In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: What is happening to local newspapers?

ARE Scotland’s local weekly newspapers ‘cutting their own throats’?

Has the fact that they seem to have nearly all gone ‘tabloid’ – both in size and attitude – put them on the road to ruin?

I ask since these were the questions I was asked when I went along to speak to a heritage society, the other evening.

Stories about drugs busts and violence and ‘sink estate’ news do nothing for more mature readers of weekly newspapers.

Neither does slang – even ‘cops’, for example – or bad grammar or bad spelling.

And court reports with asterisks inserted to replace swear words are a definite no-no.

It became clear to me that mature readers don’t necessarily want colourful prose either.

They would be perfectly content with plain, straightforward English in the reporting of events.

But people who have been loyal to weekly local papers for years have given up buying them because they are ‘sick to the teeth’ of being served up pap.

A woman of about 70 told me: “It’s remarkable the way our local papers have changed – for the worse.

“Much of the material is aimed at young people, but the fact of the matter is that young people don’t buy papers.

“They may pick them up in their parents’ houses, but you won’t find many local papers in young folk’s flats.

“They don’t usually start buying them until they have met up and settled down with a partner.”

People who attended my talk, which covered more than 50 years of my time in the newspaper business, were dismayed at what is happening to their local papers.

They feel that a local paper is part of the fabric of a community and very much like their local football team.

They don’t want it owned and run by a multi-national but by someone from the community who lives in the community and knows the people in the community.

They consider their local paper an essential part of the fabric that binds them together.

The births, deaths and marriages are extremely important to them, as are the community notice boards, community news and sports results.

But one death notice they don’t want to see is one for their local newspaper itself.

They may joke about it as ‘the two minutes silence’ or ‘the local rag’ but they love their local paper – or at least they did love it.

Until newspaper proprietors decided it was a good idea to follow the tabloids in layout and content.

If ever there was a time for a rethink on what we are doing to our local newspapers it’s now.

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional Press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.