Local news is important – whatever 10 O’Clock Live says

When Channel Four’s brand new and funky news satire show declares that local news is not cool, you know it must be in trouble.

The inaugural 10 O’Clock Live – Channel 4’s attempt at The Daily Show – featured an item about Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s new channel dedicated to the provision of local news. Hunt has promised to launch the channel by 2013, with a £25 million start-up fund from the BBC.

But for David Mitchell, one of the show’s four presenters, the idea of people wanting to watch a local news channel couldn’t be more laughable.

“Hunt’s announcement is a meaningless content-free upbeat message,” said Mitchell. “Like a local news bulletin, nothing will come of it, and it would be sh*t if it did.”

Apparently, the general feeling is that there’s nothing cool about local news. Nothing much happens locally and anyway, the reasoning goes, it’s only ever interesting for a tiny number of people.

10 O’Clock Live may have dismissed it out of hand, but there are plenty of people who are concerned about the future of local news.

Local newspapers are in terminal decline. Titles are closing, circulations are falling, and advertising is in straight line descent. Trinity Mirror, for example, shut down 27 local papers between January 2008 and February 2009. Closures continue, and they affect real people in real communities.

In October 2009 Trinity Mirror closed another of its titles, the Port Talbot Guardian. Around 50,000 people live in Port Talbot. So, if you happen to be one of them, what now?

I’m carrying out a PhD research project in conjunction with the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University, to study what happens to a community when it has almost no professional news provision. I’ve chosen to focus on Port Talbot.

I’m not studying Chelmsford, Barnham or Watford, but the name of the town could easily have appeared on Mitchell’s list of forgotten and slightly funny-sounding places. Places that are easy to laugh at if you don’t live there.

Perhaps Mitchell is fortunate to live in London, where there is a wealth of local newspapers and radio stations, and where even the national news talks largely about matters that are centred within the M25.

The people of Port Talbot do not have this luxury. When their local weekly paper shut, there wasn’t much else to turn to. The nearest city, Swansea, is home to the South Wales Evening Post, and it publishes a few pages of Port Talbot news once a week. There is a local commercial radio station, but this does very little original reporting. There is a council-run newspaper, though this features the council’s own news agenda. There are one or two grassroots news projects springing up, but nothing has found its feet yet.

The campaigning, rallying voice of the local rag, however loved or loathed it was, has gone. So how do people now find out what’s going on in their own community? How do they engage with each other, and with the civil servants and politicians who run their services? How do the issues that affect their town make it onto the political agenda?

Some argue that if it’s not reported it’s not news (the tree falling in a forest argument). But is this really true? What about the planned biomass plant in Port Talbot? The plant will, when complete, be the biggest in the world, and have implications for energy provision not just in Wales but across Europe. It has excited lots of local protest. How much reporting of it has there been? Almost none (for more read Martin Moore’s blogpost here).

National news comes from somewhere. Often it starts at a very local level.

If news like the biomass plant doesn’t even make the local news, then very often it doesn’t make the national news either.

Without local news we get a media that is strangled at source. And that’s not funny for anyone.

Rachel Howells is a PhD student at Cardiff University. Her PhD is funded by KESS and the Media Standards Trust. PoucherRJ@cardiff.ac.uk

The plight of the news deficit in Port Talbot will be featured on ITV Wales’ Wales This Week at 7.30pm on February 1st.