Chapter 1: Introduction

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Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 A brave new world

The future of newspapers is once more under scrutiny. Each step forward in communication technology, whether it be the invention of the telegraph, radio or television, has brought with it fatalistic cries predicting the demise of the printed press. The internet has added further voices to this battle-cry due to its comparatively rapid arrival and spread. Yet whilst News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch proclaims that he can “see the day, maybe 20 years away, where you don’t actually have paper and ink and printing presses” (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009, p.60), there is another school of thought that argues that newspapers’ ability to adapt to changing circumstances has always provided them with a survival strategy and secured their future (Franklin, 2008). But what form newspapers of the future will take is open to great debate. Although 84 per cent of editors worldwide are optimistic about the future of their newspaper there is an increasing swing towards online journalism as the platform of preference for future news (Burke, 2008). It could be argued that Murdoch and Franklin are both right. Newspapers will continue to exist in the future but could increasingly exist as electronic rather than printed products. Indeed in early 2011 Murdoch launched his first electronic newspaper The Daily on the iPad computer tablet and within a year it had achieved 100,000 subscriptions - a fifth of the original profitability target (Preston, 2012). As technology rapidly advances in the early 21st century the boundaries between newspapers, newspaper websites, electronic newspapers and newspaper digital offerings (smart phone applications, social media) are becoming increasingly blurred. The move appears to be away from the printed product towards existing or new electronic devices creating an online newspaper in a variety of formats. The focus of this study is the transition from printed newspapers to newspaper websites and newspaper profiles on social media platforms.

The introduction of online news content, particularly via newspaper websites, has been developed by publishing companies in Britain, and worldwide, during the last decade and billions of pounds has been poured into new media technology. This is in response to the growing British appetite for internet usage which according to the Office of National Statistics research reveals that 77 per cent of households in Britain have access to the internet and 93 per cent of those are connected using broadband (ONS, 2011). A further 45 per cent of internet users have used a mobile phone to connect to the internet. The newspaper industry is attempting to remain relevant to its readers and “find salvation” by embracing innovation and integrating digital media (Paulussen, 2011). Meanwhile the British government argue that to be without the internet is to be disadvantaged – both economically and socially (Digital Britain Final Report, 2009). This notion of the internet as an empowering force for good is put forward by technological determinists who believe the spread and development of technology itself will satisfy all information and communication needs of all segments of the population (Mansell, 2009). One such theorist, Daniel Bell (1979) is believed to have first referred to The Information Society and argued that technological innovation would open up power relations and work to the benefit of all citizens. Yet there are others who work within an endogenous framework and look upon the human factors that lead to the potential opportunities and disadvantages of technology and do not believe technology in isolation will assuage social and economic problems (Mansell, 2007).

When looking more specifically at journalism and the online environment it can said that there is a growing field of scholarship which supports the view that the internet holds great potential for the empowerment and engagement of citizens; particularly in the creation of grassroots journalism which challenges the established hegemony of traditional media conglomerates (Hermida, 2010; Gillmor, 2006; Bowman and Willis, 2003). They argue that the move from a top down to a bottom up approach to journalism is changing the content of news, the role of professional journalists and the role of readers as pro-sumers, contributors and collaborators (Domingo et al, 2008; Allan, 2007; Bowman and Willis, 2003).

The model of journalism which previously witnesses journalists, columnist and leader writers handing down authoritative opinions in the manner of ‘tablets of stone’, is retreating to make way for a new journalism which seeks to encourage readers to join journalists in a more open and interactive discussion (Franklin, 2008, p.307).

The balance of power is said to be changing (Benkler, 2006) and with it the gatekeeper role of journalists is being redefined (Singer, 1997). Journalists no longer have exclusive access to mass audiences, as the internet potentially allows anyone with access to become their own broadcaster or publisher to a worldwide audience. Some scholars argue that in the online environment journalists can no longer stake their claim as being “the ones who decide what the public needs to know, as well as when and how such information should be provided,” (Domingo et al, 2008, p.326). Others are more cautious and refer to the numerous resources and exclusive access to information journalists’ still maintain (Reich, 2008) and their reluctance to relinquish control (Singer, 2009; Hermida and Thurman, 2008).

This research therefore aims to analyse how and to what extent the gatekeeping model is changing online and this common debate is discussed in more detail in Chapter 2. For Gillmor (2006) the role of the journalist is to shape larger conversations, whilst Charman (2009) talks of journalists as news curators and Singer (1997) predicted more than a decade ago that journalists would increasingly become the digesters and analysers of volumes of information. Meanwhile others argue that journalists are retaining their gatekeeping role in their control of user generated content on professional news websites (Domingo et al, 2008; Franklin, 2008; Hermida, 2008).
The deterministic view that audiences will automatically become active in journalism simply because the technology enables it has been challenged by many. Audiences often do not want to participate even if they can and furthermore Paulussen et al (2007) argue that the large majority of citizens are still unlikely to play an active role in the news making process. And when audiences do participate it can be of limited value other than discussing matters of personal interest or making abusive comments (Singer, 2009). Valuable online participation remains in the domain of elites rather than empowering the masses (Deuze, 2007; Haas, 2007; Dahlgren, 2001). Arguably the internet is an extension of the offline world filled with monopolies, gatekeepers and political elites where audiences are increasingly targeted by the media as consumers rather than citizens.

This capitalist approach to journalism has been attributed by scholars (Croteau and Hoynes, 2001; Herman, 1997) to the conglomeration of media companies into multi-national corporations that rely on large profit margins. As a result the concentration of power leads to a dependence on advertiser support and a responsibility to shareholders rather than opening up controversial public debate and political engagement (Herman, 1997). Habermas (1989) argues that the 18th century capitalist structure persists today because there is more money to be made in broad, popular content, than in controversial, diverse and independently operated media, supporting the argument that readers are viewed as paying consumers rather than empowered citizens. As Garnham (1986) succinctly points out the liberal (market) free press is a contradiction between economics and politics. Conglomerates also have the resources and finance to have the most visited websites which become the “privileged centres of online communication” (Singer, 2009) maintaining power and market share. Furthermore Bourdieu (2005) maintains that the journalistic field is paradoxical with economic and cultural capital in constant conflict. As this study explores these capitalist controls can cause constraints in the newsrooms as resources are cut to maintain share prices and therefore journalists are unable to open up the conversation to audiences even if they desire it. Furthermore even when equipped with the appropriate technology to enable greater reader participation, journalists may not have the time (Paulussen and Ugille, 2008) to facilitate it.

This situation became more acute in the British local media during 2008 to 2010 when the industry faced significant challenges brought about by structural changes and the global recession. Scores of local newspapers closed and thousands of journalists lost their jobs (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009), leading to squeezes in the newsroom just as the internet was striding into Web 2.0 and flourishing with social media, multimedia content and the capability to talk directly to audiences. All of these themes are explored further in Chapter 2 but first it is appropriate to explore the current landscape of the British local newspaper industry as it tries to tackle widespread technological and cultural shifts.

This chapter provides an overview of the current state of newspapers (1.1) before moving on to explain the key terminology (1.2.1) used in this thesis. The chapter then moves on to discuss the historical evolution of local newspapers (1.2.2) and the historical context of the internet (1.3). The next section looks at the emergence of Web 2.0 (1.3.1) and the impact this has had on audience collaboration and participation (1.3.2). This is followed by a brief introduction to the theory of the public sphere (1.4). The final section of this chapter outlines the field of inquiry (1.5) of this PhD research, the research questions (1.5.1) and the structure of the thesis (1.5.2).

1.2 The turbulent British local newspaper landscape

Each week more than 40 million people in Britain pick up a local newspaper – a staggering 65 per cent of the population. A further 37 million web users log onto local news websites each month. According to the Newspaper Society (2010) there remain 1,300 core newspapers and 1,500 websites in the British local media, a sign that the industry, in statistical terms at least, is most definitely not in decline. If the figures are to be believed local media in Britain is reaching more people than ever before across multiple platforms that also include 600 niche titles, 43 radio stations and two television channels.

But despite this strong market presence local media are struggling to compete with the growth of the internet and subsequent drop in advertising revenues (Singer et al, 2011). A paradox exists where the consumption of online news is increasing substantially yet publishers are unable to transform this increased demand into profits (Ripolles and Castillo, 2011). As Briggs (2012) reasons "it's not a readership problem; it's a revenue problem" (p.14) and the web has to some degree saved newspapers by adding millions of readers through websites and digital products. Yet the financial predicament is so severe in the UK that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched an inquiry in 2009 to examine the local media landscape and propose industry changes.
The local media organisations that operate on traditional platforms argue that the increased competition for people’s media consumption and advertising revenues, as well as issues such as the exploitation of search engines of the media’s content, has effectively caused a crisis in traditional local media (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009, p.3).

A large part of this report examined local newspapers, which the authors acknowledged as the starting point of journalism, from which local and national television and radio take their cues, in the so called “news pyramid” structure (p.11). This is fundamental to the choice of research subject in this study which is developed later in this chapter in section 1.5. Meanwhile the government report also provided evidence that local media gave a “trusted source of public service information and accountability to local communities” (p.8) and audiences trusted local and regional news in particular. However falling sales and advertising slumps have damaged trusted newspapers in recent years. Changes in buying habits, fragmented audiences and competition online have all contributed to the drop in newspaper sales (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009; Franklin, 2008; Bowman and Willis, 2003). Revenues at regional newspaper publisher Northcliffe Media fell by nine per cent in 2011 and operating profit fell by 23 per cent. This has led to profits falling £4million year-on-year to £8million and according to half yearly figures released in May 2011 circulation revenues in the period were down six per cent with advertising revenue down 28 per cent (Kirwan, 2011). Northcliffe’s flagship newspaper the Leicester Mercury saw daily circulation figures fall seven per cent between December 2009 and December 2010 (ABC, 2011). By comparison Newsquest publication the Bournemouth Daily Echo saw a four per cent decrease in circulation during the same period.

The biggest blow has been the loss of advertising revenue which makes up to 90 per cent of local newspapers’ profit over the cover price. The internet is “stealing” traditional newspaper advertisers (Aldridge, 2007, p.37) as classified advertising has been swallowed up by specialist websites (Singer et al, 2011) such as Ebay, and property, motoring and recruitment have also moved to specialist websites such as, and Government recruitment advertising has increasingly moved away from local newspapers and “the changing way in which people search for jobs, property, cars and other products has undoubtedly resulted in advertisers prioritising the internet as a host for their campaigns” (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009, p.13). The effects have arguably been more dramatic for local newspaper journalists than their national counterpart, as local reporters have found themselves on “the front line of an industry in crisis” (Dickinson, 2011, p.8). To what extent this is a cyclical or structural change is under debate but industry experts and scholars alike concede that there is definitely a structural shift to online content (Nguyen, 2010; Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009) even if newspaper advertising income streams are showing signs of recovery at the end of the economic downturn.
The adverse impact that the growth and popularity of the internet has had on newspaper purchasing and advertising does not look set to reverse. There is a significant generational shift in reading habits, and the internet is fostering a younger generation of electronic news consumers on which newspapers need to capitalise (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009, p.17).
One striking, recurring theme in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report was that newspapers must “adapt to the digital world if they are to survive” (p.5). But they must adapt not only their content but also their advertising platforms. Nguyen (2010) argues that competitors in the online world come not only from the traditional news industries but also from “online natives” like Yahoo!, Google and Facebook. This is compounded by the fact that search engines account for almost 60 per cent of total online advertising revenues in the UK and US (p.238).
Not only are there fragmented advertising markets on the internet but news content itself is much more diverse online due to the relatively low running costs. Whereas the majority of British local newspapers are owned by large publishers such as Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Northcliffe and Newsquest, local websites are run by these traditional media groups but also by community groups, individuals, content aggregators like Google News and public service broadcaster the BBC which has a network of 60 local websites (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009, p.9). The online environment could therefore be viewed as far more competitive even if it is still dominated by traditional media gatekeepers, who have the history, brand and marketing finances behind them.
All of these factors have created challenges for the local newspaper industry and a failure to find an effective business model to date has hit local newspapers hard. Northcliffe Media, the fourth largest regional newspaper publisher, launched a cost cutting programme in 2005 which led to savings of £35million and a reduction of 1,000 staff by September 2006. Further cuts were made during the following four years and by 2010 staff was down more than 50 per cent from 8,013 to 3,817 (Kirwan, 2011). Furthermore the National Union of Journalists documented the closure of 60 local newspapers and more than 1,500 job losses in local newspapers from May 2008 to May 2009 (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009, p.12). Ironically the internet, argued as the potential future of printed news media earlier in this chapter, is also the newspaper industry’s economic Achilles heel.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee report concludes that local newspapers must embrace the internet in order to continue their valuable role in society. However publishers are still scratching their heads about the best way to do this and ultimately this means the most profitable way to do this within the traditional understanding of local media news markets.
Local media performs numerous functions in society. It scrutinises and holds to account local authorities and institutions, it informs people of news and events in their communities, and it forms part of the local identity of an area...It is therefore vital for local newspaper publishers to innovate to survive by continuing to develop websites and utilise internet technologies (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2009, p.3).
Having sketched the current debates surrounding the challenges faced by the British local newspaper industry and the move towards online platforms – both of which underpin this study - it is now appropriate to discuss a number of key terms that will be referred to throughout the research.

1.2.1 Key terms

Local newspapers

Some explanation is required to explain the terminology ‘local newspapers’, defined in the research problem later in this chapter and referred to thus far. Britain has a complex newspaper structure made up of the national, regional and local press, and their subsequent websites. ‘National’ newspapers refer to the daily and Sunday tabloid, mid-range, broadsheet and Berliner publications which cover stories of national and international significance and are distributed across the country. The newspaper editorial departments are London based. These publications include The Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, the Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Telegraph, the Observer. Their circulation figures range from approximately 300,000 to three million per day according to ABC circulation figures (2010). Although these newspapers sometimes include stories of a local orientation this would be due to their national public interest value or their unusual nature which would be of interest to the national public. In contrast daily, weekly and Sunday regional and local newspapers account for all other newspaper publications in Britain which are only distributed in specific geographical areas and have largely localised content. As Aldridge (2007) outlines in her book Understanding the Local Media it is a complicated landscape with many variations. In the late 20th century daily regional news papers covered large urban and rural areas and were printed in the morning. Meanwhile city based daily papers were printed in the evening. Furthermore weekly newspapers tended to be based in small towns and were often referred to as local papers, according to Aldridge (2007). However due to the closure of presses and merger of newspapers the distinctions are even less clear cut today. Many city daily papers now print in the morning rather than the evening and break news online instead.

Although local newspapers may contain a few pages of national and international news coverage they are predominantly filled with stories, advertising and promotions relevant to the geographical area in which they are sold - or distributed for free in the case of the free weekly newspapers. Therefore they have much more limited circulation figures than the national press ranging from approximately 2,000 to 126,000 (Newspaper Society, 2010). Their readership is varied like the national press, with the largest age category in the 35-45 bracket, and most readers aged 35 and over (Jic-in-a-box online, 2010).

The term regional newspapers is often used to refer to newspapers that cover a large geographical area such as a county - the Yorkshire Post (Yorkshire) - or several counties - Western Daily Press (Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire). Within these regional areas are more geographically localised newspapers, in terms of distribution and content, often based around one city or town –Sheffield Star, Daventry Express - or a collection of towns – Northampton Chronicle & Echo (Northampton, Daventry and Towcester). However the terms regional and local are often interchangeable due to the complex nature of the makeup of non-national British newspapers. For example the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald, despite having the name of a county in its title does not represent the entire county in its content orientation or in its distribution. Instead the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald covers the towns of Chippenham, Calne, Corsham, Devizes, Pewsey, Marlborough and Malmesbury, whilst its sister paper the Wiltshire Times, also owned by Newsquest, covers the other towns and surrounding villages in the county such as Melksham, Trowbridge, Warminster. Therefore these two newspapers could be arguably described as local newspapers rather than regional ones as their countywide titles imply. To add further confusion, many of these local and regional newspapers have localised editions, so each town they represent will have approximately two to five pages of news specific to that area within the same newspaper title. If you pick up a copy of the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald in Chippenham and then buy one in Malmesbury it will have a different front page and some internal pages will also vary. As Aldridge explains weekly town-based newspapers are closest to the term local papers but “many of these, too, have several locally based editions and a wider ‘reach’ than their title implies” (p.14). It must also be noted that the synonymous term provincial press is also used, particularly in the historical context of newspapers based outside London (Hobbs, 2006; Walker, 2006; Jackson, 1971). Furthermore Cranfield (1962) refers to the county newspapers of the 18th century and Hobbs (2006) reasons that the terms provincial and country were used interchangeably in the Provincial Newspaper Society’s 1886 jubilee publications. These historic terms are therefore synonymous with the terms local and regional press more commonly used in the 20th and 21st century.

However, despite this complexity , for the sake of simplicity this study adopts the term ‘local newspaper’ when referring to all non-national 21st century British newspapers, to represent all those newspapers that cover a single town, city or county and also those that represent a selection of towns, cities or counties. They all cover a ‘localised’ geographic area in their content and distribution, hence the use of the term local rather than regional. It is also the most commonly used term employed by Franklin and Murphy (1998) in their comprehensive book Making the local news: Local journalism in context and sits in accordance with the Newspaper Society (2010) which does not distinguish between local and regional newspapers:

Question: What is the definition of a regional or local newspaper (UK)?

Answer: Any publication in written form on newsprint or a similar medium, published in the British Isles (excluding the Irish republic) at regular intervals not exceeding seven days and available regionally rather than nationally (ie, not available throughout all or most of the British Isles). It contains news and information of a general nature, updated regularly, rather than being devoted to a specific interest or topic (FAQs, question 2).

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