The Government needs to step in to ensure the survival of local newspapers during the Coronavirus crisis, The Times has urged.
Writing in a leader at the weekend, the paper described local newspapers as a “fourth emergency service” and said that “rarely has access to reliable news been more important in saving lives”.
While local newspapers have long been suffering from underlying economic ill health, it acknowledged, the current crisis had resulted in a sharp drop in advertising revenues and disrupted distribution.
It said: “The crisis has hit the local press from two directions. It has caused a sharp drop in advertising revenues and it has disrupted distribution. Some 4,000 retail outlets selling papers have closed. Readers are confined indoors and unable to get to the shops. Enders Analysis, a media research firm, estimates that sales from news stands will swiftly halve, creating a shortfall this year of some £110 million across the newspaper industry. That is a shock many local papers will not survive. That would be a disaster not just for these publications but also for their readers.”
Local and regional titles performed a vital function to their communities and social media platforms were not as reliable or as accountable as fact-checked newspapers, it said.
It added: “There is no good time to lose local papers, but a pandemic makes them particularly essential. They are at heart a fourth emergency service. They can provide vital information on sudden changes to local services, neighbourhood schemes to help the vulnerable, or outbreaks nearby. They can also help to highlight problems with local authority responses, thereby ensuring that resources go to where they are needed. Platforms such as Facebook are neither as reliable nor as accountable as fact-checked, independently regulated newspapers. Besides, some readers do not even have internet access. Local papers, moreover, serve an important social purpose, helping to stitch communities closer together.”
The government’s offer to pay 80 per cent of the salaries of furloughed workers will help many businesses to weather the storm, The Times acknowledged, but this is unlikely to ensure the survival of local newspapers it said.
Echoing similar calls by Yorkshire Post Editor James Mitchinson and cross-party MPs last week, the national title urged the government to extend public information campaigns to the regional press and the 100% business rates holiday to news publishers.
It added: “Journalists have been rightly identified as “key workers” during the pandemic. It would be perverse if many were instead to spend it idling at home, having been laid off or placed on paid leave. One solution may be emergency funds to keep local papers going in the form of grants or interest-free credit. Another may be to extend the 100 per cent business rates holiday, newly applied to leisure and retail services, to local papers. There can be little justification for keeping tanning shops and estate agents afloat while newspapers fold.”
The title went on to suggest that the government should consider paying businesses to advertise in local titles for the duration of the pandemic.
It added: “Enders Analysis has suggested the government pay for businesses to advertise in local papers, with the idea of helping both. Indeed the government should direct the bulk of its crisis advertising budget to both national and regional papers in order to inform the public and keep the titles alive. Extra funding for home deliveries, or schemes to combine food deliveries with local paper distribution would also be welcome. If the lockdown is tightened, newspapers must still be allowed to print and be distributed to doorsteps.
“There can be no excuse for continuing to ignore the problem. Many MPs, including cabinet ministers, are calling for more support for the newspaper industry. The NMA has written to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, asking him for urgent help. He should supply it.”