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Local Press

Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 20 January 2009

I advise hon. Members that some seven people are trying to catch my eye and in order to give them all a fair chance, perhaps they could be brief.

I want to put on record my thanks to Mr. Speaker for granting me this important debate. I am so happy to see so many hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber, because this is an important issue. I shall try to be brief, but I have important issues to flag up regarding my area.

I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber agree that a thriving local press is essential for a healthy democracy. We may not always agree with the views and opinions of the local paper serving our constituency, but most of us would regard local papers as representative of our communities and of their needs and aspirations. It is clear that this role is now under threat as never before.

Recently, the chief executive of one of my local newspapers described the situation as a “perfect storm” engulfing local press. The situation is now so severe that many titles may disappear unless corrective action is taken. So today, in this debate, I want to raise two important, simple matters. First, I will outline the pressures and threats facing local titles. Secondly, I will suggest some remedies that, with the co-operation of our Government, may provide some help for our local press to survive.

I shall say a few words on problems and causes. What has caused the current situation? First and foremost, it is the economic downturn. The headlines in the online magazine for the local press, “Hold the Front Page”, illustrate the current situation effectively, and I shall provide a few quotations from a sample that I took last month: “Gutted reporters facing forced relocation”; “Yorkshire weekly closes—Ripon Gazette sister paper ceases publication”; “Reporters sacrifice pay to save colleagues—Journalists offer to reduce their hours to prevent redundancy”; “Brand new editor handed redundancy notice”; and “Daily newspaper to close after 25 years”.

The area that I represent has not escaped these cutbacks. On Teesside, we are served by two excellent daily and evening local newspapers—The Northern Echo, based in Darlington, which is a regional paper, and the Evening Gazette, based in Middlesbrough. Both papers were founded in the heyday of Victorian provincial newspapers and have served our communities through war and peace, boom time and recession. I know that the reporters and editors on those papers are determined to continue doing just that for the coming century, but editors and managers on both titles have been forced to ask for redundancies and axe branch offices, which is a move that many journalists and I feel will affect story generation and sourcing for the worse.

The Northern Echo, has had to axe some of its sister “Advertiser” series and reduce editions, and the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette has asked for voluntary editorial redundancies. The same problem is affecting local free sheets, one of which—the Cleveland Circuitnearly ceased production, but the heroic work of the couple who own and manage the paper rescued it and it is now appearing again on a regular basis and will, I hope, do so for a long time to come.

The economic downturn has not led to a circulation drop. Indeed, many people want to know how their region is fighting back. However, over a longer period there has been a steady loss of readership that cannot be ignored. The British provincial press has seen a 51 per cent. drop in circulation since 1989. Coupled with that, there has been a significant drop in advertising. Display advertising from the local high street is down as the retail crunch bites. The staples of local advertising have been adversely affected as people withdraw from the property market, recruitment is put on hold and car sales stagnate. The internet has also hit sections of the readership, and fewer younger readers are staying loyal to what the bloggers call the dead-end press.

There are other pressures, too. For instance, there is a serious and as yet hardly unreported threat of big increases in the price of newsprint paper. Yet the need for good, honest local reportage is greater than ever. Look at the alternatives. Local and regional TV is going under the axe and ITV is, to all intents and purposes, decimating its regional coverage, which has led to an outcry in the House but has seemingly been rubber-stamped by Ofcom. Instead, we will be left with very broad coverage of regional news.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. The regions of England are well represented in the Chamber, and I am sure that hon. Members support the comments that the hon. Gentleman is making.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about the ITV cutbacks resonates strongly in Wales, a country where plurality is all the more important, whether it comes from the local press, the national press or ITV. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—he is making the point strongly—that it is welcome when, for instance, the BBC cuts its local website proposals, because it allows the local press the opportunity to diversify and put their local newspapers online?

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has made an important point about diversity. I am with him all the way.

My hon. Friend mentioned a moment or two ago the threat of the internet, but in many ways it is an opportunity. At the Society of Editors conference, it was suggested that local and regional newspapers should collaborate in the development of a search engine. That would not necessarily rival Google’s 40 per cent. of advertising revenue, but something there is struggling to get out. My local paper, the Leicester Mercury, an excellent regional paper, has a website called “This is Leicestershire” that could do with development. A collaborative, alternative search engine might be helpful in maintaining the local and regional press, which we know is necessary in this country.

All I can say to my hon. Friend is that I am sure that there is a lot of innovation in different parts of the country. However, I am only highlighting what is happening in my area. All sorts of new ideas have been tried, but the local press is still facing difficulties. Well done to the Leicester Mercury for the progress that it has made, but not everybody can do the same thing. I know that opportunities are there, but I am trying to highlight what is happening on my patch, because it is highly serious.

In my area, regional news means coverage from southern Scotland down to Scarborough compressed into about 20 minutes’ airtime. Radio is little better, excepting licence-fee-paid BBC local radio. Now most independent local radio news coverage outside the BBC is little more than national agency feed from the Press Association read out over the airwaves.

As hon. Members have mentioned, we must not forget the internet. The internet was—admittedly, some years ago—seen as a new and free open house for local news and comment, but most local blogs and comment sites have become a means for those who merely shout the loudest to express their views. So we have a paradox: people want local news, but increasingly the only in-depth and reliable coverage comes from our existing local titles, which are currently under threat.

The hon. Gentleman has spoken about other media, and I agree with him. Will he go so far as to agree with me that without the local printed press, local democracy would not be able to continue as it exists today, which would be a great loss for our country? Also, has he seen that early-day motions 502 and 503, which were tabled last night, follow that theme?

I have not seen the early-day motions, but that is the point that I am trying to make. In my area, some of the satellite offices of the Evening Gazette and The Northern Echo have been closed down. If offices close, stories that would have been picked up in the past will not be picked up. That is precisely why we need local media and local satellite offices, which help newspapers to keep stories local. I am glad that for once I agree with the hon. Gentleman.


I shall propose a couple of solutions, because it is no good my simply raising the issues. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to hear some solutions and suggestions, and I hope that he will take them up. Can anything be done to prevent this dreadful situation from having devastating consequences for our local news? It is clear that there is a case for some form of rescue package for local papers that are struggling, but we have to ask what, in practical terms, can be done. Of course, the local press themselves must adapt to changing circumstances, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has said. It needs to move away from a lazy reliance on simply inputting press releases from the local councils, the nearest big football club or local businesses.

Indeed. The business managers must show that they can adapt, attract new advertising streams and become relevant to young readers. However, even the most hard-headed and innovative business managers will need help, if they are to come through this difficult time. That was the point that I was trying to make to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire.

I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous about giving way. Will he accept that there is a paradox, inasmuch as many of the main groups that own our well loved titles are extremely profitable? They may be less profitable as a result of the credit crunch, but they have been extremely profitable. However, the people who report the news—the reporters—are paid abysmally. If one asks those who work in the newspaper industry or even in the spoken media, one finds that what they earn is appalling. In addition, people on work experience are increasingly used as a substitute for fully employed people, and there is virtually no apprenticeship scheme left. If there was investment in good journalism, would that not be the answer to many of the prayers about keeping the industry going?

I have not asked my local journalists what they are paid, although I am sure that my hon. Friend is well informed. Now that he has raised the issue, I will ask them, and perhaps I will be able to deal with his comment.

There are small things that can be done, and perhaps a couple of big things. Let us take the small things first. The state, at both local and national level, is a big spender on advertising. Can we harness that advertising power, so that it helps both our local papers and our local communities? The Government recently announced a big cash boost to the work of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Jobcentre Plus network, so why not make part of that boost conditional on jobcentres booking space in the local papers in their area to advertise jobs and training courses? There is always a lag between new benefits or changes to benefits and take-up. Again, why not require the DWP to publicise such information in local papers, which have a much greater reach than any DWP information sheet or pamphlet?

The state—now that the state helping people is fashionable again—could help with training for journalists, too. We need to recognise that the newspaper industry has been a leader in the provision of in-service training and distance learning. That is provided by the National Council for the Training of Journalists—a body whose running costs are underwritten by the regional newspaper industry. However, I am told that that work needs to be enhanced to reflect multi-media convergence across the whole industry. That would help to deal with the consequences of the economic downturn, but it would mean higher costs. It is difficult to give precise figures for the cost of trainees in the first few years of their careers, but I am told by the Society of Editors that it could be £15,000 to £20,000. The pure training element need not be high, as newspapers increasingly take graduates who have paid for basic courses.

I come now to the big suggestions, and at this point two important words enter the debate—public money. We need to ask whether there is any reason why local newspapers should not compete with electronic broadcasters for financial support. Such newspapers provide the crucial public service of keeping a community informed about itself. I am well aware that this question is very sensitive in the local newspaper industry. Many editors and owners would once have dismissed it out of hand, because they were concerned that strings might be attached to a requirement to produce so-called public service content. Some would have seen that as a threat to editorial autonomy. However, I am not sure that they would reject such an approach at this time, especially if any public help came from external third parties, rather than from the state itself, and with the type of safeguards historically guaranteed to the BBC. There are precedents for that elsewhere.

In Norway, a state subsidy scheme for local newspapers has existed since 1969. The subsidies amount to between 2 and 3 per cent. of the total annual turnover of the press. Moreover, subsidies are directed particularly towards newspapers in difficult market positions. To be eligible for support, the newspaper must have a general news profile and an editor who adheres to the editor’s code. That code, set up by the editors association and the publishers association, gives guarantees for the independence of the editors.

I have no problem with state help. After all, as Alan Rusbridger said in The Guardian recently:

“Who is to say that Channel 4 (not to mention some aspects of the BBC output) is any more deserving of state funding than those responsible for the sometimes humdrum, but essential, task of keeping people informed about what their local councils, courts, police, health and fire services are up to?”

My approach would be based on these principles. The resource for such aid would come from the digital switchover surplus. As the Minister knows, a new auction of parts of the spectrum is coming up. That is to be managed by Ofcom, which has been charged with a duty to ensure that spectrum is not wasted. There is real money here, too. Previously, and famously, the Government did very well when they auctioned the third generation mobile phone spectrum licences, raising £21 billion for the Treasury. Now, with 16 national licences available for auction, the Government can expect to raise a fair amount of cash. Alan Rusbridger estimates that the cash from the ITV part of the equation could be £60 million, while the digital surplus element of the BBC licence fee could amount to a further £130 million. Why should local newspapers not be in with a shout for some of those revenues, rather than the money merely being shuffled around a limited pool of broadcasters?

Ofcom’s most recent review of public service broadcasting sketches a number of scenarios for covering nations, regions and local communities. That includes a network of local and regional TV news providers as well as an idea for newspapers to combine with others to provide cross-platform content, including nightly TV bulletins. It also suggests that present competition restrictions could be reviewed, which would involve asking the Office of Fair Trading to assess whether local newspapers could be viewed simply as part of a wider media market. I argue that that pool should be managed by a third party rather than a Government Department. Ofcom is a possibility, or, if it does not have the machinery in place, regional development agencies in England and equivalent bodies in the devolved parts of the UK might be appropriate, because they are perceived to be value free and in those terms would be acceptable to editors.

There are issues about the balance of help that goes to small, local newspapers, as against help for titles owned by bigger media plcs. Of course, checks and balances would be needed to prevent the bigger and better-resourced media groups from hoovering up the pool before the smaller groups can get their applications finalised. As a further guarantee, any receipts from that pool must be seen to be wholly additional to internal media group funding and not used as a way to reduce corporate support.

I know that a lot of hon. Members want to take part in the debate, so in conclusion I have tried to highlight the problems and difficulties facing our local newspapers. I have made some far-reaching suggestions to the Minister, and I fear that if those ideas are not considered, we could be in serious danger of seeing the collapse of a large part of our unique local press. I am not trying to be dramatic, but that would certainly be disastrous. I know that the Minister has listened carefully to what I have said. Local newspapers are the lifeblood of our communities and part of our cultural heritage. They are absolutely essential for our areas and towns, and once lost they would be difficult to restore. Certainly in my area, The Northern Echo is an excellent regional newspaper and the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette has been serving our people for nearly 150 years. The Minister should take my suggestions very seriously, as I have expressed the concerns of people in my area and the spirit of what our local papers are saying and the worries that they have.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important debate. For me, the importance of local media is about scrutinising Back Benchers and ensuring that we are accountable to our constituents. As the debate was starting, I received a text message from somebody in my constituency to say that there is now a campaign among the local media to find out how Shropshire MPs will be voting on the issue of MPs’ expenses. Constituents are being asked not to vote for MPs who vote to withhold that information. I love that sort of scrutiny. It is essential to have a mechanism for local people to challenge their MPs and for the newspapers to do that vital job.

In Shrewsbury we have two excellent newspapers, the Shropshire Star and the Shrewsbury Chronicle. In the Lobby, there is a correspondent, Mr. John Hipwood, who works for the Shropshire Star and other newspapers. He is always in the Members’ Lobby on Wednesday before Prime Minister’s Question Time, asking us what we have done during the week, probing and scrutinising. I always look forward to my interactions with Mr. Hipwood in the Lobby, and it is important to have somebody in the House of Commons who scrutinises what we do and reports back to our constituents in an impartial way. We need more than MPs’ propaganda through their newsletters to constituents.

I depend on my local newspapers, the Shrewsbury Chronicle and the Shropshire Star, for highlighting the outrageous way in which the Labour Government are treating Shropshire. They help me to raise issues that are pivotal to the people of Shrewsbury, such as the fact that every child in Shrewsbury receives £3,300 per annum for their education. In other parts of the country, particularly in Labour seats, that figure is £9,000 or £10,000—three times what my children in Shrewsbury get. As a result, village schools are under threat from closure.

The hon. Gentleman recognises that newspapers are impartial. Does he share equal enthusiasm for the way in which local papers lambasted the former Conservative Government when they tried to introduce a poll tax?

I look forward to next year, when the Conservative party will get into power, and I expect my local paper to be as critical in its scrutiny as it has been with the Labour Government.

Sometimes, there are controversial issues. Yesterday, I met the chief executive of Veolia to talk about an incinerator in my constituency—or a “waste to energy facility”, as people like to call it nowadays. Such issues are complicated and emotional. People raise health issues, and it is the role of the local newspaper to try to crunch all the information and present it in the most effective way.

I agree with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland, who secured the debate, about the need for Government to spend more money on local newspapers. I concur totally with the concerns that he raised about advertising spending having decreased significantly over the past six months. As a result, papers have, for example, had to cut the number of photographers whom they employ, because of the lack of advertising money. Obviously, I would put a caveat on that—I do not want any more Labour propaganda, which is spewed out all over the place in the media. However, it is good to put relevant campaigns through the local media.

The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of sense. Has he considered using his communications allowance to promote the take-up of pension credit, which I have done in my constituency? That is very helpful for a local community. On a more substantive subject, does he note any difference between the free press that is delivered weekly, which often addresses vulnerable people, and the paid-for, daily local press?

I concur with the hon. Gentleman. With the help of my local newspaper, I am initiating a conference in Shrewsbury, with experts, to interact with the senior citizens forum, which is 5,000 people strong, and help people understand more about pension credits. I know that many people in my county are not getting what they are entitled to.

In order to define the lexicon that the hon. Gentleman is using, are we to understand that all information that the Government produce and publicise, perhaps in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions, is propaganda, while anything that comes from Opposition parties is a clinical and objective assessment? Is that how he reads it?

It is important for Opposition MPs to highlight in a public way their concerns about Government spending, particularly in the run-up to a general election when there is a massive peak in such spending. It is a strange coincidence, but there seems to be a correlation between an imminent general election and the amount of Government spending. Of course it is our duty and responsibility to scrutinise whether all that information is totally unbiased, and it is very important that we do that job.

The remainder of my remarks will be brief, Mr. Cummings, because I know that you want to ensure that everybody speaks. The Shrewsbury Chronicle reports the views of its readers and the work of MPs, MEPs, and county, borough, town and parish councils. That is a very important point. We are talking about not only MPs but parish councils. I represent a rural constituency, and my local paper reports on rural, parish matters, which is very helpful especially for senior citizens living in isolated areas who might otherwise be unable to find out about various vital, local services, such as meals on wheels.

The local editor, Mr. Butterworth, has worked with political, business and health officials to improve the town. That has included campaigns to save the town swimming pool and to get signs put up for Shrewsbury on certain main roads—before I became an MP, I asked the Highways Agency how we could get a sign for Shrewsbury on the M6. It had a sign for Telford, but not for Shrewsbury. It said, “No chance; no, no, we’re not going to do it!” The local newspaper ran a concerted campaign saying how important it was for Shrewsbury to be recognised as the county town of Shropshire and to have a sign on the M6. It initiated a cross-party campaign; now thanks to the Shrewsbury Chronicle, Shrewsbury finally has a sign on the M6 directing people to our beautiful, historic town—it is, of course, one of the most beautiful in the west midlands, and I highly recommend it for summer holidays.

The Shrewsbury Chronicle has also been involved in a campaign for flood defences. However, its most successful campaign was “Let’s grow for it”, which concerned Shrewsbury’s bid for the Britain in Bloom competition. The town not only won the national title for the first time in 25 years, but won the European and world titles—yes, we hold the town in bloom world title! Not only are we beautiful, but we have lots of beautiful flowers.

In the past 12 years, the paper has raised more than £5 million for various charities, which has helped to build a new Macmillan cancer centre and a new diabetes unit at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, and it has provided a new vehicle for the Red Cross to use in the county, a much-needed extension for the local hospice, a vehicle for a children’s hospice and a new head and neck cancer unit at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. The paper was recognised for its efforts when the editor, Mr. John Butterworth, was awarded the MBE for services to journalism and charity in last year’s new year’s honours list. The paper has also organised many competitions, such as hanging-basket, shop-window and tots of year contests—I entered my own beautiful daughter, Alexis, in the tots of the year competition. Regrettably, she did not win—

We shall not go into that. However, she is a very beautiful little girl.

In conclusion, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland has secured a very important debate, and I acknowledge the work that he has done to highlight the issue. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what tangible things he has planned to help our local media get through this difficult financial time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important debate and on being determined that a Minister from the right Department should answer it.

This is a very difficult time for local newspapers; it is important not only for business, but for community cohesion, that they continue to serve communities, especially given that, as has been said, local government can communicate through local newspapers. We are fortunate in Croydon in having two strong newspapers, including the Croydon Advertiser, which has a long tradition of service to the town. For a great deal of time, a famous editor, Geoff Collard, managed to represent the town as well as report on it. These days, newspapers face some difficult challenges in addition to the economy and possible competition from the BBC. Croydon has much violent crime, on which the Croydon Advertiser rightly reports. However, it faces the difficulty of potentially killing the golden goose by having to report on such very difficult issues.

Although local newspapers play very important local roles, they are often part of significant media organisations. The Croydon Guardian is part of the Gannett group, which is a US media organisation, and the Croydon Advertiser is now part of the Daily Mail and General Trust stable of newspapers having been sold by Trinity Mirror. Interestingly, when it was sold, it was advised that the readership was 20,000, which is less than a third of what it was more than 15 years ago. That is a sign of the challenge facing local newspapers. Gannett has managed, through the Guardian series, to conglomerate a number of local newspapers, in the way indicated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland. In some ways, that is very efficient. Indeed, in south London, as a local media organisation, the Guardian series employs more than 80 journalists and some 300 people working full-time on their 23 weekly newspapers.

In the world of the web, the Croydon Guardian has been particularly successful, because its online media now reaches a monthly audience of more than 275,000 people. Thus the BBC’s proposal to spend £68 million on the creation of 65 local news video sites represents a real challenge to those newspapers. Currently, the resource provided by the BBC for local reporting in Croydon is very modest—just one journalist, who is a lady called Evadney Campbell—and its approach is very responsible. However, it is understandable that private-sector providers feel threatened by the potential of being crushed by the size of the new investment.

Those unwelcome developments come at a time when local media need to counter several threats to their future. First, there are the structural, industry-wide changes as part of the media migration to the web. Secondly, Newsquest in south London has operated websites for it newspapers for more than 10 years, and it continues to innovate and invest in a way that provides for an exciting digital future. However, the severity of the current economic climate is having a real impact on its core revenues—most notably, on job and property advertising. Thirdly, in the mind of the Croydon Advertiser and the Croydon Guardian, there is Government-induced support for local government to withdraw advertising from independent providers through the establishment of local authority news channels and publications subsidised by public and third-party funds. Those two papers have been very critical of Croydon council over the significant increase in its advertising spend that does not go to local media, but is spent directly.

I am mindful that other Members wish to speak, so I shall only take a further two minutes. Local papers can play a real role in giving local communities a sense of identity. If local newspapers leave, much of that sense of identity will go. Many local newspapers campaign on social issues. I am impressed by the work done by journalists on both my local newspapers, such as Harry Miller, Neil Millard, Aline Nassif and Kirsty Whalley. Such people campaign on important issues that are vital to our community—for example, they deal with issues involving the families of victims of knife crime—but given the pressures and the limited pay and resources, it is very difficult for local journalists to pursue such interests.

Local newspapers must be responsible. I congratulate the approach taken by the Gannett newspaper group to remove sex trade adverts from its newspapers. That is something that has yet to be followed by the Croydon Advertiser and something that I urge it to do. The Croydon Guardian has been lobbying hard on green issues on behalf of south London business. Those are all important concerns.

Finally, on a more light-hearted note, I thank the Croydon Guardian for publicising the charity-giving, prize-giving process related to the competition for the best Christmas lights in Croydon, which was the very heart of Christmas light provision within the United Kingdom. Providing such publicity shows how newspapers can support their Members of Parliament and local communities.

This has not been a happy new year for my local press. The Ealing Times closed before Christmas. In early January, Trinity Mirror cut its editorial staff for London and the south-east from 96 to 80. For those papers covering my constituency, that means a cut of about a third. The situation is somewhat unusual in that Trinity Mirror owns both the remaining newspaper groups, the Gazette and Chronicle series. On 7 January, it told the UK Press Gazette that all the titles will have one centralised subbing and production hub and one centrally managed photographic team. It said that journalists will be given laptops, mobile phones and new software. It did not mention desks.

Effectively, one centre will cover areas including Surrey, Buckinghamshire, and north, south, east and west London. No semblance of a local newspaper or independence will remain after those cuts. That is very sad. Both the Fulham Chronicle and the Ealing Gazette have long histories going back over a century, and a loyal readership that has been sorely tried over the years. Despite their common ownership, they have remained fully independent and great rivals. The quality of journalism has never been better in the 25 years that I have been reading and contributing to them. There has been a combination of experienced editors and sub-editors, and enthusiastic journalists, such as Steve Still, Rebecca Kent and Michael Russell on the Gazette and Tom Shaw and Saffron Pineger on the Chronicle. I make no criticism of them at all. What is said about the pay levels for local journalists is absolutely right. Staff turnover is high because people cannot afford to live on the salaries that they are paid.

Although it is right to say that the recession and unfair competition are the reason for the decline of the local press, the seeds were sown some time ago. The fact that Trinity Mirror and other publishers put their shareholders before their journalists and readers means that when one picks up a local paper, it no longer is that. There are a couple of pages of local news, and then one suddenly finds oneself into the next borough or county in what is effectively syndicated and generalised news. For that reason, sales inevitably go down, and the decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one or two of my hon. Friends have said, investment is the answer to selling more papers and producing a better product. The successful newspapers that remain in London are the ones that contain genuinely local news that people wish to read.

I also want to draw attention to the growth of the yellow press or, as in this case, the yellow, blue and red press. Under the guise of producing information, all local authorities and parties publish what is effectively political propaganda to keep the ruling party in power. I am not talking about the traditional council publications—they are dire in the extreme—that contain information about the mayor’s engagements and are produced by one hard-pressed information officer. Probably the only thing on which I agree with Boris Johnson is getting rid of The Londoner. He did that because it was absolutely useless.

Touché. I recognise that. It has to be said that Boris Johnson did not need The Londoner because the Evening Standard is the house journal of the Conservative party and will print whatever he says in any event. However, I am not talking about such publications, but the much more sophisticated type of publication that replicates what local newspapers used to do and pretends to be a local newspaper that imparts impartial news. Several local authorities in London are now doing that, including Hammersmith and Fulham.

Why is that the wrong thing to do? First, it provides desperately unfair competition. Local authorities have huge resources with which to pay the hidden costs. They pay two or three times the amount to the journalist, and their terms and conditions are marvellous compared with those of the local press. All the costs of distribution, overheads and so forth are hidden. We are talking about hundreds, if not millions, of pounds of expenditure on promotional activity of such a kind. That is bad.

In an aggressive marketing campaign, Hammersmith and Fulham council can say, “Your local press sells 3,000 copies a week, we can deliver 80,000 copies free through your door, and we will give free personal ads and we will undercut any of the advertising rates.” Of course, that will lead to the demise of the local press. One may say that that is sad, but it is the way of the world.

I end on the point with which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) started: local democracy depends on a local press. If there is no scrutiny by local newspapers, as is the case in many parts of London, no one is keeping an eye on what is going on in the town hall, and that leads to abuse and corruption.

Last summer, the editor of the council newspaper wrote a very insulting article in the UK Press Gazette about the local newspapers, and he defended his paper by saying that it was not propaganda and that

“you won’t find many pictures of councillors in our paper.”

The UK Press Gazette correspondent counted 17 photographs of councillors in the last edition. A Labour councillor counted, in total, 150 photographs of Tory councillors before they found one of a Labour councillor. That is the sort of imbalance that we are talking about. That example may seem trivial, but we also see the promotion of unpopular council policies, attacks on anybody who is in an opposition role, whether it is the EU, another tier of Government or the Government themselves, and—this is perhaps the most insidious angle—no criticism whatsoever of the local council however unpopular its policies.

All of us who have been in local government know how mad people can feel when they have been criticised by the local press for making a mistake, but that is the price of public office. If the only source of local information in an area is a publication that only ever presents the local authority in a good light and suppresses anything that is counter to that, then that is a very serious attack on local democracy and one I ask the Government to consider.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the council newspaper to which he referred was started by the previous council, which was a Labour council, and despite the propaganda in that local paper, it failed to keep in office a woeful Labour council that had racked up the council tax?

The hon. Gentleman does not do himself any credit. Given his tone of voice, he could well get a job working for the local paper that my Conservative council produces. That is absolutely not the case. I do not want to be hypocritical about the matter. I have run a local authority, and local authorities produce publications. I am not saying that that is necessarily a bad idea, but it must be clear who is producing them and from where their information and views are coming. I am talking about a piece of subterfuge that prevents the public from knowing the truth in a locality. The hon. Gentleman would do well to follow the example of Boris Johnson rather than the insidious example that I have given. If that is the view of the Conservative Front Bench, that is to be regretted.

I am sorry that that intervention has caused me to take so much time. This is a serious problem, which is growing partly because of the recession, but principally because of the actions of some local authorities. At the moment they are mainly Conservative and Liberal Democrat, but I make the point against any local authority that wishes to subvert democracy in such a way.

Order. Three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, so I advise Members that we must start the winding-up speeches at five minutes past 12.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate. He was right to say that newspapers are the lifeblood of our local communities. They have an important role, because they provide a source of local news and advertising that is not replicated anywhere else, and include such things as court reports, reports of council meetings, and the achievements of local people, schools and groups. Also, as all hon. Members will know, they are an important medium by which to get our message across to our constituents, and also by which our constituents hold us to account.

Local newspapers are also important when it comes to holding Governments to account. I can speak from both sides of the fence, because as well as being in Opposition here and in the Scottish Parliament now, for eight years my party was in power in the Scottish Parliament, when local newspapers held us to account. It can be uncomfortable, but there is an important role for local newspapers in our democracy.

Local letters pages are an important source of local debate. As other hon. Members have said, importantly, local newspapers run campaigns on behalf of their local communities. They are often champions of local communities on a range of issues, which the internet and video media would never replicate. Local newspapers are embracing new technology, and nearly all have web pages these days, but running campaigns and providing information cannot be replicated by the internet.

Newspapers are socially inclusive. The price is still relatively low, and they are placed in local libraries, so people who perhaps do not have access computers can go to their local newspapers and read the paper for nothing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the people least likely to be able to access other forms of media or the internet, such as the elderly, are completely reliant on local newspapers?

My hon. Friend makes an important point: newspapers are very important for the elderly.

What can the Government do to help? They could do a lot by advertising—I am talking about public information, not propaganda. For example, they could advertise advice on where to apply for benefits such as pension credit, healthy living campaigns, notices of road closures, and consultations on planning applications and traffic management scheme proposals. Such things have got to be advertised in the local press. Simply putting planning applications, and traffic management and parking proposals, on the council’s website is not good enough.

In the recession, there will be pressures on the public sector to cut back in all areas, and it could be tempting to cut back on advertising. However, I would urge the Government—they could encourage the whole public sector to do likewise—not to cut back on advertising in the local press. That is an important means by which the public sector can get its message across and engage with local people, and it is important for the survival of local newspapers, which are heavily dependent on advertising. Clearly, the recession has meant that commercial advertising is decreasing, so public sector advertising is important.

I am delighted that the BBC Trust and Ofcom have come out against the BBC local video news proposals. They would have meant unfair competition, so I hope that we have seen the end of them.

My message to the Government and the whole public sector is this: promote the local press, ensure that it is protected from unfair competition, and use it for advertising and consultations. Local communities and our democracy need a free, independent and vibrant local press.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important and timely debate. Regional and local papers are facing exceptionally hard times. I intend to talk about York’s local paper, The Press, but it is clear from other hon. Members’ contributions that the problem affects local and regional papers the length and breadth of the country.

Last summer, The Press made 23 redundancies, including 4 journalists, which was a cut of more than 10 per cent. of the work force. Two years before that, nine journalists were made redundant. This month, The Press announced that it will no longer print in York and that, instead, it will print the paper some 40 miles away in Bradford. All the printers’ jobs at York will go, although I hope that some of them will be able to transfer to Bradford—that is currently under negotiation between the management and the trade unions. This month, the posts of editor and managing director were combined, in a new post of managing editor.

At one time, The Press had a Lobby correspondent here in Parliament. I am deeply envious of the situation in Shropshire where such a post has been maintained. I know, Mr. Cummings, that we are not supposed to pass comment on who is listening to our debate, but one only has to look at the Press Gallery to see how lean the regional media’s presence is at Parliament.

I do not want to cover ground that colleagues have covered, but the local and regional press face two enormous challenges: the economic downturn and the pressures of technological change. Twenty-seven years ago, when I ran a small, independent television production company that made programmes for Channel 4, or whoever would buy them, I introduced, for the first time in television, a telephone phone-in. I dread to think where that has led, and I am horrified to see rigged telephone polls and premium-rate calls being used to fleece viewers. Twenty-three years ago, when I was first selected as a Labour party candidate in York, The Press was printed by letter press by the hot metal process, but moved to offset litho and bought the new presses in its new works in Walmgate, which are sadly going to be scrapped, as I said.

Technology will not stop, and its advance cannot be wished away. I believe that we will still have printed newspapers in 20 years, but that there will be a rather different content. Electronic media by that time will be more user friendly and better for distributing news, but I believe that the Government need to support local printed newspapers through the transition. For instance, the state could, appropriately, invest in training.

I will not because we have limited time.

I have spoken to local journalists in York and the regional management of Newsquest. Of course, there is no appetite for public subsidy, but the company would welcome more Government and local government advertising, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland said. There are some legal requirements on public authorities to advertise things such as planning applications, road closures, other legal notices and so on, but I should like the Government, local authorities and public bodies such as health trusts to advertise more jobs in local papers. That could be made a statutory responsibility. If it was, regulation of charging regimes would be necessary, because many local papers have monopolies as paid-for printed papers in an area, but that could be resolved by negotiation between the Newspaper Society and the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said that local authorities, health trusts and other organisations that publish their own reports should use local papers to print supplements instead of producing parallel publications. Rather than issue our own parliamentary reports once a year, which are paid for by the communication allowance, MPs could do something similar.

There needs to be a public debate about the scope for public funding for independent, private sector media. As I said, I see no problem with greater public sector advertising or with support for training. Public ownership of independent local papers would, I think, be wholly unacceptable—Pravda and Izvestia did not live up to the English translations of their titles, “Truth” and “News”, so public ownership is out. However, a case can be made for some degree of cross-subsidisation. When I produced programmes for Channel 4 in the 1980s, hundreds of millions of pounds of Channel 4’s revenue came from a levy on the ITV companies, and the fact that the Broadcasting Act 1980 guaranteed most of Channel 4’s revenue—it was my most important customer—did not in any way undermine my editorial freedom, or that of Channel 4.

My programmes were pretty political. In 1983, shortly after the Live Aid concert, one programme made the case that famine in east Africa was not just bad luck or an act of God, but the result of climate change brought about by human behaviour. That is now a commonplace, but more than 20 years ago it was seen as a dangerous, left-wing idea. I made a programme about miners’ wives at Bentley colliery during the miners’ strike, documenting how they fought back by writing and publishing poetry.

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

The only time I faced direct censorship from Channel 4 was when a passage was removed from a light entertainment show. I had offered Channel 4 Ben Elton, French and Saunders, Rik Mayall and others at a knock-down price as they were performing a charity concert to raise funds for Nicaragua. I had added a small political insert explaining where Nicaragua was and why funds were being raised, and that was regarded as unsatisfactory, but on artistic rather than political grounds.

I would like the Government to investigate jointly with the Newspaper Society whether there are opportunities for cross-subsidising printed newspapers from e-media, perhaps by using some of the advertising revenue from the internet or putting a levy on broadband service providers.

York has had a local newspaper for 288 years. The York Mercury was founded in 1721. By 1725, we had two local newspapers. State advertising has a long history in local newspapers. In 1789, advertisements were placed in the York press for tenders to build solitary confinement cells at York castle, then used as a prison. We need to ensure that local newspapers have a long future, and I certainly want to be able to celebrate the tercentenary of the local press in York in 12 years’ time.

It is appropriate that you have taken the Chair just as I am about to speak, Mr. Williams. I add my congratulations to those already offered to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing the debate. I hope that this is the start of the campaign and certainly not the end. The job losses in the regional and local press over the past 20 years amount not to tens or hundreds, but probably thousands, and the loss of several of those newspapers will have had a detrimental effect on local communities.

I want to touch on three areas. First, to be local to a place one has to be located there. Any place more than 10 miles outside my constituency is foreign land, so the locality of local press is an important point. They provide a drop-in point. Old-age pensioners were mentioned. They like to drop in to talk and have that personal contact with the people in the office. Without that, the opportunity to drop in their messages will be lost. For groups that advertise in their local communities, such as schools and theatre groups putting on shows, losing that personal contact and the understanding of the press people who cover it, who know what the shows and the people are about, is an important loss.

Secondly, the most important thing that we are currently losing is the draw of politics. The point about how we are attacked in the press has been made, but that is democracy. Hon. Members have spoken many times in the House about the importance of encouraging people to be part of political debate. That is what the local press allows, but the national press does not see that and does not have that personal contact. The loss of the local press in a locality means the loss of that democratic process and, more importantly, of the involvement of the individual. The multi-nationals that have now taken over so many of our smaller newspaper groups are putting profit above everything else. We understand that profit has to be made, but they must understand that in the longer term they will lose all their profits because their papers will disappear.

Thirdly, within the next 12 months there will be more amalgamations of small newspapers, so that they will have one editor and two or three journalists. They cannot survive in that way. I urge the Government to listen to the ideas that have been suggested today, especially those from hon. Members who talked about the Government investing in local press and newspapers. Perhaps we as MPs should also learn to invest more of our time and effort in promoting local press. It is difficult sometimes, and I guess I have suffered as much as any at the hands of the press, certainly in the letters page, but that is something we have to put up with. If we put our heads above the parapet, we are there to be shot at. I therefore urge the Government to please do all that they can to support this important part of our media.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this extremely important debate. I preface my comments by declaring a vested interest: my daughter, Emma, is this week sitting her exam for the National Council for the Training of Journalists, so I hope we can do something to alleviate the problem that has been so well outlined.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that the economic downturn has caused this situation, but I disagree. The local press has been shrinking for some time. I will not rehearse the problems that have been more than adequately explained by other hon. Members, but I do want to mention the lack of journalists, because that is hugely important. I would like to sling in a word of praise for two regional newspapers in my area, The Express and Star and The Birmingham Mail, because they have fantastic editions that are very local and extremely well produced.

I would also like to look briefly at free newspapers. Several hon. Members have said how important those are as a source of information and advice for older people. In Solihull, we are blessed with three free papers, of which one tries to run three editions with one journalist and a part-timer. That is what the situation has been cut to there, and that is the Observer. We also have the Solihull News and the Solihull Times, but apart from a couple of journalists, their main area has now been moved to Fort Dunlop in the centre of Birmingham. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) stated how important it is that local journalists are on the patch, and that is a big concern.

Does the hon. Lady agree that sometimes those small one-man bands are real heroes in the community because they address and deal with vulnerable groups and make information available to them?

Indeed, they are heroes and heroines alike.

I want to focus on solutions. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland suggested that using the digital switchover spectrum licensing money as public subsidy might be an appropriate way to go forward. That would be a big step, because the press in this country has been unsubsidised for 200 years. However, when hon. Members look at the example of the BBC, I hope that most of them will agree that it has done a reasonably good job in maintaining balanced coverage. I do not feel, however, that simply throwing money from an amount for a one-off digital switchover will solve the problem. The market is fluid, so how would we decide which papers to subsidise?

I shall propose a couple of solutions. In response to the withdrawal of local newspapers, local people in some areas are actually doing it for themselves through community newsletters. I am referring not to a local authority’s party political rag, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter), but to those produced by the true, local people on the ground who do it for the love of it and because they want to keep their neighbours informed.

A year or so ago, when we were sold the BBC online video idea, which has now been withdrawn, we were told that local people would be able to send in video clips. We would all submit video press pieces, in a sort of “You’ve Been Framed”, although hopefully without so many faux pas. The proposal was withdrawn to enable the BBC to concentrate on its existing network services, but also because, in some cases, it would have killed the local commercial media.

To return to the subject of the web, newspapers, the BBC and all the news media are trying to swim in the same pool. It is an important pool, particularly for younger readers; it is where a lot of younger people get all their news, or a great deal of it. However, there is a shortage of local reporters, who are being lost at an alarming rate.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the current circumstances in which the local press finds itself are damaging to what used to be the traditional training ground for journalists—young people brought up in the local community who had immersed themselves in it and had a depth of knowledge? If we lose the local press—the Crewe Guardian in my constituency has lost its satellite office, and the Crewe Chronicle is having to make freezing measures—we will lose those young people and the ability to scrutinise the local community and local politicians who work there.

I could not agree more. I have a proposal for the Minister on which I would like his comments. Can the BBC not use existing local journalists in a joint venture website? There would be benefits to that. It would keep local journalism alive and kicking, it would be attractive to advertisers and more interesting, varied and local, and it would create a synergy beneficial to both.

How does the hon. Lady respond to the fear that such a website would put the same pressure on local printed newspapers as the now-defunct BBC proposal to sink £68 million into local website reporting?

I understand that the threat was to newspapers’ website operations rather than to the newspapers themselves. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there will always be a place for written rather than online newspapers in this country.

The Communications Act 2003, which might be a barrier to such co-operation, is due for review in 2009. Let us seize the opportunity to consider a partnership between the BBC and the local press to produce an online news service far greater than the sum of its individual parts.

I am grateful to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I shall be as brief as I can in order to allow the Minister to respond, but the brevity of my speech should not be taken as an indication that I underestimate the problems faced by our local press.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate. I hope that I will not wreck his career by saying that I regard him as a personal friend. He has one particular attribute that I would like to put on record: he is the only Member of the House to have read the seminal “History of British Steel”, written by the late John Vaizey, my father. For that reason, he will always have a special place in my heart.

I would also like to give some brief parliamentary time to my own local newspapers, as so many local newspapers have been praised. The Herald, the Oxford Mail and The Oxford Times are owned by Newsquest Media Group and provide a superb local service, led by their brilliant editor Simon O’Neill, the inscrutable Derek Holmes, editor of the Herald and one of the most brilliant young journalists working in newspapers today, Emily Allen.

Speaking of the history of local newspapers, last week was the retirement of Ian Townsend, our Wallingford reporter, who had reported in and around Wallingford, Thame and so on for the past 50 years. Two or three reporters like him—Mike Hambleton and Gordon Rogers spring to mind—have retired from my local newspaper in the past couple of years. It marks the passing of an era. I do not think that we will see again local journalists who spend 50 years with local newspapers reporting on a single area. That is perhaps a cause for regret, but time moves on.

Local newspapers are under enormous threat, but it is worth remembering what a sizeable chunk of the media they still constitute. There are some 1,300 local newspapers across the country; 40 million adults read a local newspaper at some point during the week; 40,000 people work for local newspapers; and local newspapers still generate about £3 billion in advertising revenue, although the figures are probably dropping sharply. I gather from the Newspaper Society that the figures look bad. Although the official report has not yet been published, I understand that there has been a 20 per cent. drop-off in advertising revenue in this quarter alone.

One can play chicken and egg deciding what has caused the problem. I agree with the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) that the problem has been brewing for many years—people’s reading habits are changing, and the internet is turning everything on its head—but as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland has pointed out, it is now a perfect storm. The problem of having to compete with changing technology has been exacerbated by the deep recession that we are entering.

Two or three things could help local media. As the hon. Member for Solihull has said, Ofcom is reviewing the ownership rules for local media, and I understand that the review is due this year. The review is urgent, and perhaps Ofcom should bring it forward. I am not sure when it plans to begin or publish the review, but the matter is urgent and the review should begin now. Dominant local newspapers are still prevented, for example, from owning local radio stations. When the Communications Act 2003 was drawn up, there was a balance to be struck on the domination of one media owner in a local area, but given the parlous state of local newspapers—and, with the growth of the internet, the huge range of different sources from which local people can get information—those rules now look out of date and need an urgent review.

Reference has been made to the BBC Trust’s interim decision to prevent the BBC from investing £68 million in local video. I understand that the trust will state whether that decision will be confirmed on 25 February. I call on the BBC Trust not to allow the BBC to bring back the local video proposals in another guise. My party campaigned against them, as did other parties, because we recognised that the BBC had the opportunity to invest public money without any commercial pressure into local video, which would have been an enormous threat to local newspapers seeking different ways to continue to grab readers’ attention and gain revenues.

A lot has been said about the need to use Government advertising to help local newspapers. In that sense, this debate is reminiscent of the debates that all of us have had in the House about the future of local post offices. Will the Government recognise that local newspapers, despite being owned by private companies, are an important community resource? Are Ministers prepared to work hard to ensure that as much legitimate Government advertising as possible goes into local press?

In that light, I would be interested to know the Minister’s views on the Killian Pretty review, which advised that local councils should no longer have an obligation to publish planning applications in the local newspaper. I can guess what his view might be, because the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families—the Deputy Prime Minister—has effectively said that he opposes that reform, so I assume that the Minister, whose career is on an upward trajectory, will agree.

I have the utmost respect for the view of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland that digital switchover money, of which there will be a surplus, should be used to support local newspapers. Plenty of media outlets will be looking for that money to support them—possibly Channel 4, possibly broadband. Indeed, we will know next week, when Lord Carter publishes his review, the Government’s view of that digital surplus.

Although local newspapers can be supported by reforms made in this House, their salvation ultimately lies in the hands of the newspaper groups and the local newspapers. There is an argument that, as with many industries, including the music industry, local newspapers have been slow to catch up with the implications of the internet. I am grateful that I do not have to run a local newspaper, because it is an extremely difficult job, but local newspapers must completely rethink their business model. They have relied on property advertising and car advertising, and even without a recession a lot of that advertising is going on to the internet, particularly national websites that allow people to type in their postcode and find a local car or house that they want to buy. So local newspapers must rethink their business model, but if they can do so, that would put them back at the heart of their communities, because the unique selling point that they have is a strong relationship with local people, local MPs—as we have seen in this debate—and local businesses. They can become an important community resource.

I recognise the danger of local councils putting out newspapers, but I counsel the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) that, if the Conservatives are re-elected in Hammersmith and Fulham, it will be because they have cut the council tax by 3 per cent. every single year while improving services. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

It is a pleasure, Mr. Williams, to serve under your chairmanship and that of Mr. Cummings.

I would like to begin by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate on a topic that affects many local communities right up and down the country. A thriving local press is important to the health of local communities and local democracy. Although I agree with my hon. Friend that we may not always be happy with the views of the local newspapers that serve our constituencies, I do not think that there is a single MP in this House who would deny that they have a key role.

We have had an extremely good debate with contributions from the hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) and for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen the hon. Members for Solihull (Lorely Burt) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). There were also a number of interventions.

Given the limited time, I do not intend to take any interventions, because I want to respond to the key points that have been made in the debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Wantage that the primary responsibility for local news organisations lies in their own hands and that they must respond to changing market circumstances. Four other key points were mentioned in the debate—competition, advertising, training and financial support—and I want to cover them in my brief contribution.

As has been touched on in the debate, we all recognise that we have seen at least two technological revolutions in the industry in the past 30 years or so. The first revolution was in printing, with the move away from compositing typesetting and hot metal, and the second revolution has been the creation of the internet and the world wide web. Both those revolutions have brought about massive changes to print news media at national, regional and local levels.

As other hon. Members have done, I want to plug my local and regional news media, namely the Express & Star and its sister newspapers the Dudley Chronicle, the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Evening Mail, and Newsgroup, which is part of Newsquest. Those newspapers are all strongly campaigning newspapers and all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate recognise the fundamental importance of campaigning local news media.

The challenges that the industry is facing obviously relate to the current economic circumstances and wider structural changes. On the short-term cyclical factors, the current downturn that the country is facing has resulted in advertising revenues for all media coming under severe pressure. Overall advertising expenditure is currently predicted to decline by 6 to 12 per cent., and newspaper advertising revenue is predicted to decline by 12 to 21 per cent. in the next 12 months. As more than half the income of regional presses derives from advertising income, that factor alone will create pressure on business models. At the same time, we have also seen the key raw materials of newsprint increasing in cost by 20 per cent. in the past year.

As has been indicated, we are also seeing some major structural changes. The hon. Member for Wantage mentioned some figures about the structure of the industry at the moment. I just want to point out that, although online readership of local newspaper websites is rising, the physical circulation of print is suffering year on year—it is declining by about 5.2 per cent. Furthermore, the share prices of two out of four of the major regional news groups have dropped by more than 95 per cent. in the past 12 months. Classified advertising revenue in the regional and local press is estimated to have fallen from £1.8 billion in 2007 to £1.4 billion in 2008. There are major challenges, and publishers are responding to them head-on. For example, the Guardian and Telegraph media groups have created new newsroom structures to facilitate the efficient gathering and distribution of news to a variety of media.

Turning to competition, although the market for news content has changed significantly, the need to ensure the plurality of our news content remains. However, achieving that goal presents major challenges, given the changes that are taking place. I am aware that where titles have become unsustainable, publishers have considered it impossible for existing media groups to sell titles to each other, even though they might find synergies, because there are takeover or competition implications. I believe that the impact of competition law in this sector is worthy of further consideration. As hon. Members will be aware, there is a review planned by Ofcom, which is scheduled to take place during 2009.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland also mentioned the potential role of advertising. As he is aware, the advertising of health, education and other jobs, as well as statutory notices issued by public sector bodies, has moved substantially to websites that are owned or operated by or on behalf of the relevant public services. Those public services are seeking to achieve the best value for taxpayers and also to reach a wide cross-section of the community. Those are laudable objectives, but that development has clearly had an impact on traditional print media. The Government will obviously reflect on the contribution that my hon. Friend has made during this debate. However, there is a real difficulty given the nature of the technological change that we are seeing in society today. Of course, newspapers are now facing the costs associated with transforming their businesses from a single format paper product to take advantage of those new challenges of communication.

I also want to refer to the comments that my hon. Friend made about training. The issue of training the work force is important. Last year, publishing joined the sector skills councils network and is now part of Skillset. Skillset, with input from the publishing sector, is currently examining the skills required for the sector to take full advantage of the opportunities and challenges offered by digital technologies. My hon. Friend will be aware of the Train to Gain programme and the flexibilities that have been granted by the Government in its operation particularly to help companies during difficult economic times, including local news organisations.

The final issue that I want to mention is financial support. My hon. Friend raised this issue, as did other hon. Members, and it is a complex one, given the requirement that freedom of editorial control must not be threatened by state intervention. I want to reassure him that such support is being considered within the Digital Britain initiative, which Lord Carter of Barnes is taking forward. My hon. Friend will also be aware of the announcements that were made yesterday about additional support for the banks to ensure that they maintain lending, and of the support that was announced last Wednesday, through the enterprise finance guarantee and the working capital scheme. Those schemes are available respectively to companies with an annual turnover of up to £25 million and up to £500 million. They are applicable right across industrial sectors and therefore would include local news organisations. So there is support out there and there will continue to be support.