The £220m deal recently signed by newspaper corporation Trinity Mirror to acquire Local World, owner of the Bristol Post and over 100 other print and web publications, is the latest symptom of a phenomenon rippling through the UK’s local media sector. For many, the importance of such change may go unnoticed.
With this takeover, Trinity Mirror's influence becomes overwhelming. It's an unmatched financial heavyweight and with 247 publications in total, is now the single largest owner of media in the UK’s local publishing sector. With two other media groups, it dominates 70 per cent of the local media market. Yet with a weekly print circulation of 13.2m across the country, competitors Newsquest and Johnston Press are left trailing with no match.
Such profit-driven acquisitions are part of a long and complex process that deplete the journalism and independence that give the local media landscape its value. The sweeping concentration of ownership and ensuing decisions made by directors have an impact on the structures of media organisations and, down the line, on the information they produce.
Bristol’s only local daily hasn't been spared by previous owners keen to maintain high profits. The first decade of the 2000s saw repeated deep cuts to editorial staff, and further ominous transformations have gathered pace in the past three years.
David Montgomery, who served as chief-executive of Trinity Mirror until 1999, founded Local World from scratch in 2012. The venture rapidly became one of the largest publishers in the country, acquiring titles from numerous competitors.
Early in his tenure as chief executive, Montgomery took on the task of restructuring the papers and their editorial approach. In a notorious letter sent to all staff, he outlined the new role of journalists as content managers, responsible for sourcing and promoting “content produced by third-party contributors”. This practice has seen Montgomery accused of an "attack on democracy" by the Chartered Institute for Journalists after Local World offered an unfiltered gateway to the police to publish press releases.
In the Post and elsewhere, sponsored content and shameless advertorials have also been given more prominence both online and in print. Journalists have become more desk-bound and less able to report on the ground. A 2015 memo from Trinity Mirror stated: “The days are long gone when we could afford to… report everything that happened on our patch.”
This threatens local democracy. “The lack of journalists and the decline in expertise on subject areas means that, potentially, scandals could go unreported,” warns Paul Breeden, Bristol National Union of Journalists (NUJ) branch chair.
Local World and its competitors also tend to have increasingly little ‘local’ about their operations. Carbon-copy website designs devised in centralised management offices make for formulaic local media, while stories are often sub-edited in 'hubs' far from the communities they’re read by – leading editors at some titles to complain of having to change up to 80 per cent of headlines.
Meanwhile, intrusive advertising on web platforms creates confusion for readers who see news and commercial information presented on a par. Online content has become a primary means to increase audience traffic, widen advertising visibility and generate income. Some journalists have challenged this mindset, with Trinity Mirror recently dropping proposals to set individual audience-reach targets after NUJ members voted for strike action.
The industry's direction is dictated by what Trinity Mirror's chief executive Simon Fox has called the “structural pressures” it faces. The 2014 fall in print circulation and advertising income for Trinity Mirror, by respectively 2.1 per cent and 11.5 per cent, and Local World, by 3.3 per cent and 8.9 per cent, merely continues years of tumbling revenues, withering local publishers' traditional business model.
While they are still turning profits, Local World and Trinity Mirror’s response is made explicit in their annual reports: cut costs and invest in digital development. The former speaks of a “digitised transactional business … exploiting self-served advertising”, whilst the other evokes investments to make the “non-customer facing operations... cost efficient” and changing the staff profile by “increasing the proportion in digital operations.”
As in other market-based industries, firms seek to increase profit by stripping down core expenses. With the Local World acquisition made public, TM asserted its intention to make £12m cuts within two years, on top of raised savings targets of £20m announced earlier in the year. A glance up the ownership ladder shows the top nine companies, who hold 59 per cent of the shares in Trinity Mirror, are in the business of asset and investment management.
See a larger version of the graphic here.
Between them, Trinity Mirror and Local World have overseen the shutdown of 25 local newspapers since 2012, against only 11 start-ups. In the years between 2005 and 2012, research by the Press Gazette had already shown that, 242 local newspapers had closed for only 70 launches. The ‘deserts of information’ effects are predictable: a study by the Media Reform Coalition shows that out of 406 local government areas, only 131 are directly served by a local daily paper.
As local journalism is gradually hollowed out, large publishers show little concern with the value of local papers as popular sources of information, providing a reliable representation of ideas and the associated democratic engagement.
Redefining local media
A quick look at Bristol’s media history shows how people coming together has improved local democracy. In 1932, contesting a monopoly on media ownership, representatives of a cross-section of Bristol’s business sector and civil society founded and became directors of what is now the Post.
Large-scale investments in small shares by lay people showed the popularity of a publication that could challenge the Bristol Evening World, part of Lord Rothermere’s media empire. It had become the single major publication in the city after a deal with another media baron led to the closure of the Bristol Times and Echo.
Today the Post's old motto, “The paper all Bristol asked for and helped to create,” has lost its pertinence. But, as NUJ Bristol vice-chair Christina Zaba points out, the need to speak truth to power in our city is as great as it's ever been.
“Everyone on every side would benefit from a well-resourced and proudly independent, balanced local media, able to ask awkward and important questions,” she says. Here's hoping that future pans out.
Correction: This piece has been updated to clarify David Montgomery founded Local World in 2012. He left The Mirror in 1999.