Life

Mary Kelly: Shift to celeb-dominated online 'news' damaging democracy and local communities

I remember sitting behind a man on the bus home and wanting to cuff him when he glanced at my story on the front page, then immediately turned it over to check the sports...

The online revolution has been the death knell for local newspapers
Mary Kelly

SOMETIMES a book title just demands your attention. So I had to order Panic as Man Burns Crumpets; The Vanishing World of the Local Journalist – an entertaining and nostalgic look at life on a local newspaper.

It is indeed a vanishing world, as far fewer people now get their primary source of news from print. Since 2005, a total of 265 local newspapers across the UK have closed. Much of the decline is inevitable, given that the business model was entirely dependent on classified advertising.

So, when estate agents, car dealers and other retailers moved to online search engines, money drained away. The collapse in finance led to cutbacks in staffing and papers became thinner and covered fewer local stories, thereby losing readers by the shed-load.

Younger people don't tend to buy newspapers, instead they get a lot of their news online. Worryingly, in Northern Ireland nearly a quarter of people use Facebook for news, while those relying on Twitter, at 17 per cent, is the highest in the UK.

You could argue that the decline in print journalism is offset by the shift online and the ease of access with news available on your phone. But that often means we're more likely to hear news of the Twitter trending celebs like Kim Kardashian and Piers Morgan than anyone of local importance.

It goes without saying that there is a loss to democracy when local councils and stories affecting communities on a smaller level go unreported. Here in Northern Ireland, weekly and local papers still play a useful role, but the number of reporters staffing the local press has drastically reduced in the past decades.

When I started out in journalism, a spell on a weekly newspaper was regarded as essential training. It was following the local photographer around on stories that introduced you to the local community and gave you the necessary grounding as well as a lesson in local economics.

I once spotted a nice pic when we were covering a fancy dress competition in a local school, where a child was sitting alone, obviously fed up. Archie sighed, took the pic, then lined up the whole class and took the picture that would appear in the paper on Friday.

"Aye, yours was more arty," he said.

"But there's 30 kids in that photo. All their parents will buy a copy of the paper, and a lot of them will also be buying the original photograph for their grannies."

Covering local courts was where you learned that people love reading about the misdemeanours of their neighbours, whose full names and addresses would appear alongside their careless driving, disorderly behaviour and shoplifting charges.

It always struck me as unfair that people who lived in country towns had their minor offences exposed to public shame, while those in the cities escaped censure as the dailies only covered bigger crimes.

I did once get dragged across the counter of the East Antrim Times in Carrickfergus when an irate mother insisted I had got it wrong when her son's name appeared on a drink driving charge. He had told her it was merely careless driving. The PPS begged to differ.

It was an important lesson that the words you wrote mattered to people and accuracy was also your best and only defence.

There was a romance to the old newspaper industry that I still miss. The sheer noise levels of the newsroom with the clatter of typewriters and phones ringing, journalists shouting "copy" for every page they wrote to be collected by young copy girls who physically carried them to the newsdesk. The slow rumble when the presses started rolling, making the floor vibrate.

There was the thrill of phoning in your story from a rural phone-box then passing the Tele van a short while later with it headlined on a billboard. I remember sitting behind a man on the bus home and wanting to cuff him when he glanced at my story on the front page, then immediately turned it over to check the sports.

A study by King's College, London, found UK towns whose local newspapers had closed showed a "democracy deficit" that resulted in reduced community engagement and a heightened distrust of public institutions.

"We can all have our own social media account, but when local papers are depleted or in some cases simply don't exist, people lose a communal voice. They feel angry, not listened to and more likely to believe malicious rumour," observed Dr Martin Moore, the author of the study.

This is why the QAnon nutters and anti-vaxxers find a ready audience.

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