On the day after the Grenfell Tower fire, there was no local daily newspaper in the borough of Kensington & Chelsea to report the news.
The weekly paper, the Kensington and Chelsea News, had only one reporter and that reporter was responsible for covering news outside the borough too. The Trinity Mirror site GetWestLondon covered the Grenfell tragedy aftermath, but from a base 25 miles away in Guildford. Even this modest local coverage is now under serious threat, as the company that owns the Kensington and Chelsea News has now gone into administration.
For years before the fire in Grenfell, concerned local residents voiced and published their concerns about fire safety through the Grenfell Action Blog, but as is so often the case with citizen journalism and local blogs, without pickup from newspapers or broadcasters these concerns were not reported more widely. To the vast majority of residents in Kensington & Chelsea and to most Londoners the shocking lack of safeguards in the tower was completely unknown.
Across the UK, stretched and declining local journalism covers less of the core functions of local public bodies, and significant stories go unreported. Our centre at King’s College London published a study mapping daily local newspaper coverage across the UK in 2015, finding that around two thirds of the 406 local authority districts of the UK are not covered directly by a daily local newspaper. A follow-up study found subsequent closures and job losses are continuing to reduce local news provision (though some within the industry dispute the extent of the decline).
The local journalists who remain may well be as dedicated and diligent as they have always been – but there are far fewer than there were, and mergers (80% of all local newspapers are now published by just five companies), shrinking newsrooms and budget cuts severely limit their ability to engage in in-depth investigative journalism, or even to spend time out of the office speaking to the community.
Local journalism cannot prevent accidents like Grenfell Tower and nor should it be expected to. What it can do, however, is allow the public to monitor and make sense of failures in local public life and in local public policy. In doing so, it can connect communities with the authorities with whose services they engage daily, and allow them to make informed democratic decisions on this basis.
The implications of the decline of local journalism for local government are profound. In the absence of strong bonds of trust between communities and local government, and where substantial gaps in coverage exist, feelings of resentment and frustration develop. Fake news fills the gap real journalism ought to occupy. Local authorities become less trusted. Without healthy local journalism there cannot be healthy local democracy.
Gordon Ramsay, deputy director, Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College London