The closure was announced in March 2021 and was missed by many – myself included. What does the decision by Reach PLC mean for a growing city like Cambridge to have its only daily newspaper being entirely virtual?
Ever since Reach PLC took over the Cambridge News, I’ve been concerned at the direction that it has been going in. Back in September 2021 I wrote a critical piece about how it has been managing the Cambridge News – an historic brand that dates back to 1888 so is part of our civic history.
In March 2021 Reach PLC announced it was moving to a Hub-and-virtual model, resulting in the closure of many local offices including the Cambridge office. Inevitably missed by most of us, one of the unwritten rules of the print press is they generally avoid writing bad news about each other. Which was why back in 2010 this story involving the nationals caught the eye of more than a few. And that was before Leveson’s Inquiry. The National Union of Journalists – the NUJ, put out a statement in response to the office closures.
The decision by Reach PLC is understandable if you look at it through the context of its clickbait strategy for its local news outlets – effectively rebranded as regional outlets. Even more so when you consider the impact of the Covid pandemic on office-based working. Yet it strikes a very different message to the one Jess Brammar sent out when she ran the online news site the Huffington Post UK / HuffPo UK when she temporarily relocated her news room to Birmingham and sent her reporters out to ‘find the news’.
From the buzzing hub on Newmarket Road to only a virtual presence in a generation
The publication every so often does pieces from its photo archive, such as this one on Newmarket Road, which features what was once its large office and print works – one that I visited on a cub scouts outing in the late 1980s. We got to meet the editor, see the news rooms, hear from the reporters & photographers, and see the print room in action.
Above – the old Cambridge Evening News’ offices and print works circa 1970s.
The decline of the local print press isn’t confined to localities – it is an international phenomenon that no one has as yet found a long term response to. This research piece from the US, comparing 2008 local newspapers with those from a few years prior, has more than a few familiar themes.
“It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.”Changing Newsrooms, 2008. PEW Research
“The newsroom staff producing the paper is also smaller, younger, more tech savvy, and more oriented to serving the demands of both print and the web. The staff also is under greater pressure, has less institutional memory, less knowledge of the community, of how to gather news and the history of individual beats. There are fewer editors to catch mistakes.”Ibid.
With the inevitable results…
Above – 06 December 2017…
Inevitably it made the national headlines, but as Editor of the Cambs Times, John Elworthy noted, there was just as much sympathy from hard pressed industry staff on the receiving end of cuts to sub-editor posts.
“John was a subeditor at the Express for decades and recently took redundancy. He saw the number of news subeditors shrink from 40 to about 10”Guardian Media, 23 Feb 2009
As with any posts that involve preventative work, you only realise their value when they are gone and something bad happens.
Could the Cambridge News re-open a news office if/when we get through the Pandemic?
That depends on what the owners have in store for its stable of local and regional brands. Are they simply managing the decline of what were once popular local titles that had an essential community and democratic function? Or is there still some life in the print press and local news publications?
If the owners were to experiment with something, then one ‘pop up’ venue that might be suitable as a temporary news office would be The Grafton Centre. There are still enough people that use the shopping centre to have a public-facing shop-front to remind people that local newspapers still exist. In that sense you could say that the rental costs could simply be an advertising expense given how desperate The Grafton have been to fill the units. As far as I know, it remains up for sale despite expensive makeovers over the past decade.
As a site, it is within walking distance of some of the main decision-making organisations in Cambridge – Cambridge City Council, Parkside Police Station (until it moves out), Cambridge Magistrates Court, and Cambridge Crown Court to name but a few. And being based in town would mean their reporters would be a short cycle or e-scooter ride away from any breaking news stories happening in the city centre. Finally, it creates an accessible place for the public to report anything – in particular if it needs a confidential interview in a private location.
Creating local studio space for online video and podcasting content
One of the things the publication has been trialling is live video content. The problem is that their teams of young newly-qualified reporters have simply been thrown into content creation without the preparation, support, and mentoring that is essential to make each production look like it has been professionally commissioned and produced, and not like something that a further education college student has been set as a piece of homework. I’m not going to link to them because that’s unfair on the reporters who have not been given the training or support that is essential for such public-facing functions.
Creating content for video is not easy. For a start, filming yourself and reviewing footage of your own voice is not a normal or natural things for us as human beings – it takes time to get used to the sound of your own voice being played back to you. That’s why back January 2016 I committed to producing a short vlogpost every single day for a month to get myself over that unfamiliarity – hence Vloguary 2016.
Anyone for Vloguary 2022? Especially those of you in/around local government who follow contentious issues such as local housing and transport planning?
Above – just over halfway through Vloguary 2016 – see the playlist here.
Setting up a mini studio as other firms have done would ensure that all-important audio can be properly controlled, and could also be a facility rented out to businesses and the general public.
The much wider issue of how Cambridge – and Cambridgeshire communicates with its residents has not gone away.
I wrote about this on my previous blog back in 2016. Given the huge challenges and upheavals we continue to face, 2022 should be the year (assuming the pandemic can be suppressed) that we deal with how we communicate with each other. Again, we know this is an ongoing issue and one that has a significant local public policy impact given how few people seem to be aware of the consultations on Cambridge’s future in some of our critical workplaces.
This could be a subject for some citizens’ assemblies to have a go at solving. Some of you may be interested in the many alternatives methods that Involve – who ran the Climate Assemblies in Cambridge, have listed at https://involve.org.uk/resources/methods. As with all of these things, it’s always worth asking “Who is conspicuous by their absence?’ when looking at the participants vs the population that make up our city.
One of the fascinating discussions would be ones involving young journalists with their potential audiences. It’s not one I have to be involved in, but I think if a diverse group of people from across the city could work with them to find out each others’ perspectives and challenges, we may get somewhere to arresting the decline of our local newspapers.
Alternatively, maybe the item reporting that children play games is required reading for some people – who am I to judge? And for all I know, this might be the sort of content that advertisers want their brands to be associated with, and are willing to pay for it. After all, Reach PLC’s annual reports show rising digital revenues. Only recently, Reach PLC overtook the BBC for its online audience – the same article showing that the NHS was in third place for UK-produced content.
Above – an example of content from Reach PLC syndicated across its stable of local and regional brands on social media.
“Are those rising digital revenues at the expense of communities that lose the physical presence of local news organisations?”
That’s for a separate post – because it feeds into a whole host of linked issues including on how the multinational digital giants (and multinational corporations in general) should be taxed. Furthermore, there is also the question of for how much longer existing model and marker structure of ownership and funding can last. In particular the mergers and consolidation over the last generation has been significant.
This has been in the face of collapsing profits in local and regional publications
…and even though new titles have been launched, they have been outnumbered by the closures.
Which means again, we come back to the problem that other towns and cities face: “How should people and institutions in towns and cities communicate with each other?” – very much in the context of both day-to-day public interest reporting, and wider conversations about improving the places where we live and dealing collectively with big challenges. Like the pandemic and the climate emergency.
Food for thought?
If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to: