Are churches soon to lose a friend in the media?


Are British Christians in danger of losing their best friends in the media?

One of the many casualties of the coronavirus shutdown has been the country's local and regional newspapers.

As businesses have closed or cut back, they have withdrawn advertising in local titles. Sales have dropped as people in lockdown can't venture out to get a newspaper.

In response, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has called on people to buy a paper to help local, regional and national publications survive the coronavirus shutdown. Speaking at a Downing Street briefing, he said much of the fight against Covid-19 "is being co-ordinated in our own communities."

Mr Jenrick explained: "A free country needs a free press and the national, the regional and the local newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure."

The Economist magazine agreed: "The crisis will only accelerate long-standing trends. Ad revenues have been falling for years and print readers have long been moving online or dying of old age."

This is bad news for the nation's churches. They are often vibrant grassroots community organizations and, through their congregations, perform vital roles in their areas.

The thousands of local papers and their associated websites and social media feeds have often been the best ways for local churches to promote their services, activities and events to the community around.

The coverage churches receive from their local or regional media is far more comprehensive than national reporting. This tends to focus mainly on high-profile rows and initiatives – and these largely within the Church of England.

Other denominations and the UK's thriving independent churches seldom win national newspaper coverage.

Local titles have often given the best coverage to grassroots church projects and been open to publishing regular Christian comment columns.

But now the outlook looks increasingly bleak. Even before the lockdown, local titles were facing major challenges with much advertising revenue going to Facebook, Google and other digital platforms. People are increasingly consuming their news free online, with often the originators of the news receiving little or no payment.

In a recent online 'Think-in', run by Tortoise News, media experts were downbeat about the prospects for local news. One described the short-term future as "brutal." Another called it "a disaster zone."

The Reuters Institute told the event that if UK newspapers lose 30 per cent of their advertising revenues, that will cost around £500 million in a year. Many people will lose jobs and many news organisations will close – and already this is happening.

Ironically, readerships of local and regional websites are at record levels during the shutdown. But because companies often ban their ads from appearing next to news stories about coronavirus, the media companies fail to make money from the increased web traffic.

Research shows that people value local news. Objective, professional reporting cannot be replaced by community Facebook or WhatsApp groups. The local and regional media play a vital role in holding elected officials to account, and keeping people informed of decisions being taken in their name. They highlight the work of numerous local charities, from food banks to debt counselling services, and publicise their fundraising. They promote voluntary groups that bring people together.

The newspapers are looking at a range of ways of boosting revenue, particularly from their online presence, and are encouraging readers to make donations via their websites. Several schemes have been launched to support local news. But the titles will need to be innovative and gain support from local communities and organisations if they are to survive.

As local and regional media teeter on the brink of extinction, Christians can play their part by paying for their news – online or in print – promoting support for the local media in their church networks and supplying them with news and information.

Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, and a former Director of Communications with the CofE.