“Decline of advertising revenue and changing perceptions of ‘quality journalism’ have left no room for much needed local reporting
A day after the Grenfell Tower fire in West London, a Sky News camera crew is talking to writer, film-maker and local resident Ishmahil Blagrove as he delivers a polished exposition on the failings of the media as playing a part in the disaster.
“This is not just a story – this situation has been brewing for years … You the media, you are the mouthpiece of this government and you make it possible.” Later Blagrove describes the mainstream media as “a bunch of motherfuckers” to a small crowd surrounding him who break into polite applause. Channel 4’s Jon Snow faced an angry group outside Grenfell the same day, asking him where the press was when the fire safety concerns were first raised.
Among the many elements of failure which lead to the unacceptable and avoidable, the failure of accountability reporting on local communities is obvious to anyone who cares to scour the archives. The Grenfell Action Group blog carefully documented their repeated complaints to the council. Other reporting is scarce, and where it exists, hard to find.
Grenfell Action Group blogposts form the most reliable archive of concerns about the area’s social housing, and yet they were unable to make the council act on their behalf. Even in the aftermath of what the group describes as “social murder”, it continues to publish posts on other housing tenants and issues in the area. Inside Housing, the trade publication, has been full of good reporting on safety issues but it has a different constituency and no leverage over local officials.
The causes of the failure of local journalism are well known: commercialism, consolidation, the internet, poor management. The fixes for that, though, cannot be found in an environment which is commercially hostile to small scale accountability journalism, and for that we are all to blame.
The decline of in-depth reporting about London’s richest borough is a microcosm of what has happened to local journalism in the UK and beyond – the pattern is the same from Kensington to Kentucky.
A few minutes on Google will give you a snapshot of how local media has become a hollowed-out, commercial shell for an important civic function. In 2010 the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle launched a Proper Papers Not Propaganda campaign against H&F News, the Hammersmith and Fulham freesheet published by the local council at a cost of £175,000 of taxpayers’ money. Councils using advances in printing technology to cheaply produce professional-looking papers was the second part of a pincer movement on the local press, the first being the loss of advertising to Google’s search advertising.
In 2014, Trinity Mirror closed seven local papers and consolidated three West London titles, including the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, and relaunched one Gazette to cover the territory of three defunct papers.
In truth the detailed coverage of local stories was already difficult for news organisations to maintain, and in some cases the idea of high-quality local reporting had always been a myth. But the evisceration of any sustainable professional journalism at the local level creates both an accountability vacuum and a distance between media and the communities it reports on.
As well as council-owned outlets, a plethora of glossy lifestyle and housing media mop up the advertising revenue not ingested by Facebook or Google. The local publication Kensington, Chelsea & Westminster Today – listed as the only free newspaper in the borough – has no local reporting at all.
The “news” site contains no information about its ownership or staff. However, in company filings its editor is listed as Kate Hawthorne, who is also the director of public relations company Hatricks.
The revolution in ground-level local media has never taken off in the way it was meant to. The local blogs run by tenants, activists and other citizens, find themselves isolated and crowded out in clogged social streams, short on attention, funding and traction. Often they rely on the tenacity and unpaid labour of their founders for survival.
As scale has become the sine qua non, choosing between the world and the local street has become the bargain for editors. The Guardian closed its own local city reporting experiment in 2011. The Daily Mail and General Trust sold its local newspapers to expand its global news and entertainment website. New players like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are globalists not localists. The New York Times is putting more reporters into Europe than onto the local beat. The Washington Post was freed from a local remit and has soared since.
Senior editors are much more likely to be spending time in a departure lounge than a council chamber. Many have never held a reporting job that required them to sit in local courts or civic meetings.
Covering local housing meetings is an unglamorous beat for any journalist; hardly anyone reads your work, almost nobody cares what happens in the meetings, and the pay is extremely low. Yet it is hard to argue there are more civically important jobs for journalism than reporting the daily machinations of local power.
Local reporting serves another function which is seldom discussed. Local journalism should be a pipeline which takes young people from very different backgrounds into the profession of reporting; it ought to provide an access point for people to get to know and understand the importance of accountability coverage by participating in it.
The shallow wisdom of digital editors is often that when nobody reads your story, you are doing it wrong. But the stories worth covering that nobody reads are the fabric of the public record.
The immediate reach of a single story is only half the story. The record of what happens for instance at Kensington and Chelsea committee meetings is for the most part available in PDFs on the council’s website. There is no corresponding public record kept by independent reporters and without the Grenfell Action Group we would know almost nothing of the warning signs that were repeatedly pushed in front of the council.
The rise of vast advertising platforms has sucked money from the market, and the efficiencies have been good for business and bad for journalism. National and international media, who were numerous on the ground after the Grenfell fire, have conspired in creating an attention economy which leaves no room for the unread story.
Coverage of the “quality” of a media outlet often starts with a “how many….” metric about views and shares. There is decreasing correlation between high numbers and quality journalism; when it is set in a social environment, where gimmicks and outrage cause social “sharing”, the opposite is often true.
John Ness, who has been editor in chief of two US-based ventures to make hyperlocal journalism work on the web, Patch and DNAInfo, sees the difficulty of establishing and maintaining independent journalism at local level as feeding into issues of trust and transparency which blight all media.
“I think people increasingly understand that our news ecosystem is broken, to the point where we can’t agree with our neighbours about what news events actually happened the day before. And I think people increasingly understand that the base of that ecosystem, local news, has to be fixed if we’re going to get back to a place where we share the same reality with our neighbours.,” he says.
There is decreasing correlation between high numbers and quality journalism
Ness thinks the route to sustainability resides primarily with people paying more for local media. In the US, communities with high-density populations and engaged citizens have had some success at creating not-for-profit local outlets, like the investigative outlet The Lens in New Orleans, and the veteran Voice of San Diego, or the much larger Texas Tribune in Austin. These remain the exceptions rather than the rule.
The BBC is increasingly the best hope of a route to building sustainable local reporting, but the costs of broadcasting are even less compatible with the scale issues of local stories, and the political penalties for rooting out corruption at council level mitigate the appetite for the mission.
As national and global news outlets in all their many forms continue to flood into the Grenfell story, they will I am sure, unearth and report on the root causes. But the stories which expose the causes of the fire, however they emerge, will not make up for the lack of the stories that might have stopped it in the first place.
The bitter irony of course is that a story read by a thousand people might have had more impact than one seen by 10 million. It is with deep regret and shame that we will never know if that could have been the case. Like Blagrove says, it is not just a story, it has been coming for a long time.”