Pandemic reminded us of importance of local news — NMA

Owen Meredith

News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith spoke of the challenges facing news media publishers and of the importance of local news brands to their communities during a Westminster Media Forum conference on the future of news this week.

Owen said: “Local news media is read by 40.6 million people in print and online every month. That in itself is a great testimony, not only to the importance of this media, but to the unique trust and the enduring relationship that local newspapers have with readers.

“This unique relationship has been acutely felt throughout the pandemic as local media titles have provided people of all ages with reliable, accurate and timely information about the coronavirus, cases, restrictions, and importantly about local heroes in their area.

“We’ve seen local media bringing communities together and supporting the most vulnerable in society.”

Owen cited examples such as the Cambridge News raising £1.3m to support voluntary groups throughout the pandemic, the Glasgow Times launching their campaign ‘Give Our OAPs A Shot’ to ensure older people continued to get their seasonal flu jab despite pandemic disruptions and Iliffe Media titles across Kent and the East of England running dozens of pages of messages from grandchildren to their grandparents who were self-isolating.

These three examples, Owen said, “were powerful reminders of the way local media has brought people together and supported their communities through the pandemic.

“This is something local news media brands do week in, week out, up and down the country, responding to the heartbeats of their local communities, whether in celebration, tragedy or following the rhythm of everyday life.

“This trusted, independent journalism stands in stark contrast to disinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news that lives and breathes online, especially on social media. I truly believe if we are not careful all of this could be lost. As we all know the business model for local news media is challenged and funding this vital journalism has arguably never been harder.

“The NMA believe these three key initiatives would have a significant impact on improving the long term prospects of local news media and ensure the vital contribution our journalists make to their communities can continue.

“The first of which would be creating a level playing field between news publishers and tech platforms. The UK Government have made some welcome commitments with the Cairncross Review and the creation of the Digital Markets Unit, but these acts must go further and faster if the sector is to survive and thrive.

“Secondly, funding support for local news media. Targeted tax relief schemes would help sustain local public interest journalism and allow publishers to bridge the gap to develop digital innovations and receive fair value for their editorial content online.

“Thirdly, moderation of the BBC’s output online. Local news media have a very effective partnership with the BBC with the Local Democracy Reporting Service. However the BBC risks undermining this work with their online news expansion. The NMA believes it is time to look closely at these issues with Government, regulators and the BBC, to ensure local commercial news is not stifled.”

Creina Chapman, deputy chair and chief executive of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, spoke of regulating digital news media and the interplay between social media and news organisations, as well as on the recent regulatory changes in Australia.

She commented: “The strength of this legislation is about threat and driving the parties to the table to negotiate. What we have seen is a considerable number of agreements entered into. A report from News Corp showed that deals so far have totalled $500m.

“The key lesson is that if you want action, the threat of regulation is inevitable. We are talking about assisting an industry that is struggling and regulation is an important tool in the armoury.”

Charlotte Dewar, chief executive of IPSO, spoke of the true value of having “an established, accountable and managed news media, who meet the public’s need for information on how to keep themselves and their families safe during Covid-19. The appetite for news is still there, as is the will of news publishers to respond, now more than ever.”

Francesca Unsworth, director of news and current affairs at the BBC, condemned online misinformation and attacks on journalists. She spoke of the importance of keeping the Government and the press accountable for their work, adding “but that doesn’t mean our work should be drowned in vitriol,” and commenting that the internet “is the place where radical ideas stew, where opinions and lies prove a heady mix more potent, often, than objective facts”.

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The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK

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