The Real Pressing Issue; NEIL FOWLER, Editor of the Journal from 1991 to 1994, Has Just Spent a Year at Oxford University Researching the Decline and Future of Regional and Local Newspapers in the UK. Here He Reports on His Findings in an Edited Version of the Lecture That Completed His Project

Article excerpt

THE Milly Dowler phone-hacking affair was a new low for journalism in this country and one that horrified all those with links to any part of the news industry.

However, all this act of criminality has done is to divert time, money and, most importantly, policy thinking away from the real issue facing journalism in this country - and that is how general news is going to be funded on newspapers such as this in the future.

The UK regional and local newspaper industry is in crisis. It is in the jaws of an extraordinary pincer movement of structural change and economic downturn resulting in an increasing number of publications being closed and journalism jobs being lost, with potentially alarming ramifications for local democracy and the generation of news.

This sector has a vital role in British society. It is the forerunner of all current media in the United Kingdom and whether it prospers or falls could fundamentally alter the free flow of information in this country. Its influence has been, and remains, immense. It is essential that influence continues.

I'm going to start with the assumption that society wants a thriving local press - after all some 33 million people in the UK interact with it in some form or another every week - and that if one exists then civic engagement is promoted and scrutiny of local institutions is maintained for the betterment of all.

I've been fortunate enough over the last 12 months or so to interview both former and current leaders in the industry. What I write is an assessment of what they have told me - some on the record, some off - and has given me the Continued ability to take hopefully an objective view of what has happened in the past three decades or so and then come to conclusions. means that much of what I have to say about the historical aspect of this story - and the political, economic and sociological factors that have brought about this perfect storm - are somewhat glossed over. In the time since the end of the last war the industry trundled to start with, basically held back by a combination of weak management and the intransigence of the print craft unions. Three golden eggs were laid in the 1980s.

The sale of Reuters shares was the first and that funded the second, which was the buying out of the unions and investment in new technology and colour presses. All of that was followed by the third - economic growth in the second and third Thatcher governments. There were some innovations - notably the launching of a ring of suburban evening newspapers around London in the 1960s - but there was little else. Research and development, the staple of most other industries, was simply ignored. Essentially the long-term decline in readership, which began in the early 1960s, and the decline in the sales of regional daily newspapers in particular that began in the late 1970s, was masked by the massive growth in classified advertising and especially the situations vacant category.

Newspaper paginations mushroomed, profits grew massively and all was rosy - and then the internet came along and stole those rivers of gold, as Rupert Murdoch named them, and the dam broke. Politically, ownership rules have lain untouched for a generation or more. Misguided views on plurality among policymakers have, I believe, held back the industry. And all the while society and people's lifestyles were changing. The industry knew it but hoped that its superficial responses would allow it to carry on it the same old way. It was wrong. And in responding in this way it made various mistakes: 1 The regional and local newspaper sector did not research the future in the way that almost every other sector of industry does as a matter of course.

During the golden years of high profits between 1989 and 2005 it could have looked ahead but failed to do so. 2 It did not research its customer base effectively. It looked at how they interacted with the newspaper products themselves but did not look at how their lifestyles were changing. …