A fortnight ago the Evening News reported that the North Edinburgh News, a community newspaper, is facing closure due to anticipated funding cuts in March 2011. In this second posting about community newspapers we look at how people want to access local news and why local printed newspapers are still so important.
The report published last year by the Media Trust, “Meeting the News Needs of Local Communities”, clearly demonstrates that people want local news, and that most people would like more local news rather than less. But there are different definitions as to what constitutes local news and the report differentiates clearly between information services and truly local independent investigative journalism. Those surveyed did not regard the free publications they received from their local council or other public bodies as news. Whilst they provide information, they are not journalism and they are not an independent voice.
“Local people seek reporting from those they know understand what goes on locally, or who are at least willing to learn. This means having a local presence, being seen to ferret out information, dig behind it, and make sense of it. They want analytic depth and scepticism regarding those in power, context, and debate. They want stories that are compelling because they are relevant to them and they want to be part of the conversation”
The Sentinel acted as an independent voice and promoted the use of local stories. For its 100th issue, the Sentinel featured its previous editors discussing some of the highlights and problems they faced during their time there. You can read their views here at Sentinel March 1985 .
The report suggests that an independent local presence is key to building trust in what is being reported. People wanted the news organisation to have a local physical base and for its journalists to be in the actual locality. It is this that gives the readers confidence in the truth, independence and accountability of what is being written. Throughout its life, the Sentinel’s offices remained in the community which it served and the paper emphasised the importance of using local writers and contributors.
The Sentinel reported news but it also scrutinised, questioned and campaigned. When its successor, the West Edinburgh Times finally closed its doors in 2008, local people had less access to information about what was happening in the area. Some steps have been taken to try and improve this situation. But the loss of a community newspaper has meant Wester Hailes has lost an important voice, a way of bringing people together and of acting as a rallying call on issues that need challenging.
The Sentinel balanced its campaigning role with the reporting of local news items, recognising the importance of people’s stories and experiences. Although not shying away from the problems facing people living in Wester Hailes, it also promoted local achievements and good news stories as well as acting as an archive for the events in people’s lives, recording key moments such as weddings and birthdays. Yet it was also able to reflect outwards from the area, connecting Wester Hailes to wider city and national issues, giving people the opportunity of reading the views and aims of a range of regional and national figures, both political and those outside the political arena. The Sentinel may have been a community newspaper produced with limited resources but it was always highly professional both in content and format.
Interestingly, the research carried out for the Media Trust report shows that despite being in the age of the internet, most people surveyed for the report still wanted a printed newspaper as their way of accessing local news. Although more people now obtain news online, it is not their primary source for information on local events and issues. Of course, this situation may change over time and is partly to do with the current digital divide as we increasingly become a society where a lack of internet access excludes groups of people. But there is something about the definite geographical coverage of a printed newspaper that is delivered to people’s doors that increases the sense of connection people have with their area. And while many people do use the internet and interact with local websites, there is a difference between happening across relevant news items in this way and having them on the front page of a newspaper that has been pushed through your letterbox. A newspaper is easy to leave and go back to and of course it’s portable. And there is also a difference between the volume and level of information provided online and what was laid out across the pages of the Sentinel, particularly in their regular around the neighbourhoods feature. For an example of this click here on September 1987.
The world in which small local community newspapers now have to operate is harsher financially, with escalating printing costs and a decline in interest from advertisers. Yet at a time when local interaction with democracy is decreasing, generating endless debate and reports on what should be done, surely investment in the local community news sector would assist and would represent good value?