Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee punches above its weight

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee recently published its report Sustainability of local journalism.

A Select Committee established in 1997, it oversees the operations of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which replaced the Department for Culture, Media and Sport which also replaced the Department for National Heritage. The members are five Conservative MPs, three Labour MPs and one Scottish Nationalist MP. The Chair of the Select Committee is Julian Knight (Conservative MP Solihull) “who announced he was recusing himself from Parliament until a complaint made about him to the Metropolitan Police has been resolved”, with Rt Hon Damian Green (Conservative MP Ashford) currently the Acting Chair. Dr Rupa Huq MP is an Independent member, suspended by the Labour Party in September 2022 pending an investigation into her alleged racist comments made at a conference fringe event. Since 2015, no Liberal Democrat MP has served on the Committee, John Leech (MP Manchester Worthington) being the last Liberal Democrat MP appointed to it, replacing Adrian Sanders (Torbay) on 21 January 2013.

In the wake of most independent local newspapers vanishing, the report argues “much of the evidence we received was critical of the corporate publishers, arguing they have presided over a reduction in the quality of journalism from their titles to maximise profits“.

Singled out for special attention is Reach plc, “which publishes some 130 national and local news titles” – notably MEN, the mighty Manchester Evening News. Reach plc told the Committee it is “undergoing a transition towards a digital-based business model, though 75% of its revenues continue to come from print”. The company highlighted several examples of its own self-funded innovation and collaborations with partners, including the development of the “InYourArea local news aggregator platform“. This is email-harvesting to send free subscribers an artificial mix of local news locked into highly targeted local advertising. Trying to send regional Press Releases to the mighty MEN is now tricky, as messages are channelled to a hyperlocal satellite newspaper under the InYourArea brand, such as the hollowed out Stockport Express boasting “trusted news since 1822” at £1.80 an issue. Time will tell if the nationwide InYourArea brand will flourish, with over 300 InYourArea areas in Greater Manchester alone.

The Committee Report draws attention to how Reach plc has straddled its local news gathering and dissemination capabilities with the BBC local news gathering service. Mutual benefit sure; a Trojan Horse in waiting perhaps. A far cry from the successful emergence of a string of real grassroot independent community newspapers: Didsbury Post, Heatons Post, Cheadle Post and Bramhall Post, albeit printed by the printing services wing of Reach plc: “Every day, we manage the delivery of around 2.7 million products for hundreds of clients“.

In contrast the electronic version of the mighty MEN has had an identity crisis, being a barely readable mix of shattered news articles interrupted by bait and click adverts.

Yet the Committee Report draws attention to green shoots of traditional journalism, such as the Manchester-based Mill, an email newspaper founded in 2020, covering Greater Manchester. The Mill publishes free content via a Substack mailing list, with further content for subscribers who pay £7 per month. The Mill raises additional revenue from partnership-based advertising with local businesses, and the paper has recently launched two similar newsletters in Sheffield (The Tribune) and Liverpool (The Post). As yet low in circulation, the Mill is already outstripping the MEN in scholarly journalism, readability and reputation. Indeed the Mill business model leaps the barrier of printing and distribution, by using nowt more than emails!

* Robin Grayson is an adviser to Greater Manchester Liberal Democrats, a former councillor on Greater Manchester County Council and former Opposition Leader on Wigan MBC. He has advised the Albanian, Mongolian, Albanian, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan governments.

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