Why should we care about regional news? 

In this week's article, Nicole Gibbons, our Marketing Director discusses the decline of independent regional news media and underscores the vital role these outlets play in local communities. They hold governments accountable, cover relevant local issues, and foster democratic engagement, but in order to prevent their disappearance, they need support more than ever in an age of mass media.

With a number of local councils across the UK recently declaring themselves effectively bankrupt, it is fair to say that regional government is in crisis. Alongside this plummet in regional funding, there has been a steady decline in the presence, and quality of, independent regional news media over the last decade.  As a recent report from the Press Gazette reveals, “the sector is around seven times smaller today than it was on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis.” The question remains –– why should we care about independent regional news? After all, does following BBC regional coverage or just keeping up with the national headlines no longer suffice? 

Ultimately, as Alexandra Topping’s piece in The Guardian earlier this month makes clear, we may not actually know what we are missing. “There is no shortage of stories to be rooted out in the workings of local authorities,” she writes, but “there is a dearth of people to write them.” Though independent regional news outlets are often overlooked, they are a crucial voice in local communities and pick up on the regional concerns often missed by national titles. They hold the local government to account, publish articles on local history, and advertise local business and events that keep these industries afloat. Issues covered by local news oftentimes feel more relevant and tangible to the community –– where local politics is covered in-depth and with accuracy, it is not surprising that this results in higher levels of democratic engagement. With an upcoming general election, reporting on the politics beyond Westminster and showing individuals how centralized policies filter down to affect their daily lives, will be crucial to decreasing disenfranchisement. When smaller news outlets cannot afford to hire enough journalists to sit in local courts, attend council meetings or interview local constituents, their ability to produce quality journalism and accurate reporting is evidently hindered. 

This is not the fault of the journalists who work for regional papers and media outlets; rather it is the inevitable outcome of financial inviability. Independent local news outlets are not only competing with BBC regional reporting, but also with tech platforms, as a growing number of individuals now more often get their news via social media. Tracey Bagshaw, writing for Index on Censorship, notes “[e]ven where newspapers still exist, journalists increasingly have their work cut out to keep “worthy” content on the agenda, and find coverage of local councils and courts competing with click-friendly online snippets which create big digital audiences.” If regional newspapers are forced to prioritize maintaining high ad-revenue and creating viral online content –– as opposed to reporting for those reading full articles and purchasing papers or subscriptions –– we may increasingly see important and underrepresented stories pushed to the sidelines in favour of what will sell. 

So, what can be done to remedy this? The onus may fall to local news companies themselves to be innovative, to improve their digital outreach and to experiment with paid online business models for funding. But the lack of regional reporting is also an issue for democracy as a whole, and the national government should be held accountable for increasing funding to regional bodies. Some effort has been made through the BBC Local Democracy Reporting service, which funds reporters who cover local authorities, but saving independent regional media might ultimately rest with the individuals who support local reporting by reading and engaging with it. We may, after all, only realise the value of regional media once it has disappeared entirely. 

Article by Nicole Gibbons, Marketing Director

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