and even some parish councils.

Business people, civic leaders, police and criminal justice professionals, doctors and health service workers, social campaigners, local celebrities and dignitaries- almost everyone in Leicester- knew and trusted the Mercury.

The picture desk had a team of quality photographers whose pictures would often find their way to the nationals.

Sub-editors never tolerated sloppy writing or lazy journalism, page layouts were meticulously set in hot metal.

In short, the Leicester Mercury was quality, truly the voice of the people with no need for publicly funded in-house city and county council and community newsletters to disseminate ‘official’ civic information.

Dame Frances Cairncross is thankfully looking at the intervention that will be required to safeguard the future of our free and independent press.

This is to be welcomed. It is not a question of turning the clock back, we cannot ignore a digital world where media is consumed very differently.

But good newspapers are closing down never to be replaced.

What can be done, is to explore ways to counter the crashing advertising and circulation revenues by recognising the genuine value that quality journalism in our towns and cities across Britain brings to local communities. Quality newspapers act as a force for good and should be supported in much the same way as BBC Local Radio is supported by public funds or the Arts by the Lottery.

The winner will be local democracy.

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