Canterbury Christ Church University
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, there was recognition at policy level that local news provision in the UK was under pressure. Most recently the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications and Digital launched an inquiry into the Future of Journalism, which the LCM Network responded to on behalf of our more than 60 members.
At a time when the significance of robust information is paramount, the pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the provision of local and community news in the UK,. This is because of the dramatic fall in advertising revenues for the both the legacy local newspaper industry and also for the hundreds of independent news producers across the country. Around 500 local newspaper titles have put staff – including editorial workers – on furlough,. Others have also cut wages and suspended printed publications. In July the NUJ described furlough as a “waiting room for redundancy”, as both Reach and Newsquest announced that staff cuts would now follow. At the same time the BBC has announced 450 job losses – the loss of one in six posts – among its regional TV, radio and online output.
There have been some signs of intervention in this troubled landscape; the NUJ published its recovery plan, From Health Crisis to Good News, in April and the newly-formed Public Interest News Foundation1 awarded grants of up to £3,000 to independent news producers in June. Larger schemes were already in place from Google2, Facebook and the European Journalism Project3. And during the pandemic, Government advertising was aimed at legacy print newspapers to bolster revenues.
However, these interventions throw into sharp relief, how the understanding of the value of local and community media in the UK is fragmented and impoverished. The UK is behind other countries, particularly the US, in terms of the levels of philanthropic and research funding into the value, purpose and sustainability of local journalism, which makes a coherent response to the current crisis all the more difficult.
There has been a renewed focus on the value of local news in the UK in the wake of the Brexit debate, and now the Covid-19 crisis, and associated concerns over misinformation. Local news consumption remains relatively high in the UK, at least on aggregate levels. While the readership of printed local newspapers has declined, local news consumption online has expanded significantly. Local news brands reach 40 million people weekly, 28 million of whom read local media via print or online at least four times a week (Local Media Works 2016). Some 48 per cent of British adults access local news via social media platforms (Ofcom 2018). Evidence suggests local journalism, and local news in particular, has a significant role to play because it is more trusted, builds community cohesion and reduces polarisation, particularly among marginalised groups (Bell, 2019; Stearns, 2018). The largest provider of this information is still the local newspaper industry, although its future is widely understood to be threatened by its struggle to adapt to the challenge digital technology has made to the established advertising-led business model. Even before the events of the past few months it seemed certain that the market could no longer support the type and range of local journalism which a healthy democratic society needs (Pickard 2020). Anxiety about the impact of this on communities has already contributed to the Cairncross Review and tax-payer funded interventions, including business rate relief and the Local Democracy Reporting Service4.
But ideas about the nature and purpose of local news are still very much circumscribed by those legacy news providers; this has shaped interventions, such as the BBC-funded Local Democracy reporters project and the Facebook-funded Community Journalists scheme, launched in 20185 – both of which put staff into the legacy newsrooms of this industry. Beyond these assumptions though, we have little comprehensive evidence about the nature and impact of changes in local news provision. There remains a gap in understandings of what constitutes local journalism practice in the UK and the geographic areas where it does – and does not – happen. In addition to industry databases, such as Jicreg, Local Media Works and Ofcom, there have been some attempts to catalogue and scope local journalism and local news provision in particular (for instance the ICNN’s hyperlocal map6). These studies face basic challenges posed by the lack of comprehensive data sets to work with, definitional issues in relation to the extent to which named platforms may actually engage with a locality in a material sense and the ephemeral nature of emerging platforms and publications which may be short-lived because of the precarity of the business model. A promising attempt to literally map provision an be found in a pilot project7 developed by LCM Network deputy chair, Agnes Gulyas,which uses the ArcGIS mapping programme and UK postcode districts to understand which localities are best served by local news provision and which are effectively local news deserts. We need to be able to identify these gaps to understand the varied impacts of the crises on different local communities.
Any research in this area also needs to be able to take account of platforms and ownership of local media in order to understand the relationships between purpose, profit and sustainability (Matthews 2017). There is a lack of consensus about the purpose of local journalism, and, as a corollary, its value. Previous foci of this debate have been the contribution local journalism makes to local democracies and a sense of community; the current crisis has, however, highlighted the importance of local news as public service, such as in public health communications. This suggests the need for robust debate about the public service role of local news; which itself requires recognition for the increasing number of alternative providers who are moving into the local journalism landscape, to understand their contribution and to fully recognise that contribution in policy decisions. As policy contemplates moving into the area of supporting public interest news, what is in the public interest needs to be clearly evidenced and understood in order to assure the value of interventions.
This development of local journalism as a public good, supported by sustainable revenue streams is exemplified by research by David Baines into the approaches taken by several successful independent community-based publications in the Scottish Borders and North East England. The research indicates that diversion from the established corporate approach to a community-centred approach develops reconceptualisations and renegotiations of both professional practice and professional identity. It is also evident that the depletion of local news ecologies by the decline of long-established corporately-owned newspapers has opened up opportunities for those willing to focus on the interests and wellbeing of their communities. One of Baines’ case study is the monthly print and online publication The Jed Eye which was established in 2010 in Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, as a community initiative supported with a National Lottery grant. It is distributed for free, has a saturation circulation in Jedburgh, and is widely read in surrounding communities and by expatriates from the area around the world. It is profitable and, before the Covid-19 crisis, has developed sustainable and resilient revenue streams from advertising, contributions from readers through collecting boxes at distribution points and online subscriptions for the digital version. Two permanent members of staff receive a small stipend but the paper is primarily a product of voluntary endeavour.
Passing control of the narrative to the community / audience in this way represents a reversal of established ideological constructions of journalism work in which part of the concept of professionalism is held to be the ability to identify what is and is not significant and deliver to the audience (Nibloc, 2005). In this instance, the paper is facilitating the community’s ability to hold a conversation with itself, rather than assuming to tell it what it ought to know. The Jed Eye sustains a sense of community belonging, in part by sharing information, but also by enabling the community members to engage in those ‘processes of community’ by writing for it, taking photographs, attending the weekly café conference, doing the accounts, distributing the printed copies to distribution points. In so doing they are creating and sustaining a sense of belonging to that community and that locality. This approach has shaped the Jed Eye’s coverage of the pandemic. The news agenda has concentrated on supplying vital information to the community and the activities of local resilience groups and support services and it returned to print distribution on July 3.
Another example is the Hartlepool Life, which was established by former local newspaper employees and local business people as a free weekly newspaper to focus on positive news about a community hard-hit by industrial decline and deprivation. This purposeful attention to supporting a sense of community cohesion challenges established journalism practice and demonstrates that a business model based on local advertising, high visibility and a strong and demonstrable identification with its community and audience is still capable of sustaining a profitable local printed newspaper. Print publication has again been suspended due to the pandemic. But before this it was achieving a weekly circulation of 18,000 and employing 25 people on a mix of full-time, part time and freelance contracts. One of the directors said that after a problematic start, Hartlepool Life had delivered proof of concept as a sustainable franchise model for local news. And through its production, distribution and consumption, its editorial and advertising operations, it was generating multiple layers of community interactions across social, cultural and economic trajectories.
The Government’s response to the Cairncross Report has already recognised the need for more research into the impact of local news provision on communities (DCMS2020: para 53); methodologically, this can be challenging because of the diffuse way in which community benefit is understood so that research often relies on proxies for democratic involvement, such as the participation in local elections. An alternative approach is to understand how journalism contributes to active involvement in a community, drawing on the work of Studdert and Walkerdine (2016). Community is here understood to be an active process made up of social interaction and shared meaning – and as such become something which can be quantified by working with people in a given community. This offers a way of assessing the extent to which local journalism is – or isn’t – significant to communities and so has the potential to feed into policy decisions and into the ways in which local journalism can be understood as a public good. In this way the future for journalism can move beyond the status quo towards something which is of value and valued, and therefore, sustainable.
Bell, E (2019) ‘We can’t fight fake news without saving local journalism’. The Guardian. December 15, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/dec/15/we-cant-fight-fake-news-without-saving-local-journalism. Accessed January 21, 2020.
DCMS (2020) Government response to the Cairncross Review: a sustainable future for journalism. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-cairncross-review-a-sustainable-future-for-journalism/government-response-to-the-cairncross-review-a-sustainable-future-for-journalism. Accessed February 12, 2020.
Matthews, R (2017). ‘The ideological challenge for the regional press; reappraising the community value of local newspapers’, The Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies. Vol 6, No 1, pp37-56.
Matthews, R (2017b) The History of the Provincial Press in England. Bloomsbury Academic. New York.
Niblock, S. (2005) Practice and theory: what is news? In Print journalism (pp. 89-98). Routledge.
Ofcom (2018) News Consumption in the UK: 2018, Jigsaw Research.
Pickard, V (2020) ‘Journalism’s Market Failure is a Crisis for Democracy’. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/03/journalisms-market-failure-is-a-crisis-for-democracy. Accessed March 18, 2020.
Sterns, J (2018) ‘How we know journalism is good for democracy’, Local News Lab. https://localnewslab.org/2018/06/20/how-we-know-journalism-is-good-for-democracy/. Accessed March 18, 2020.
Studdert, D and Walkerdine, V (2016) Re-thinking Community Research, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.