Much has been discussed about how and why the press missed two of the most significant events of modern times – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
Very little has been said, however, about the role, or the lack thereof, of the local media either in the UK or the US.
In the last 20 years the newspaper workforce in the US has shrunk by 39%, according to the Pew Center of Media Research. The number of those employed by newspapers in the US fell 10% in 2014 alone.
Across the US Editor & Publisher’s DataBook listed 126 fewer daily papers in 2014 than in 2004.
In the UK the National Union of Journalists reported that 2008-2015 150 local newspapers closed down with local publishers Trinity Mirror, Newsquest, Local World and Johnston Press all cutting costs. Media analysis company, Enders, says circulations of local titles have halved since 2007 from 50.5m a week to 26.6m. in the same period print advertising has fallen from £2.7bn to £977m.
No one in the media saw Brexit or Trump coming, quite the opposite. At the start of the vote count on election day the New York Times’election forecast needle put Clinton’s chances of victory at 80%. New York’s Saturday Night Live went as far as to refer to Clinton as President Hillary Clinton in its satirical take on the final president debate. The only time they came close was the discussion of the possibility of President Trump in relation to Brexit. Yet even then the argument was disregarded.
In a Guardian long read on how Remain lost the referendum a source recounted how only the team members who were out knocking on doors, outside of London, realised Brexit was a real possibility.
A swathe of people outside of London correctly predicted a Brexit victory simply by living beyond the M25. Driving around the rest of the country they saw window posters for Leave and warned they and all their friends would be voting to leave the European Union on 23rd June.
Reporters working at national newspapers in London saw none of it. Similarly in the US reporters based at headquarters or with campaigns in press pools didn’t put the pieces of the Trump phenomenon together. They saw the rallies but only as pockets of support – unrepresentative of the majority of voters.
Clinton’s camp made the same mistake. In a number of key states, including Michigan, they focused on their data not on a ground game. They didn’t speak to voters outside of those they knew would vote Democrat.
This is where local reporters come in. As a local reporter your job is to understand your community and those who make it. You know the area, the businesses, the local representatives. The woman who runs the local animal shelter or the student who made it into local sports team trials. And to know all this you have to talk to people, ordinary people, local voters. Not analysts or pollsters. And, at the risk of sounding like Michael Gove MP, not experts.
The decline in local media is a huge loss for communities affected and for global media outlets. The latter have suffered from the benefits of an insight into the everyday workings of the country outside of the urban centers. There are negative impacts of the media learning from one another – often national papers and websites take great content without crediting local reporters or their publications – but, yet the local media serves as a valuable source of information to national and international media outlets.
In keeping with the zeitgeist it means the so-called ‘liberal-elite’ have a way of tapping into what is happening on the ground outside of their office towers in the places they can’t afford, or don’t feel a need, to go.
It’s not that they have begun to neglect the area, they have never had to pay attention to it before. A 2014 study by Consumer Catalyst found local media to be the most trusted source of news in the UK. By reading reliable local news stories national journalists have been able to take the temperature of the public without stepping a foot outside of their office.
However, the decline in local press looks unlikely to turn around any time soon. The media must find ways to keep in-touch with the sentiment in communities outside their own and away from social media.
The online crowd sourcing of political sentiment does not work. It has been said many times before but bears repeating – Twitter is a mirror of your own views, nothing more. It does not and cannot be taken as representative of the views of a population, likewise with Facebook.
The decline of local media has left a blind spot in the vision of the global press. They must find a way to correct it or risk losing even more credibility at a time when they are so badly needed.
The shrinking of local media is a loss both to its readers and the industry as a whole but there is no time for self-pity or reflection – there is work to do.