Three of the leading local newspaper publishers in the North are seeking a meeting with Finance Minister Conor Murphy to press for additional rates support for community media.

In a letter to the Minister, the three, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of, Neil Evans of Spectator Newspapers in Newtownards and Dominic McClements of Northwest News Group in Omagh say local media is a bulwark against the  disinformation and fake news of social media giants Facebook and Twitter. 

And they appeal to the Minister to remove the rates burden from newspaper publishers. Rates on most local businesses were lifted due to Covid in March 2020 but that relief is set to end on 1 April 2022.

In their letter, the publishers say the closure last week of the Banbridge Chronicle, which had been serving the Co Down town since 1870, shows the parlous state of community publications.

They write: "The closure last week of the Banbridge Chronicle highlights the pressures on community newspapers caused by the monopoly practices of the internet giants as well as the fallout from the decline in many grassroots businesses caused by the Covid pandemic. 

"As you are aware, last year, as stewards of the community newspaper sector, we met with you to point out the grave consequences of a further decline in local news media at the expense of internet platforms which promote extremism, fuel racism and peddle fake news.  As whistleblower Frances Haugen stated in testimony to the US Congress last week: 'Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy'.

"There is no doubt but that newspapers embedded in the community are the best defence against disinformation, fake news, racial hatred, and Covid myths. Indeed, we are proud of the fact that, unlike Facebook and Twitter which have spread anti-vaccine disinformation undermining the Executive’s health messaging, our newspapers have shored up the community during the pandemic and acted as a bulwark against dangerous anti-vaxxer propaganda."

And the publishers says that "multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media use and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts".

They add: "Forbes reported on one study that showed Facebook use 'was linked to both less moment-to-moment happiness and less life satisfaction — the more people used Facebook in a day, the more these two variables dropped off'. Thankfully, last year, you were able, with colleagues, to introduce a package of support measures for local newspapers. This was greatly appreciated not just by our hardworking teams but by all those who depend on local newspapers as a trusted news source and as a linchpin of community infrastructure.

"We are writing to you now to ask for your support to have community newspaper offices zero-rated from 1 April 2022. The relief from rates afforded newspapers since 2020 has been a lifeline for local publications. However, to revert to 100 per cent rates would be a severe blow to our efforts to reconfigure and rebuild our vital news services for this new era." 

The three publishers conclude: "We note, of course, that the social media giants pay no rates here."