Three-D Issue 31: What should the Cairncross Review propose we do about local news?

November was a sobering month for anyone still clinging to the hope that the UK’s local news titles would successfully steer their way through this age of digital disruption. In November Johnston Press, the owner of one in five local news ‘brands’ in the UK (as it calls them), went into administration. Its titles, of which there are more than two hundred – including proud old newspapers like The Scotsmanthe Yorkshire Post and the Sheffield Star – will not close, or not close yet. They have been ‘repackaged’ and sold on to a hedge fund. Few would argue, however, that their future, or the future of the journalists who work at them, is safe.

Watching the decline of the UK’s local news industry over the last decade has been like watching a holed boat slowly sinking below the waterline. It has been increasingly obvious, since the financial crisis of 2008, that the old business model of local news is irreparably broken. Display and classified ads, which still made up over 70% of local news’ income in 2010, have migrated online and sell for a fraction of the price. In the midst of this, the UK’s biggest local news corporations have tried desperately to maintain profitability, by investing in their digital operations while at the same time drastically cutting staff (including many, many journalists).

This is not to say that there are not lots of encouraging things happening in local news. New hyperlocal news services have sprung up from Bristol to Edinburgh, and from Brixton to Llanelli. Journalists at existing titles are doing award-winning investigations, and experimenting with new forms of data journalism. Bureau Local, an initiative of the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has developed a local investigations network with over 600 members. And a BBC scheme to subsidise 150 local democracy journalists has meant some local councils rightly feeling uncomfortable again, after years of being virtually unreported.

Yet, despite the bright sparks, it is now absolutely clear that, if things continue as they are, there will be large parts of the country where there is little, if any, regular local reporting. Areas where local authorities can go months, if not years, without having a journalist reporting from the council chamber. And where there will not be an established local news outlet regularly representing the collective voices of those in the community. We can see this already in parts of south Wales, in Northamptonshire, in the area around Blackpool, and in parts of London. If even a quarter of Johnston Press’ news titles fold then the number of news blackspots will multiply.

The Cairncross Review on the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the UK was set up months before the collapse of Johnston Press, but its findings and recommendations have become all the more important since.

What should Cairncross recommend?

Cairncross needs to be bold if her review is to have any lasting effect. Given the scale of the changes in our whole information environment, Cairncross needs to sketch out how we can navigate our way to a radically new local information ecosystem that is fit for a 21st century digitized world. Four actions could help us towards such a new ecosystem:

  • lowering the cost of doing journalism;
  • making it easier to source different types of funding for journalism;
  • stimulating experimentation;
  • and directing benefits and privileges to news outlets and tools that serve the public interest.

What do these actions mean in practice?

To be sustainable, local news and other types of public interest reporting will have to be produced at much lower cost than they have been in the past. In a world of information abundance, where we all have publishing tools at our fingertips, it is unrealistic to think that local reporting will ever command the sorts of commercial returns it did in the late twentieth century. Government and local authorities can help to make journalism easier and information less expensive to gather. They can, for example, increase the provision of open data, make it easier to access and re-use this data, and support the development of civic technology that enables people – whether professional journalists or not – to make sense of it.

Given that the old local news funding model is broken, and no single new model has emerged to replace it, we need to allow for a local news ecosystem in which lots of different models of journalism can flourish. This includes for-profit, non-profit, community interest or charitable; professional, semi-professional or amateur; single person operations, small networked teams, or medium and large companies. To allow for such variety will require action. Journalism organisations, for example, cannot currently establish themselves as charities, and therefore cannot benefit from charitable grants and donations. This ought to change.

Whatever the future of local news, one size will not fit all. Nor should it – local news ought to be local. But if we are to have an organic, mixed and sustainable local ecosystem, then we will need lots of local innovation and experimentation. We are not going to get this – or not to the extent needed – without financial stimulus. One way this could be done would be by creating a contestable fund – a little like Channel 4, but for news and civic tech (for more see a proposal I wrote back in 2014).

Finally, the Cairncross review should recommend that the current benefits and privileges enjoyed by only certain news outlets should be directed at any news outlets that serve the public interest. This would mean extending and redistributing existing financial subsidies for news, such as zero-rated VAT, statutory notices and funding for the local television scheme, to whichever news services produce public interest news and information.

Dame Cairncross’ job is not easy. She has to come up with a radical plan in a fast-changing environment that has entrenched players and lots of political agendas. Her plan has to acknowledge where we are now, while at the same time preparing us for an information environment that is being transformed. And she has to convince the government to act, while almost all its attention remains focused on Brexit. Still, if the collapse of Johnston Press does not convince it of the need to take action, then it’s hard to see what will.

Posted by Einar Thorsen