Mary Kelly: Switching to Celebrity-Dominated Online “News” Damaging Democracy and Local Communities


SOMETIMES a book title just demands your attention. So I had to order Panic as the Man Burns Crumpets; The Vanishing World of the Local Journalist – an entertaining and nostalgic look at life in a local newspaper.

It is indeed a dying world, as far fewer people now get their main source of information from the print media. Since 2005, a total of 265 local newspapers across the UK have closed. Much of the decline is inevitable, given that the business model depended entirely on classifieds.

So when realtors, car dealers, and other retailers turned to online search engines, the money was gone. The financial collapse resulted in staff cuts and newspapers became thinner and covered less local stories, losing readers through the loss of load.

Younger people don’t tend to buy newspapers, but they get a lot of their news online. Worryingly, in Northern Ireland almost a quarter of people use Facebook for information, while those relying on Twitter, at 17%, are highest in the UK.

It could be argued that the decline in print journalism is being offset by the going online and the ease of access to news available on your phone. But that often means we’re more likely to hear news from trending celebrities on Twitter like Kim Kardashian and Piers Morgan than anyone of local significance.

It goes without saying that there is a loss to democracy when local councils and stories affecting communities at a smaller level go unreported. Here in Northern Ireland, weekly and local newspapers still play a useful role, but the number of journalists working in the local press has declined dramatically in recent decades.

When I first started in journalism, a stint in a weekly was considered essential training. It’s by following the local photographer on stories that introduced you to the local community and gave you the basics as well as a lesson in local economics.

I once spotted a lovely photo as we were covering a costume contest at a local school, where a kid sat alone, obviously fed up. Archie sighed, took the photo, then lined up the whole class and took the photo that would appear in the newspaper on Friday.

“Yeah, yours was more arty,” he said.

“But there are 30 children in this photo. All of their parents will buy a copy of the newspaper, and many of them will also buy the original photo for their grandmas.”

It was while covering local courts that you learned that people love to read about the torts of their neighbors, whose full names and addresses would appear alongside their charges of reckless driving, disorderly behavior, and shoplifting. .

It always seemed unfair to me that people who lived in country towns had their petty crimes exposed to public shame, while those in towns escaped censorship because the dailies only covered more serious crimes.

I was once dragged across the counter at the East Antrim Times in Carrickfergus when an angry mother insisted I was wrong when her son’s name appeared on a charge of driving while intoxicated. He had told her it was just reckless driving. The PPS begged to defer.

It was an important lesson that the words you wrote mattered to people and that accuracy was also your best and only defense.

There was a romance in the old newspaper industry that I still miss. The absolute noise levels of the newsroom with the clatter of typewriters and ringing telephones, reporters shouting “copy” for every page they wrote to be picked up by young girls who physically carried them around. writing. The slow rumble when the presses started rolling, making the ground vibrate.

There was the thrill of phoning your story from a rural phone booth and then passing the Tele van shortly after with a billboard headlining. I remember sitting behind a man on the return bus and trying to handcuff him when he glanced at my story on the front page, then immediately turned him around to check on sports.

A study by King’s College London found that British cities whose local newspapers had closed had a “democratic deficit” which resulted in reduced community engagement and increased mistrust of public institutions.

“We can all have our own social media accounts, but when local newspapers run out or in some cases just don’t exist, people lose a common voice. They feel angry, are not listened to and are more likely to believe malicious rumors, ”observed Dr. Martin Moore, author of the study.

That’s why QAnon freaks and anti-vaccines find a ready audience.


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