A leading London Assembly member has added her name to the campaign for independent news outlets such as 853 to be included in government public health campaigns during the coronavirus emergency.
Caroline Pidgeon, who represents the Liberal Democrats, spoke out after the Cabinet Office launched a huge advertising drive in national and regional newspapers and their websites, which has now reached weekly titles including the Sutton-based News Shopper, part of the US-owned Newsquest group.
However, the government has excluded independent publishers from the campaign, instead choosing to funnel support to major companies which, in some cases, have been running down their local operations for many years. This means readers of 853 and its sister title, The Charlton Champion, will not be reached by the campaign.
Many print titles have seen their advertising income collapse since the lockdown began a month ago today, while 853 has lost sponsorship as a result of the pandemic. Media analysts even fear for the future of some national titles with the drop in print sales, which usually subsidise their online editions.
Smaller independent titles are more vulnerable as they do not have the financial clout of the bigger groups. Yet they and their readers are being denied access to the campaign.
Newsquest made a profit of £108m in its most recent accounts. However, the News Shopper, which is now run from Sutton as part of a joint operation with the neighbouring South London Guardian and Surrey Comet papers, was running on a skeleton staff even before the pandemic. It has been cut back further since the coronavirus outbreak, with its dedicated print titles for Greenwich and Lewisham withdrawn.
The Independent Community News Network – which 853 is a part of – has organised an open letter to the culture secretary John Whittingdale, urging him to change the government’s stance. Signatories include Dame Frances Cairncross, who recently carried out a government review of the future business models for journalism, and Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, as well as leading media figures and academics.
The letter has also been supported by a number of MPs, including London Labour MPs Kate Osamor and Feryal Clark, who both spoke up for the Enfield Dispatch, a print title which has been badly affected by the loss of advertising.
She said: “Some of the most insightful, challenging and truly community based reporting in London is by publications that come under the Independent Community News Network. Time and time again publications such as 853 and SE1 pick up on issues long before other forms of media.
“For independent news outlets to be excluded from an advertising partnership that is designed to help keep the public safe throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is a perverse and indefensible decision. Public health messages should be communicated to the huge audiences reading these publications.
“The current advertising contract is also a snub to everyone who values a vibrant, diverse and community based media.”
853 is largely funded by readers, so is much less exposed to the collapse in advertising – although has lost some sponsorship income and the long-term picture remains uncertain. While other titles have cut back, it has invested some money into additional reporting of community initiatives during the pandemic, beginning with the Help Lewisham Hospital scheme and the Charlton cafe making meals for the vulnerable, with plans to do more while finances allow.
To find out more about the campaign, visit saveindependentnews.org.uk.
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