Michael Fabricant. Picture: UK Parliament

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Lichfield and Burntwood’s MP has called for local journalism outlets to be supported by the Government.

Many traditional media outlets have seen advertising disappear during the coronavirus lockdown, with the Lichfield Mercury pausing publication altogether.

Now Michael Fabricant has joined Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael to call for more to be done to ensure outlets do not permanently disappear because of the impact COVID-19 has on them.

“With advertising budgets dropping through the floor, I am arguing hard with the cabinet to support local newspapers and news websites.

“The Lichfield Mercury has already suspended newspaper production as have many other local newspapers across the West Midlands and the rest of the UK. 

“It’s time urgently to support local newspapers and news websites by encouraging the Government to fund local and independent media through an increased share of public health advertising spending.

“Independent research shows that local press are some of the most trusted sources of news for our communities – far more so than national papers and broadcast media – and we must support them in this challenging time.

“They are vital to our efforts to respond and recover from COVID-19.

“So Alistair and I along with other MPs have written to both the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, and the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, urging them to divert advertising spend to local media, such as my local media the Lichfield Mercury, Lichfield Live, and region wide newspapers like the Express & Star.”

Michael Fabricant MP

“The Government has supported some titles financially while others are given nothing”

The Government has already committed to an advertising campaign with print publications.

But the Independent Community News Network which represents publishers outside of the large newspaper groups, is calling for support to be spread more evenly across the entire local journalism network.

Emma Meese, director of the ICNN, said:

“At a time when people need their local press more than ever, the Government has supported some titles financially while others are given nothing.

“The real cost and suffering of this decision will undoubtedly be the public. 

“People are looking to cut through the noise and access trusted and verified local information, that will help keep them safe and alive.

“The UK Government has a duty to put that information in places where the public will see it, not just where they have always put it.”

Emma Meese, Independent Community News Network

The publishers of Lichfield Live have also written to Mr Fabricant to urge him to help ensure a level playing field for all publishers if any support is forthcoming – particularly those independent titles who have continued to produce content throughout the crisis at levels similar to – or above – usual levels.

The Conservative MP said:

“I have said to Matt Hancock and Oliver Dowden that we need to get a fair share of Government advertising spend for local and independent press and websites, to reflect both their importance in our communities and their financial needs.

“And I hope it won’t be too long before the Lichfield Mercury is again available as a newspaper edition.”

Michael Fabricant MP

The letter sent to Mr Fabricant by Lichfield Live is below:

While the UK Government has, quite rightly, recognised the role of journalism at a time when access to information is as vital as ever, it is disappointing to see that much of the focus of this – and previous schemes – has been weighted so heavily towards the traditional print press.

While it is quite right that jobs should be saved and support given to industries, it is also important to recognise and support the efforts of others who are seeking to ensure journalism provision is delivered in communities.

The advertising campaign launched recently is a prime example of where the playing field has been far from level and funding has been funnelled into large press groups rather than the growing arena of hyperlocal and independent publishing.

As you will be aware, we are a team of volunteers in your constituency who produce Lichfield Live and have done so for more than a decade. You will also be aware that with the Lichfield Mercury pausing publication due to the coronavirus pandemic, the role of Lichfield Live is now as important as ever.

We have already agreed to allow Lichfield Talking News to utilise our content in order to ensure its services can continue to get local news and information out to visually impaired members of the community and have moved into other areas to highlight community activities.

The importance of our role in the current climate is evidenced by a hugely significant rise in visitors and website traffic year-on-year.

However, while the Welsh Government has sought to provide £200,000 to hyperlocal publishers, sites like Lichfield Live remain unable to access any of the support being offered to print publications. Indeed, a letter on the issue from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is specifically titled ‘Support for newspapers during COVID-19’.

At a time when there is an expectation that other services such as education can be delivered online, why is it that we seem to accept that news can only be of value when delivered through a print publication? This is particularly frustrating when many local publications have falling circulations and patchy distribution at best.

Lichfield Live – like other publishers of a similar ilk – does not expect to be given preferential treatment or free money. But it does expect to be given a fair crack of the whip when it comes to support for the journalism industry.

At a time when the Lichfield Mercury is not publishing, we are unable to access the money paid by local councils for the publication of statutory notices. We have been told by one local authority that these could not be made through us as they need to be in print in order to follow the rules regarding such advertisements – even if that print publication does not cover Lichfield or Burntwood.

How can this be right, either for us as a publisher or the residents who should be accessing these notices?

We would appreciate you taking up this issue with the relevant department(s) to highlight the value of this growing sector of the media which is continually being forgotten and overlooked, while large news organisations – who have removed themselves from local communities and reduced the levels of journalism they produce – are supported by yet more public money.

Lichfield Live’s letter to Michael Fabricant MP

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17 Comments

  1. The Mercury has been dying for a number of years not because of Covid. The content was getting less and less and the amount of news had become almost nil.
    As for the cost who was going to pay for it.
    I know it is a larger area but up on the Fylde coast Blackpool has produced a daily (Not Sunday) local paper for years and years and still is

  2. I wish “Lichfield Live” well. I have been an avid reader of the Mercury for many years and I am very sorry to see it go.
    I am delighted to have found this news “website” instead and it has become part of my daily reading for local news.
    All MPs should be supporting these efforts to save local newspapers and “websites”. Local news is in my experience far superior than most of dull drosh that is served up by larger national newspapers.

  3. They say that nature abhors a vaccuum. So it is proving. Technology has decimated the news industry and advertising, house sales and small adds. have all disappeared. Mainly to the internet.
    In the past to set up a newspaper cost millions and was a chancey investment. Most now get the news from their iPhones and the traditional press is lingering on with the older generation.
    It is a very different way of distributing news these days. I have ink in my blood and have seen the whole pantheon of changes from the 1960s onwards.
    Even illustrations (my particular expertise) has been revolutionised by digital cameras. Including the total demise of the film industry, Kodak, Ilford, Agfa etcetera. Further, Apple computers with its UNIX programming and page makeup systems totally eclipsed all traditional methods.
    I miss the Mercury but not many in the younger generation will mourn its passing. It needs a lot of market research for the likes of Lichfield Live to establish a market and decide on editorial content and a way of expanding its local interest. If I might humbly suggest, picture content might help. It is clearly doing well at its level of operation but is in competition with many emerging initiatives.
    One aspect that might be of interest to Lichfield Live is that of the demographics. One newspaper was usually enough for a household. Most have individual devices these days so potential exposure is greater. A little like books though. Its not quite the same on kindle!
    Good luck Lichfield Live, work hard, be innovative; the news industry is cutthroat. Attract local advertising; it is the traditional backstop of news media finance. But circulation is needed first.

  4. Sir
    I used to deliver the Mercury and several publications including Cit Life magazine around Lichfield. Total some 2000 deliveries per week.

    Delivery was already restricted to democratic areas based on advertising and profit.

    Perhaps these publications should at this time take the opportunity to publish usuful information rather than advertisements for double glazing.

    This is the time to build back a worthy reputation which has been deteriorating over the past years.

    Good business is built on more than short term profit

  5. Back to my original comment Blackpool has the Gazette 6 days a week, it is a pay for paper full of all that is going on, EG Crime, Local news from across local villages, Sport of all sorts not just football, Road conditions etc etc. The Mercury had nothing in it and hasn’t for years except for the odd Photo op for Mr F and various councillors
    I am not sure if it even has any staff reporters or photographers any more

  6. Lichfield Live could crowd fund if needed, I’m sure a lot would bung a £10 gratis, I would. Don’t mourn the Mercury or any such similar: as ML points out, it isn’t a proper newspaper at all.

  7. I do hope the mercury returns but I would like to see it delivered in Burntwood and the rurals more often where we haven’t recieved a copy for some time. Sites such as Lichfield live are crucial to our local reporting network and in the interests of local democracy. I have donated a coffee to them before and would do so again.

  8. We don’t even get the Lichfield Mercury deliverd in the city centre ,far easier to go on line and browse Lichfield live .

  9. Hopefully this will generate wider cross party support in the weeks and months to come.
    Lichfield Live has proved it is possible to have quality, independent news and journalism. No-one wants to see an established title like the Mercury disappear, but if its owners are unwilling to invest the necessary resources to make it a viable publication then the likes of Lichfield Live deserves as much support as it can get.
    This site has consistently proved it is capable of providing a valuable source of local information. It would be good to see the likes of Lichfield DC recognising the importance of such an independent news outlet too.
    I’m reminded of a comment I think has done the rounds in recent years over various issues.
    “First they came for the journalists…then no-one knows what happened next”.
    Local newspapers and websites are too important to lose.

  10. Just a quick note to everyone to thank them for their support – and also to offer some context to what we do.

    As some newer visitors to the site may not realise, we have actually been around for 12 years, producing online content about Lichfield and Burntwood. Our early days were a little different to what we are now, but it is still produced by the same unpaid volunteers who hold down full time jobs outside of this site. We aim to cover our costs through advertising and the occasional request to readers for support. None of us have ever made a penny from this site.

    Someone mentioned circulation above. It isn’t quite as simple as comparing print with digital (and even print readership which is often quoted by ad reps is far from an exact science). But we average around 68,000 visitors a month, who viewed the site 1.1million times in 2019 (a figure we will far exceed if 2020 carries on as is).

    The point we tried to make in our letter is that we do not expect handouts from the Government; but similarly, we do not expect other publications to have access to public funding for doing a job which, we would argue, does not exceed the one we do. In fact, at present, we are fulfilling a service which other publishers with far, far deeper pockets than us are not doing.

    We used the example of statutory notices as a way of showcasing this. Councils are legally obliged to pay to publish these so local residents can see them. In Lichfield, this money goes to one national publishing group who, at present, are not publishing here beyond a few stories on a regional news site. So even beside the financial bonus they continue to get from such advertising, there is also a genuine question around how local residents can be expected to read a statutory notice which may be printed in a newspaper which doesn’t distribute to their area? Even before publishing of many weekly papers paused, there was, I believe, an argument about whether their distribution really reached the volumes it should to justify such revenue from councils without challenge.

    Other schemes developed by the likes of the BBC (funded by the licence payer) to pay for journalists have been tailored towards the traditional newspaper groups, all of whom no longer have a physical presence in Lichfield or Burntwood and have reduced staffing numbers significantly over many years. Yet, these schemes and funding support projects reward them for shutting titles, reducing staffing and diminishing their coverage of local communities. Yet sites like ours (and there are lots of them across the country) receive no such incentive. The Welsh government is an exception, as they have funded established hyperlocal publishers (what we are known as in industry slang) to see them through the coronavirus crisis, recognising the value they bring to communities increasingly devoid of reliable news sources.

    Lichfield Live has always been reliant on the support of those in our community, from readers to advertisers such as Richard Winterton Auctioneers and Arthur Price, and we are keen to ensure we retain our independent nature and provide a site which is not flooded with oppressive adverts at every turn and content that has no relation to the area we serve. We have turned down large advertising cheques and ways to make money which would move away from the principles above that we have always made decisions based on.

    We have plans for the future growth of the site and the way people can help support the service we try to offer, and we will discuss those in more depth soon. But for now it’s a huge thank you to everyone – and if you want to help, spreading the word is a great way; to your friends, family and those local businesses who might want to ensure information about their companies and services is being read by people with an interest in the local area, on a site run by people who have demonstrated a passion and commitment to the area for more than a decade.

  11. Before the present situation I was walking through Darwin park and stopped to chat to a maintenance contractor when his mate came wandering along with a huge stack of Mercury on inspection they were that weeks, he said he had found them in the bushes and it wasn’t the first time. That is where your non delivery goes but it keeps the circulation up

  12. I used to work at bet365. Every day for years I drove past The Sentinel offices. It was a huge printing press with a massively tall main building and a large office space on the side for reporters and other staff. It was an imposing, powerful part of Hanley with a sizeable logo on the side and vans coming and going delivering papers all over Stoke and Staffordshire.

    People stopped buying so many papers though. Instead switching to online news. Things dwindled and one day bet365 bought the land and demolished the lot.

    The Sentinel now runs from a small building with far, far, far less staff. Their online site is peppered with an insane amount of advertising as they try to cushion the falling revenues due to the reduced circulation figures of their traditional print offering.

    My multi-millionaire internet boss opened the new shiny bet365 office, built on top of the literal dust of the newspapers of old.

    Sadly, this is how things are turning out now.

    For mainstream media, traditional investigative journalism is being swapped out for click-bait tosh which can be lifted from Facebook or Twitter by an 18-year-old untrained staffer and turned into a “revenue rich” page. This is a priority because online advertising revenues are infinitesimal compared to traditional print revenue.

    Meanwhile, the public are trusting “news” on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in the same way much as news on the BBC or the Daily Telegraph

    Local websites like this, run by people who love where they live and thrive to inform, are the future. Let’s hope far more people come to places like this and support them wholeheartedly.

  13. If it was not for Lichfield Live. I would have no idea what was really going on.

    The BBC has really dumbed down and so many of their articles have to include Twitter posts. They comment on the news and push their agenda. Rather than report the facts.

    Yesterday, they were saying it was unlikely that Boris would be attending PMQ’s today. It was obviously due to his health and he had returned to work too early. He was scared of taking the questions.

    Today, he has become a father again.

  14. Nice article Ross…. Just a thought. In the voting constituency of around 103,000 if they viewed your site once a day you would have over 37 million hits in the year. If it is any help I am doing my bit, and promote your site at every opportunity.

  15. Hi Philip,

    Thanks for your support. In terms of audience, it’s not about the quantity for us, it’s about the quality. Anyone can generate an audience, few can generate a committed community of readers. We could do the former by following the lead of many major publishers and loading it with content about what time a football match out of area kicks off or a viral video that’s got no link to Lichfield – however, we’d rather play the long game and offer up a more focused offering which readers may return to rather than become frustrated by.

    During my former life in newspapers, circulation managers would often quote wildly outlandish audience figures based on circulation (one suggested each copy of a weekly paper was read by three people in EVERY household). So while a newspaper may claim X amount of readers, or the new big hub regional sites may claim millions upon millions of visitors, can a local advertiser (we’ve turned down national advertisers) be sure they’re the target audience for their product and that it’s being seen? Can a Lichfield business really say that they’ve even got a chance of getting into every home in print? Can they really say they are getting local people who might visit their shop or use their service on a site covering an area bigger than some counties?

    We think not.

    Which is why we think our audience is one of our biggest achievements and strengths. Lichfield Live only offers content relating to this area, therefore our audience clearly has a connection to this area, most likely because they live or work here, or are thinking of visiting. Which brings me back to the quality over quantity argument…

    Yes, you can be seen by tens of millions elsewhere, but how many will pop into your shop in the city to spend? Alternatively, you can be seen by a solid and growing audience here, many of whom are likely to be your customer base. Which offers the best value? And I certainly know which publication has the strongest commitment to this area.

    So I know which I’d choose, but then I suppose I’m biased.

  16. Companies in Lichfield should be advertising with this site rather than a newspaper that shut the office it had here, moved staff to Birmingham via Tamworth, got rid of most of its reporters and now chucks what little articles they do produce in with all of the clickbait rubbish on the Evening Mail website where you can’t even read them because of a million ads. The Mercury is a pale imitation of what it used to be. It’s owned by a big paper group that couldn’t care less about Lichfield. They only deliver to a handful of houses it seems anyway, yet they still shut up shop and took the furlough money as soon as it was offered. Hopefully people will have long memories.

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