With advertising revenue down 35% since the onset of the recession, more than 50 local newspapers have now gone under. This week Northcliffe (owner of the Daily Mail) announced 1000 redundancies. Even Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has written about it. Should we be worried?
For localists like me, the demise of local newspapers has profound democratic implications. The represent in many parts of the country - not least my own constituency - the single most important mechnism for people to express their views on local issues. And judging by my own postbag, more than half of which is about local rather than national issues, people really do care about what happens on their doorstep. For that matter it isn't just local newspapers we need: local radio (struggling badly) and local TV (a joke in this country compared to the US) also have a very important role to play.
As a Conservative I do not want to be in the business of protecting or cossetting industries that have failed to modernise. And it is true that as a sector local newspapers have been woefully slow in adapting to the internet. They have allowed websites like eBay to decimate their lucrative classified sales sections, barely lifting a finger of resistance. But whilst this has made matters worse, it has not been the core of the problem, which boils down to some totally outdated government regulations that make it impossible for local newspapers to update and develop new business models.
Those regulations make it very difficult for newspapers groups to consolidate with neighbouring groups locally. They make it virtually impossible to own radio or TV stations in the same area. But the reality is that without being able to offer advertisers a platform across print, online, TV and radio it will be very difficult to find a model that is remotely commercially sustainable - and we could end up with no local media at all. That is why David Cameron is right to say these regulations need to be reviewed urgently.
The current rules were established in the pre-internet era - and completely fail to recognise that 20% of all advertising spend is now online. It is time to allow new industry models to emerge, along with the investment in not just local papers, but new online provision and a new local TV sector. We need more local democracy, not less. Which means more local media - and an ambitious vision to make it happen.