Media affairs minister Ed Vaizey has confirmed that a consultation on cutting business rates for local newspapers announced in this week’s Budget will begin after the General Election.
Chancellor George Osborne announced on Wednesday that he was considering a business rate cut for the local press to help the industry adapt to the digital age.
Mr Vaizey gave further details when replying to a Commons debate on the state of the industry yesterday and hinted the consultation could be widened to cover other issues.
Responding to a debate lanched by Labour MP John McDonnell, the minister also said reports of the death of local newspapers had been “greatly exaggerated.”
Mr Vaizey said the consultation paper on business rates would be published after the election, adding: “It could form part of a more wide ranging discussion about the future of newspapers.”
Explaining the rationale for looking at business rates, he said: “Local newspapers by definition have large buildings with large numbers of staff whereas local websites have less physical overheads. If there is a way we can help to reduce costs, looking at business rates is one obvious way of doing it.”
Earlier Mr McDonnell, secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, said the industry had been hit by a “shocking roll call of cuts on a steep and worrying scale”.
He also suggested linking the pay of newspaper groups’ chief executives not only to performance, but also to that of journalists within their companies.
Pauline Latham, Tory MP for Mid Derbyshire, told the debate she wanted to see the end of advertisements on regional newspaper websites.
She said: “People won’t pay for local newspapers but they will go online, but you get adverts everywhere. I’d like to see the end of adverts and (instead) people subscribing.”
Sir Bob Russell, who had a career in the regional press and served as editor of the Maldon and Burnham Standard before entering politics, said more should be done to find out why readers were no longer buying paid-for titles or even reading freesheets delviered to their homes.
Sir Bob, Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, added: “Something has got to be done because we have a disconnected community. Those who read their local newspaper are clearly much better informed than their neighbour who doesn’t.”
John Whittingdale, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, reiterated recommendations made in a report on the future of the BBC last month – which called on the corporation to outsource a quota of its local news provision to independent providers.
He said: “It would be a way in which the BBC, which is extremel well financed, rather than damaging newspapers, could be part of the solution.”
With the election now less than seven weeks away, a large number of MPs used the debate to shower praise on their local newspapers.
Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda, said caustically: “This debate should have been subtitled ‘how to get your name in your local newspaper.’