The launch of a cross-party select committee's investigation into the future of newspapers in the UK today was overshadowed by the ominous prediction that half of the nation's local and regional papers will be lost within the next five years.
The predictions are based on research conducted by the media analysts, Enders Media. Its founder, Claire Enders, voiced her concerns in front of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee this morning:
"We are expecting that up to half of all the 1,300 titles will close in the next five years."
"Many titles are loss-making and are being sustained by the good graces of their owners. That may not last."
According to research, there will be a 52 per cent decline in regional newspaper advertising revenue in the period 2007 to 2013. This represents a loss of 1.3 billion pounds a year lost in advertising revenue. Circulation looks set to decline by 8 per cent in the same period. Local community papers are deemed to be greatest at risk. The gloomy picture was not relieved by any flashes of what would be seen as false optimism; according to Enders the reduction of newsroom staff is inevitable and probably not financially restorative in the long term.
Representatives of the media groups involved in the presentation concurred with Elder's forecasts, particularly with the likelihood that most regions will be covered by just one paper in the near future.
Johnston Press chief executive John Fry announced:
"You're naturally going to get a consolidation down to a single newspaper in a market - which means the whole issue of competition is solved anyway because there'll only be one.
"The question is: Can you sustain that one?"
Sly Bailey from Trinity Mirror revealed that her company had been forced to close 27 newspapers in 2008 and a further 8 so far this year.
The general consensus seems to be that the future local newspaper industry would be significantly smaller; geographically, demographically and financially, due to job cuts and diminished revenues.
Carolyn McCall of Guardian Media Group doubts that advertising revenues will recuperate to their pre-recession levels, due to developments that have emerged simultaneously to the economic crisis.
"I don't believe the prospects for recovery particularly in classified advertising are strong," she said. "I think to rely on any kind of recovery for advertising will not really solve the problems of the regional press. The structural change is too profound and the economic recession has just hammered it."
The meeting focused on the weaknesses of the industry, which are apparently structural and circumstantial, thus too fundamental to be alleviated by the ventures appearing with new technologies. Interestingly, Enders is dismissive of online news editions as financial alternatives. For a local paper, the average income earned from a reader a month is about £100 a year, from a website it is £2. Moreover, micropayments are not feasible for general interest news service, the current state of paid for content services suggest that they are patronised only by clients with professional interests. The concept of citizen journalism, increasingly encouraged by the online editions of local papers, and the blogging phenomenon, are not to be considered as potential replacements of professional journalism, with regards to finance and quality.
The issue of beleagured local papers is certainly not exclusive to the British Isles. Stateside, Americans are witnessing the disappearance of their regional newspapers, as they fall to similar structural illnesses as their British counterparts. It is worth recalling, however, that other media analysts and experts have offered considerably more positive outlooks for alternative business models and experimental projects in the campaign to save the local paper.