Karin Smyth MP on supporting local media through the Coronavirus crisis

Some of you may have read some of the regular columns I write for local newspapers – from the South Bristol Voice and The Pigeon to the Bristol Post. I’m also a regular reader of these publications – along with other local papers such as The Bristol Cable and Bristol 24/7 – and I know just how important they are for local people, especially those not as digitally dependent as others.

I’ve been in touch with these publishers as well as the local representative from the National Union of Journalists and I’ve heard from the Independent Community News Network to try and understand the challenges they face. The smaller publications have stopped the presses for the time being, with some taking advantage of the government-funded furlough option to help balance out the sharp drop in revenue from advertisers – and others moving their content online.

The Coronavirus crisis is acting as a catalyst for many trends – from those such as more working from home and active travel to much more negative outcomes, such as the crippling challenges faced by our nurseries, small businesses and local print media.

The Bristol Cable recently made a submission to the House of Lords Committee on the future of journalism which stated: “The damage wrought by the pandemic on the industry is particularly painful, but it also exposes and amplifies pre-existing vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. We would do well to remember that the ‘normal’ state of journalism before the coronavirus was of crisis, and is not something we merely want to return to.” You can read the full submission here.

In recent years we’ve seen circulation plummet for most printed newspapers, with reduced print runs and some publications closing altogether. Interestingly, we’ve also seen the emergence of new hyperlocal publications such as the Local Voice series – showing that there is still an appetite and a need for the printed press. Interestingly, Bristol Live (the online version of The Post) told me they’ve seen a huge increase in audience numbers since the Coronavirus crisis hit the UK and the South Bristol Voice is logging record levels of readership and engagement.

These publications – and the journalists and staff who work for them – play a number of important roles in our communities. They celebrate success, they shine a light on injustices, they share information and entertain. They also give a platform to local businesses to reach wider audiences through advertising and editorial. For me, they give me a chance to share regular updates with people who may not be visiting my website or following my social media channels (see some of my previous columns here). And they also challenge local elected leaders – like myself – a crucial part of democracy and ensuring accountability.

Communication is so important at the moment. It’s through clear and comprehensive communication that the government can share vital messages around the Coronavirus crisis response. There has been much confusion around the restrictions in recent weeks and while a big part of that is down to the government’s lack of clear strategy, some is down to lack of clear communication. You cannot reach everyone with a TV broadcast, national newspapers and a social media campaign. It’s not practical to send letters to every household in the UK every time the guidance changes, but using these hyperlocal publications which are delivered door-to-door and other local media which has strong links with the community, could not only help get the message out but prove a lifeline for them in the form of advertising revenue.

Of course, that’s not going to single-handedly solve the challenges that local media is facing, but it could help them through this challenging time. I’ve raised this with Bristol City Council as well to see if there’s anything that can be done locally. I’m also planning on writing to the Chancellor to see if business rates relief may be extended to include local newspapers – along with the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors.

As we start to come through the Coronavirus crisis and look to the society we want on the other side, and a decent local media should absolutely feature in that.