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Axed columnist laments ‘slow decline’ of local newspapers

NicolaChesterA nature writer who has just lost her weekly newspaper column due to cost-cutting has lamented the “slow decline” of local newspapers in a piece on the BBC website.

Nicola Chester, left, had written her ‘Nature Notes’ column for her hometown paper the Newbury Weekly News for the past 21 years.

However the fortnightly column has now come to an end after she was told the paper could no longer afford to pay her.

Writing on the BBC’s Countryfile website, Nicola said local newspapers were a “vital forum for country voices” and described their decline as “an unquantifiable loss.”

Wrote Nicola: “Though our 156-year-old print newspaper, Newbury Weekly News, and town market remain, both have shrunk. Like so many others, our multi-award-winning local paper’s print readership (and with it, advertising revenue) is fading fast.

“I’ve been writing its Nature Notes column for the past two decades: weekly for 13 years, then fortnightly for the past eight. I shared the popular and much-loved Country Matters page with respected farmer Andrew Davis.

“After 884 pieces (and only one week off when I had one of my three children) I have written my last: with genuine regret, the editor informed us the paper could no longer pay.

“Local newspapers, particularly rural ones, are a vital service to the community as well as a mirror, and their slow decline is an unquantifiable loss.

“Online news, peppered with shifting clickbait and distracting adverts, comes minus the letters pages, interviews, reviews, arts, columns and in-depth sports reports sent in from rain-soaked touchlines.

“With fewer journalists, and around 90pc of regional newspapers now owned by a handful of publishers, local news can become homogenised by press releases, spin and brevity; local names are spelt wrong, local history mistold or disregarded and feeling is misrepresented or overlooked.

“There is still a huge demand for high-quality local journalism and digital news is evolving. But the paper is still the place I go to check what is most immediate and proximate to me. It’s where democracy starts, and otherwise silent country voices are heard.

“And though I shan’t see myself in that mirror directly anymore, I’ve had the most magnificent run.”

Responding to Nicola’s piece, Newbury Weekly News editor Andy Murrill said: “The NWN is widely considered to be one of the best weekly newspapers in the UK.

“In 2019, the NWN won the Society of Editor’s Regional Press Awards Best paid for weekly newspaper category. It was highly commended the year after that and shortlisted in 2021.

“In last year’s newsawards, the NWN was also shortlisted for UK weekly newspaper of the year and our magazine Out&About was shortlisted for best regional magazine.

“Nicola Chester wrote her much-loved Nature Notes column for the Newbury Weekly News for many years and remains a good friend of the paper.

“However, in line with all publishers, we of course need to manage our cost-base and that means some of the content we have traditionally paid for in print needed to be reviewed.

“In common with every local paper our circulation has decreased due to the impact of the internet but, in industry terms, it remains very healthy in terms of scale and modest annual decline. Indeed, our print and online audience is of significant scale.

“In terms of pagination, it is less than 20 years ago as certain advertising platforms have moved to digital, but it has has remained constant over the past few years, notably throughout lockdown.

“When Nicola mentions clickbait, I think it is most unlikely that she’s referring to the NWN’s website Newburytoday – as we simply do not do clickbait.

“Indeed, as we have a paywall strategy in place for Newburytoday, we are committed to providing the same high-quality content online as we have traditionally done in print, as we are asking people to pay for it.

“I’m pleased that Nicola acknowledges the importance of our letters pages – at least four each week – which set the local political agenda.

“And she appreciates how the NWN ‘represented us all, with quiet strength and dignity, against the insensitivity of the national press’ at the time of the Hungerford tragedy in 1987.

“She says: ‘The paper is still the place I go to check what is most immediate and proximate to me; not only what affects us most, but how we can affect it. It’s where democracy starts, and otherwise silent country voices are heard.’

“We are very proud of the NWN and the important role we play in the lives of people in West Berkshire.”