The Northern Ireland Executive has been urged to take action to support local and regional media amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The lockdown has brought challenging conditions for newspapers and other types of media in terms of circulation and advertising revenue.
Some titles have furloughed staff while a number of weekly newspapers including the County Down Spectator and Newry Reporter have temporarily halted publication.
We are facing a crisis in our local media which threatens not just the people who own papers, but the resilience of the local communities they serveSDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole has warned there is a “high risk that this crisis will wipe out a significant chunk of our local news media”.
The South Belfast representative has proposed an action plan for preserving regional, local and community media.
This includes a rates holiday for local titles as well as a commitment from the Northern Ireland Executive to expand its advertising buying across media.
It also includes a call to facilitate more daily newspaper deliveries for vulnerable groups as well as helping local media plan for the future by expanding their online presence and recruiting new journalists.
Mr O’Toole has also proposed a new two-year £1 million annual Northern Ireland Journalism Fund to train and locally employ young local democracy journalists for the first two years of their careers.
He is asking for grants for local papers to invest in new digital products and digitally upskill their staff, as well as lobbying Westminster and the Irish governments to institute a digital information levy on companies like Google and Facebook to be redirected towards funding local and community journalism.
“We are facing a crisis in our local media which threatens not just the people who own papers, but the resilience of the local communities they serve,” Mr O’Toole said.
“Local and regional papers are not just sources of information – though that is vital – they are the meeting point of people and places. They bind communities together, mitigate against isolation and provide something close to an essential service.
“For that reason, it is unthinkable that the Northern Ireland Executive would let local papers go to the wall. I’m calling on the Executive to take real action to protect these community assets into the future and to ensure Northern Ireland trains the professional journalists it needs to allow citizens to hold their leaders to account.
“I’ve been a civil servant, a politician and a journalist at different points in my career – I know that the first two can only work if there are trained journalists to hold them to account and viable local news titles to serve communities.”