Digital news shift is diluting democracy

Click targets push pub menus above politics, says Martin Shipton W

e are in extraordinary times amid the coronavirus crisis and we have an urgent need for accurate

news. This makes the recent words to me from a former council leader in South Wales all the more poignant. He was talking nostalgically. about the time when almost everyone bought and read the local weekly paper. “People took a great interest in what

was going on. If there was controversy at the council, they’d have a view, especially if it involved a waste of money. Nowadays, hardly anyone reads the paper and, while it still comes out, it has very little worth reading. No one knows or cares what’s going on at the council, unless it’s something that puts them directly at a disadvantage. “ The days of well-staffed local papers

are over. They are the victims of a failed business model that relies on cutting back to survive. But cutting back has increasingly deprived papers of their raison d’être. Instead of the lively reporting of

controversy, the weekly papers that once meant so much to their communities are full of bland press releases promoting things for readers to buy and stories that have already appeared in sister daily titles. It is increasingly the case that weekly papers have no dedicated reporting staff – or, indeed, staff of any kind. Their overheads are therefore extremely low and, while sales have dipped greatly, they are still contributing to company profits. These days, in digital-first newsrooms, papers are often seen as embarrassing survivors of a bygone age. A few years ago, a Reach digital executive (when it

was still Trinity Mirror) saw no irony in telling a conference that “the trouble with papers is that they still make money”. What the digital executive should have said was that without the group’s print revenue, they themselves would not be in their highly paid job. From the point of view of those who

believe in the crucial importance of local news, the changing culture of newsrooms is seriously worrying. A story is not judged on its own

merits but on how many page views it generates. A piece about Wetherspoon’s new menu (much the same as the old one) is rated highly because of the number of page views by the large number of people anywhere who, for some reason, have an insatiable appetite for trivia relating to the pub chain. Reporters are under pressure to get

as many page views as they can. Inevitably, this frames the kind of pieces they write. While people to one degree or another are consuming such material, they are becoming alienated from their communities. A vacuum is created, which is filled by unwholesome material from social media that pushes simplistic and sometimes racist solutions to complex problems. Of course, other factors are involved in the rising influence of far-right narratives, but I believe the decline of well-resourced local papers has played a significant part. I work in Cardiff for Media Wales, a Reach subsidiary. I have the good fortune to be classified as a print journalist, which means I have escaped the click-chasing imperative that is driving most of my colleagues. We have a talented team, and much high- quality journalism is created by my co-workers. But that is despite the click

“ ”

Pure political coverage without some personal animus isn’t favoured because it doesn’t get enough page views

imperative – not because of it. The great majority of my work appears in the Western Mail, still styled as the national newspaper of Wales despite circulations that are a fraction of what they once were. Most of my articles concern Welsh politics, which the paper’s largely ABC1 readership tend to be engaged with. The Welsh political class is constantly agonising about the devolution settlement. Questions of funding are very important and determine the quality of public services that can be provided. Austerity has hit Welsh communities hard, some of which are among the poorest in Europe. Yet pure political coverage without some personal animus is not favoured because it doesn’t get enough page views. Paradoxically, the papers are lasting longer than many of us believed a few years ago, for the reason that digital advertising revenue has not taken off in the way expected. But papers cannot carry on forever with declining revenues and the worry is that, when they go, the remaining digital offering will be a stripped-down model based on ‘breaking news’, sport, food reviews and stories tied into the interests of advertisers – with even fewer journalists in employment. The rumour-mongering and ill-informed speculation about coronavirus spread on social media during this unprecedented crisis show how important the existence of reliable sources of local information is for our very survival.

• Martin Shipton is Reach NUJ group chapel chair and a member of the union’s Welsh executive council.

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