Why we must defend the institution of local newspapers

PUBLISHED: 08:32 20 November 2009 | UPDATED: 14:41 06 May 2010

A DAMNING attack on local newspapers within the pages of The Guardian has prompted responses defending the institution from within the St Albans community. In an article earlier this month, columnist George Monbiot accused the regional press of failing in

A DAMNING attack on local newspapers within the pages of The Guardian has prompted responses defending the institution from within the St Albans community.

In an article earlier this month, columnist George Monbiot accused the regional press of failing in their duty of giving voice to the powerless and fighting for grass roots democracy.

But this is not a view which has been echoed at a local level, with members of the community quick to defend the value of local newspapers like the Herts Advertiser.

St Albans mayor Cllr Chris Oxley said: "I consider a free, as in unfettered, local press as critical for the effective functioning of any democracy. I also believe that national press is not satisfactory in dealing with local issues that are important to local communities, for example the rail freight terminal - when was this major national issue addressed in The Guardian?"

St Albans MP Anne Main said: "I may not always agree with some of the opinions of local newspapers, but I value their strong independent voice, and the fact that they have their finger on the pulse and know local people.

"All too often, the national newspapers carry exactly the same stories, put together by a clique of London-centric journalists with a set agenda. Local newspapers, meanwhile can take the time to focus on the detail of a story, and to investigate properly.

"Local newspapers in our area not only report the bad news, they also take the time to celebrate positive stories, and highlight the hard work and achievements of local people and community and sporting organisations.

"The local press is where people go when they want to find out what is going on in our district, and without it I do not believe that St Albans would be such a distinct community."

Regular Herts Advertiser correspondent Vanessa Gregory said: "Good quality local newspapers, I believe, should be cherished by their local communities as they should be their very own independent local voice. I believe the quality of the editorial team of journalists, together with their ethics, are vital to the success of such papers. Many well respected national journalists cut their teeth working on local papers and democracy would be the loser if these papers withered away.

"We live in an age of instant access to news and media savvy institutions and organisations. Our own district council wants a budget next year of around £600,000 for their communications department. 'Getting the message across' and 'spinning news' are familiar terms sadly. This newspaper's former editor Noel Cantillon, in his valedictory editorial comment earlier this year, expressed what his objectives had been during his tenure. Thankfully that baton has been taken up by the current editor.

"I believe freedom of speech is under threat today by those who abuse this fundamental right, by bullying some into silence or inciting hatred for others. However I believe we must use it or lose it. Local newspapers should be the bedrock of this freedom."

Liberal Democrat prospective Parliamentary candidate Sandy Walkington said: "George Monbiot's suggestion that local newspapers are dead is both wrong and very dangerous.

"Have they changed hugely since I first started engaging in local campaigning nearly 40 years ago? Yes of course they have. Have they had to shed editorial staff? Absolutely. Has new technology in the shape of desktop publishing, mobile, internet, social networking had a dramatic impact? Too right.

"But to argue from a couple of examples that local papers have given up on proper journalism flies in the face of all experience in St Albans and other lively communities with vibrant local papers.

"I can only ruefully confirm that the Herts Advertiser does not publish any and every press release. And the letters page gives scope for wide, vigorous and critical discussion - reader generated content in an increasingly interactive world.

"I think it was Lord Northcliffe who once said that 'news is something that someone somewhere wants to keep hidden - everything else is puff'. Well our local councils at county, district and parish level must all too often wish that a less bright light shone on things they would prefer to remain unwritten. And if I am elected as MP I welcome the fact that our local press will continue to shine a light on all that I do!. More power to your collective elbow!"

What do you think? The original Guardian article can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/09/local-newspapers-democracy

Send your comments to hertsad@archant.co.uk

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