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Newspaper circulation and voter turnout report shows immense value of local media, says SoE

Posted on: October 6, 2020 by Claire Meadows

A government-backed report that suggests a direct link between newspaper circulation and voter turnout highlights the “immense value” of the local media in a democracy, the Society of Editors has said.

The report, ‘Research into recent dynamics of the press sector in the UK and globally’ was carried out by Plum Consulting for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and also found that the decline of the local newspaper industry has had a “negative impact on journalism” and resulted in reduced “scrutiny of democratic functions”.

Responding to the report, Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said that while the value of the local news media had always been recognised by its large audiences, the report has highlighted the urgent need for further support for local and regional titles.

He said: “While we have always recognised the positive and significant effect of local newspapers to their communities, the report’s finding that there is a direct correlation between newspaper circulation and democratic participation highlights the immense value of local newsbrands to our society. 

“As recognised by the report, the UK press sector has been significantly affected by the Covid-19 crisis and any reduction in news capacity is likely to be damaging to our communities. The public’s appetite for accurate news and information remains strong and yet advertising revenues continue to plummet. Without urgent support, the long-term sustainability and future of these trusted and important regional and local titles remain under threat.”

Published today, the report found that for every percentage point growth in a local daily newspaper’s circulation, electoral turnout on its patch goes up by 0.37 percentage points. The report also suggested that an additional daily or weekly local newspaper title in an area leads to a 1.27 percentage point increase in voter turnout.

It said: “Our analysis indicates that local newspaper circulation and reach has a positive and significant effect on local election turnout over time. In particular, the positive correlation between circulation and turnout remains present across our analysis; areas with higher levels of local newspaper circulation also report higher local election turnout.”

Conducted between March and May 2020, the study acknowledged that the UK press sector has been significantly affected by the outbreak of Covid-19 which has placed increased pressure on already weakened publisher business models. The UK government’s approach to tackling the issues facing the industry had been “fragmented” it said and key to any future interventions was for the government to “understand the nature” of the problems facing the industry. 

It added: “Interventions should be well designed for local journalism and newspapers to provide a key input to civic society and democracy. It is key to understand the nature of the problem to be addressed, options for intervention, the causal chain from inputs to expected outputs and outcomes and the mechanisms underpinning these, and evaluation mechanisms.”

The report warned that problems were likely to continue for the industry and that scenarios in which there is a reduction of news capacity are likely to be damaging, and that “the absence of journalism potentially catastrophic” to communities.

It said: “Looking ahead, challenging conditions for UK local and regional news publishers are likely to continue. There is no doubt that the Covid-19 crisis has already and will continue to have a significant impact on the future market structure, news provision and consumption – particularly for the local newspaper market and its ability to maintain the presence of local journalism.”

The two main objectives of the study were to identify and understand the relationship between local news provision and consumption and local democratic participation, and to examine the different forms of government support that the press industry receives in other jurisdictions.

The report also found that the shift to online consumption of news “makes life harder for local newspapers” as it impacts circulation and advertising revenue.

It said: “Online news is consumed in a different way to print news, as exhibited by a wider diversity of news sources which are accessible at low cost. News consumption from social media platforms provides easier access to a range of UK and international news providers and specialists, and there is an increased prevalence of low-quality news and disinformation, and online news.”