Why a shitty media infrastructure is bad in a bunch of different ways - part one

I’ve just finished Cory Doctorow’s latest book The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation. I’ll talk more about the book in a future post, but something I wanted to get down right away was a couple of things in the book that I guess could fall under the heading of ‘Why a shitty media infrastructure is bad in a bunch of different ways’.

The first of these was actually prompted by the ‘further reading’ section at the end of the book (I’ll write about the other one later this week).

In that section Doctorow recommends the podcast Trashfuture which, I’m ashamed to say, I’d never listened to before. I subscribed and listened to the latest (free) episode, ‘Thurrock Confidential’.

Here’s the episode description for context:

“The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s very own Gareth Davies joins the gang to talk about a smooth businessman who decided to create generational wealth by transferring the entire budget for social and community services of Thurrock Council into his own bank account. And, of course, the one man who helped him by being too stupid to realise what was going on.”

Towards the end of the episode, one of the Trashfuture presenters asks Gareth this question (I’ve tidied up the transcript a little for brevity’s sake):

“I wonder, how much of this comes as a result of not even expecting to be investigated, because there isn’t really an infrastructure that’s ever really done it? We don’t really have much of a local press that has the capability and resources to look into something like this. Even newspapers that are better funded… The amount of time and resources that they have to cover council meetings and what’s actually going on in local politics is so diminished. Are councils doing this type of stuff on the basis that there isn’t really a mechanism of oversight?”

The answer to that, of course, is a huge yes. I’ve written about the decline of the local press before, most recently over on London in Bits in an issue titled What’s black and white and all over? Answer: London’s local newspapers.

That issue was written in March of last year, when “ailing regional press institution,” Archant Press was “gobbled up by a giant American holding company [Newsquest] and, as a result, London’s local newspaper ecosystem became even more diluted than it already was”.

Newsquest already owned titles like This is Local London, News Shopper (which covers South East London), Richmond and Twickenham Times, Surrey Comet, the Sutton and Croydon Guardian and the Wimbledon Times. With that acquisition they added papers like the Hackney GazetteIslington Gazette, the East London Advertiser, the Barking & Dagenham Post, the Bexley Times and the Bromley Times to their portfolio.

Newsquest’s CEO claims that these deals deliver “quality local journalism,” but what actually happens is that (to quote one Archant journalist) “they hollow out the newspapers that they buy,” and then bolt them on to their poorly designed clickfarm websites which are staffed mainly by ‘SEO journalists’ and ’Facebook community reporters’ (these are actual bylines).

My house (despite having an SE postcode) is in the borough of Croydon. This means my council tax went up by 15% this year. That’s because Croydon Council has had to declare effective bankruptcy three times in the past two years. If you want to read about the litany of Thurrock-esque mismanagement that got the council to this point, then your best bet is probably the independent local blog Inside Croydon. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than, for example, the Sutton and Croydon Guardian which, as I write this, is pushing “Pictures of major emergency services presence as girl stabbed to death”.

Coincidentally, Gareth Davies (the guest on trashfuture who was being asked the question about local press), used to be the Chief reporter at the Croydon Advertiser. Here’s the (tidied up) transcript of his answer:

“I could wax lyrical for hours about the decline of local journalism. That’s my background. You’ve mentioned Croydon a few times. I wrote about Croydon for about 10 years, and the same has happened there. That story’s repeated across the country. There are undoubtedly some very hard-working, diligent local journalists out there, but they are hugely up against it.

“They work in an industry that’s obsessed with clicks and shareable content, driving outrage on social media and desperately chasing Tesco’s advertising pounds. Not doing the digging, or the investment in the time and resources it takes. And it is bloody hard. I’ve been working on this since October 2019. And it was a hard sell where I work, and we do investigative work! Because, you know, councils aren’t sexy. People tend to switch off when you talk about them.

“But the other stuff you’ve seen in Croydon, you have seen it in Woking, you’ve seen it in Slough, there’s stuff going on in Birmingham… It’s not just the shit financial situations that local authorities are in and the risk they’re being forced into taking, it’s also the lack of transparency and the wanting to hide this stuff; and it’s the lack of a challenge from the good local press when it happens.”

Very few people bat an eyelid when local newspapers close or get bought up. They definitely bat more than that when their council tax goes up by 15%. But there is a direct line between these two events.

Before I go here’s a few recommendations for not-awful local press outlets:

The bad news is that, 80% of the local newspaper market in the UK is controlled by just five companies, and Newsquest own 30% of them. The three biggest companies combined (Newsquest, Reach and National World) control almost 70% of all local newspaper circulation.

But if you are in South London you should try and support The South London Press (which nearly went under a few years ago but was saved by a leaflet distribution firm that operates out of an industrial estate in Hainault!) and the Southwark News (which has been independently run since it started life in 1987 as an A-4 photocopied sheet of paper).

In North London there’s the Camden New Journal, another independent title that has been running since 1982 and which has won multiple awards and broken national stories in that time (its sister paper, the Islington Tribune is also very good).

And if you’re in Sheffield, Manchester or Liverpool have a look at The Mill, the Liverpool Post and the Sheffield Tribune. They are terrific.