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Journey to the centre of a news black hole
By Rachel Howells | 10th Jun 2016
We often hear that the loss of newspapers is bad for democracy, but tangible evidence is not always easy to find. A recently completed PhD set out to research whether news black holes open up after a local newspaper shuts, and whether this creates a democratic deficit. Dr Rachel Howells, who is also editor of hyperlocal Port Talbot Magnet, tells us about her research.
What happens when a town loses its local newspaper? Can people still find out what they need to know? How do they find out important information? Can they participate effectively in local democracy? And in an era when information is available online and in other media, is there even any difference at all?
These are some of the questions I set out to answer as part of a five-year PhD research project at Cardiff University.
I already had a front row seat to see for myself the effects of a newspaper closure on a town – in this case, the town of Port Talbot. In 2008 I was made redundant from my job as a journalist and joined a co-operative of journalists looking to keep our jobs in the industry. When Port Talbot’s weekly newspaper, the Port Talbot Guardian, closed in 2009 we were able to move quickly to establish a local news service online. This became the Port Talbot Magnet, a website and, from 2013, a free monthly tabloid newspaper delivered to 20,000 local homes.
But the newspaper closure provided not just a news gap for the Magnet to try to fill. It also provided the opportunity to research how a newspaper closure might impact on the town, and so for the last five years I have completed a research project with Port Talbot as my case study. As many people were already calling such places ‘news black holes’, I called it ‘Journey to the centre of a news black hole: examining the democratic deficit in a town with no newspaper’.
I set out three main areas of enquiry:
- First, how had local news production and the news itself changed over the last four decades?
- Second, how were local people able to access important information post-closure, and how well informed and represented were they?
- And third, were there any democratic behaviours that could be measured or examined for changes?
Together, I hoped the answers to these questions would reveal the nature of a news black hole, and help me to understand whether a newspaper closure might cause one to open up. In turn, I aimed to discover whether the closure had caused a democratic deficit in Port Talbot.
A history of local news in Port Talbot
The first task of the research was to establish what local news had looked like in Port Talbot for the decades before the closure. Newspaper circulation decline had been happening since at least the 1970s, and so I carried out a content analysis covering the period 1970 to 2013 on the two major local newspapers, the now-closed weekly, Port Talbot Guardian, and the daily South Wales Evening Post, which continues to provide a daily edition for the Neath Port Talbot area and a weekly insert called the Courier. I also interviewed journalists who had worked the Port Talbot patch from the 1960s to the present to find out how their working lives had changed in that time.
As is often the case, I found the closure of the Guardian was merely the final chapter in a much more complicated story. I found evidence of decline in the quantity and quality of news reporting that had begun about two decades before the closure.
Across the sample period, the number of stories about Port Talbot fell significantly – by 66.3 per cent between 1970 and 2015. I measured the quality of news coverage, too, by looking at how many sources were quoted, how local the story was, whether the reporter had used press releases or attended meetings in person and several other indicators of the quality of the news. By these measures, I found the quality of coverage decreased – over time, stories were less local, journalists less likely to attend meetings and more likely to use press releases, and I also found that higher status sources were more likely to be quoted than low status members of the public (see Graphs A and B).
GRAPH A: The number of public interest news stories (ie stories about local government, health, education, transport and utilities), which were reported by attendance at a meeting, or by the use of a managed media source such as a press conference or press release
GRAPH B: The use of sources in the news: high status sources with influence and power, such as civil servants or politicians. Medium status sources were those with influence but no power, such as celebrities. Low status sources had neither influence nor power. The use of high status rose sharply after 2000.
This was linked with the number of reporters working in Port Talbot. In 1970, five separate newspapers had journalists based in offices in the town. As many as 11 journalists worked there at this time, competing with each other for the scoop and covering courts, council meetings, public meetings, protests, conferences, accidents, and many of the events and developments that make up community life, from new business openings to school fetes and everything in between. By 2015, there were no permanent journalists based in the town. By then, the Magnet operated a hot desking and part time service, while the South Wales Evening Post had two reporters to cover all of Neath and Port Talbot, based in an office 10 miles away in Swansea. In all, this represented a 90 per cent drop in the number of dedicated Port Talbot reporters between 1970 and 2015.
‘Not allowed to leave the office unless by express permission’
Equally, changes to reporting styles took their toll. I interviewed 11 reporters who had worked as journalists in Port Talbot between 1960 and 2015. Those who had worked in the 1960s to 1980s gave me examples of competing for stories, leaving the office to follow leads and attending courts and council meetings as a matter of routine. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, large newspaper groups sustained their profits by reducing newsroom resources, streamlining editorial processes and cutting jobs. By the 2000s, reporters told me they were not allowed to leave the office unless by express permission, that their primary focus was on writing large numbers of stories and filling boxes in page templates – as many as 17 in a day, or 35 across a weekend – and that completing large volumes of work was the main focus. Because of a change in the way newsrooms were run, the emphasis on newsgathering had changed from chasing the best story, to filling pages with as much copy as they could get hold of quickly and efficiently. These journalists were generally not as content with these working styles and regretted that they could not spend more time with contacts and gathering stories of interest to niche communities.
Alongside process changes, I also found the closure of district offices was a turning point. This happened in Port Talbot around the year 2000, with journalists removed from local people and becoming more remote and less easy to access. Local people told me they found it harder to get the ear of a journalist, while journalists told me they found it harder to get out and see news stories unfolding, often relying instead on press officers to confirm reports of accidents or emergencies, or on meeting minutes or agendas for their coverage of council meetings.
Measuring democratic engagement
This turning point was also apparent when I examined some of my other data, too. For example, a measure of democratic engagement is election turnout. From around the year 2000, turnout in the Aberavon constituency for general, local and Welsh Assembly elections began to fall consistently below the national average for the first time (see Graphs C and D). Between the 1970 and 1999 local elections, turnout for the seats within the Aberavon constituency was an average of 2.45 percentage points above the UK average, but dropped from the 2004 elections onwards to 0.72 percentage points below the UK average. Similar changes are observed for general and Assembly elections too.
This suggests there may be a link between democratic engagement and locally useful journalism, and is tentative evidence – along with other measures – of a tangible democratic deficit.
GRAPH C: General Elections: How Aberavon Parliamentary constituency turnout compared with national average, 1970-2015.
GRAPH D: Local elections: How Aberavon Parliamentary constituency turnout compared with national average, 1973-2012.
Fulfilling a watchdog role?
As well as statistical evidence for a democratic deficit, I also found qualtitative effects linked to the removal of journalists from their patch. When journalism is performing its ideal democratic role, it is generally accepted that it should be informing and representing the people, and also scrutinising those in power. But my findings cast doubt on the ability of the information and news sources currently available in Port Talbot to fulfil these roles.
This is not only because quantity and quality have declined, or that newspaper resources have been cut. A significant factor is that, for a variety of reasons, audiences have fragmented away from their former news sources. People find themselves with less time to read the local newspaper, and with a wealth of choices in terms of media and entertainment. They do not necessarily buy their local paper any more, instead relying on a mix of media – including TV, the internet and word of mouth, as well as the local paper – for their news. The result is a local population that finds itself under-informed, under-represented and without access to adequate scrutiny of the powerful.
I surveyed 364 local people and carried out four focus groups. I found levels of local knowledge about important issues to be low. Many people reported that they found out about important stories too late to act on them. Their sources of information were varied and unsatisfactory, and often came through word of mouth and posts on social media. Many reported discovering information by stumbling across it in public spaces (one man told me he had discovered news of a closure on the town’s motorway junction by reading it on protest graffiti). There was a prevalence of rumour and speculation, and a lack of certainty about facts. Leading from this, people also reported it was difficult to get information they needed from public bodies, and that they felt government agencies were not transparent or open in communicating with them. Most seriously, there were high levels of anger and frustration, particularly among younger groups, who were also much more negative about the town than older groups. Some of the younger group suggested rioting could give them a voice and force those in authority to listen to their concerns.
In all, my research suggested not only that there is a news black hole in Port Talbot, and that its consequences may be severe – it also suggested that the closure of district offices is a key turning point in the formation of news black holes and that, therefore, newspaper closures are not necessarily the factor we should be most concerned about. In fact, the removal of journalists from the community seems much more likely to cause declines in news quantity and quality, and may even be associated with democratic effects such as election turnout.
This shows what many in the industry, and across the hyperlocal sector, already knew: that local journalists who inform and represent the people, and who scrutinise those in power, are of vital importance to communities. Those that remain in newsrooms across the UK should be protected and defended, and encouraged to engage with their local communities. We should also be prepared to support those who seek to establish new services in news black holes across the UK.
Rachel’s research was funded by the Welsh Government through its KESS fund, alongside the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University.
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