Local Press

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:33 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central 11:33 am, 20th January 2009

I congratulate Dr. Kumar on securing this important debate and on being determined that a Minister from the right Department should answer it.

This is a very difficult time for local newspapers; it is important not only for business, but for community cohesion, that they continue to serve communities, especially given that, as has been said, local government can communicate through local newspapers. We are fortunate in Croydon in having two strong newspapers, including the Croydon Advertiser, whichhas a long tradition of service to the town. For a great deal of time, a famous editor, Geoff Collard, managed to represent the town as well as report on it. These days, newspapers face some difficult challenges in addition to the economy and possible competition from the BBC. Croydon has much violent crime, on which the Croydon Advertiser rightly reports. However, it faces the difficulty of potentially killing the golden goose by having to report on such very difficult issues.

Although local newspapers play very important local roles, they are often part of significant media organisations. The Croydon Guardian is part of the Gannett group, which is a US media organisation, and the Croydon Advertiser is now part of the Daily Mail and General Trust stable of newspapers having been sold by Trinity Mirror. Interestingly, when it was sold, it was advised that the readership was 20,000, which is less than a third of what it was more than 15 years ago. That is a sign of the challenge facing local newspapers. Gannett has managed, through the Guardian series, to conglomerate a number of local newspapers, in the way indicated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland. In some ways, that is very efficient. Indeed, in south London, as a local media organisation, the Guardian series employs more than 80 journalists and some 300 people working full-time on their 23 weekly newspapers.

In the world of the web, the Croydon Guardianhas been particularly successful, because its online media now reaches a monthly audience of more than 275,000 people. Thus the BBC's proposal to spend £68 million on the creation of 65 local news video sites represents a real challenge to those newspapers. Currently, the resource provided by the BBC for local reporting in Croydon is very modest—just one journalist, who is a lady called Evadney Campbell—and its approach is very responsible. However, it is understandable that private-sector providers feel threatened by the potential of being crushed by the size of the new investment.

Those unwelcome developments come at a time when local media need to counter several threats to their future. First, there are the structural, industry-wide changes as part of the media migration to the web. Secondly, Newsquest in south London has operated websites for it newspapers for more than 10 years, and it continues to innovate and invest in a way that provides for an exciting digital future. However, the severity of the current economic climate is having a real impact on its core revenues—most notably, on job and property advertising. Thirdly, in the mind of the Croydon Advertiser and the Croydon Guardian, there is Government-induced support for local government to withdraw advertising from independent providers through the establishment of local authority news channels and publications subsidised by public and third-party funds. Those two papers have been very critical of Croydon council over the significant increase in its advertising spend that does not go to local media, but is spent directly.

I am mindful that other Members wish to speak, so I shall only take a further two minutes. Local papers can play a real role in giving local communities a sense of identity. If local newspapers leave, much of that sense of identity will go. Many local newspapers campaign on social issues. I am impressed by the work done by journalists on both my local newspapers, such as Harry Miller, Neil Millard, Aline Nassif and Kirsty Whalley. Such people campaign on important issues that are vital to our community—for example, they deal with issues involving the families of victims of knife crime—but given the pressures and the limited pay and resources, it is very difficult for local journalists to pursue such interests.

Local newspapers must be responsible. I congratulate the approach taken by the Gannett newspaper group to remove sex trade adverts from its newspapers. That is something that has yet to be followed by the Croydon Advertiser and something that I urge it to do. The Croydon Guardian has been lobbying hard on green issues on behalf of south London business. Those are all important concerns.

Finally, on a more light-hearted note, I thank the Croydon Guardian for publicising the charity-giving, prize-giving process related to the competition for the best Christmas lights in Croydon, which was the very heart of Christmas light provision within the United Kingdom. Providing such publicity shows how newspapers can support their Members of Parliament and local communities.