I want to put on record my thanks to Mr. Speaker for granting me this important debate. I am so happy to see so many hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber, because this is an important issue. I shall try to be brief, but I have important issues to flag up regarding my area.
I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber agree that a thriving local press is essential for a healthy democracy. We may not always agree with the views and opinions of the local paper serving our constituency, but most of us would regard local papers as representative of our communities and of their needs and aspirations. It is clear that this role is now under threat as never before.
Recently, the chief executive of one of my local newspapers described the situation as a "perfect storm" engulfing local press. The situation is now so severe that many titles may disappear unless corrective action is taken. So today, in this debate, I want to raise two important, simple matters. First, I will outline the pressures and threats facing local titles. Secondly, I will suggest some remedies that, with the co-operation of our Government, may provide some help for our local press to survive.
I shall say a few words on problems and causes. What has caused the current situation? First and foremost, it is the economic downturn. The headlines in the online magazine for the local press, "Hold the Front Page", illustrate the current situation effectively, and I shall provide a few quotations from a sample that I took last month: "Gutted reporters facing forced relocation"; "Yorkshire weekly closes—Ripon Gazette sister paper ceases publication"; "Reporters sacrifice pay to save colleagues—Journalists offer to reduce their hours to prevent redundancy"; "Brand new editor handed redundancy notice"; and "Daily newspaper to close after 25 years".
The area that I represent has not escaped these cutbacks. On Teesside, we are served by two excellent daily and evening local newspapers—The Northern Echo, based in Darlington, which is a regional paper, and the Evening Gazette, based in Middlesbrough. Both papers were founded in the heyday of Victorian provincial newspapers and have served our communities through war and peace, boom time and recession. I know that the reporters and editors on those papers are determined to continue doing just that for the coming century, but editors and managers on both titles have been forced to ask for redundancies and axe branch offices, which is a move that many journalists and I feel will affect story generation and sourcing for the worse.
The Northern Echo, has had to axe some of its sister "Advertiser" series and reduce editions, and the Middlesbrough EveningGazette has asked for voluntary editorial redundancies. The same problem is affecting local free sheets, one of which—the Cleveland Circuit— nearly ceased production, but the heroic work of the couple who own and manage the paper rescued it and it is now appearing again on a regular basis and will, I hope, do so for a long time to come.
The economic downturn has not led to a circulation drop. Indeed, many people want to know how their region is fighting back. However, over a longer period there has been a steady loss of readership that cannot be ignored. The British provincial press has seen a 51 per cent. drop in circulation since 1989. Coupled with that, there has been a significant drop in advertising. Display advertising from the local high street is down as the retail crunch bites. The staples of local advertising have been adversely affected as people withdraw from the property market, recruitment is put on hold and car sales stagnate. The internet has also hit sections of the readership, and fewer younger readers are staying loyal to what the bloggers call the dead-end press.
There are other pressures, too. For instance, there is a serious and as yet hardly unreported threat of big increases in the price of newsprint paper. Yet the need for good, honest local reportage is greater than ever. Look at the alternatives. Local and regional TV is going under the axe and ITV is, to all intents and purposes, decimating its regional coverage, which has led to an outcry in the House but has seemingly been rubber-stamped by Ofcom. Instead, we will be left with very broad coverage of regional news.