Letter to Govt. pt6: “How to fund quality local journalism”

The following is the last part of a series of responses to the government inquiry into the future of local and regional media. We will be submitting the whole – along with blog comments – to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. This post, by Alex Lockwood, looks at:

“How to fund quality local journalism”

The bottom has fallen out of the traditional publishing business model–and with it goes the hefty dividends expected by shareholders (e.g. £48.4m in 2008 for the Trinity Mirror Group). The future of local quality journalism can only remain with the current crop of regional newspaper publishers if they radically change their expectations, and innovate.

That might not happen. If it doesn’t, they will die off, and the future of quality local journalism will take a huge – but not definitive – blow. Then the future lies with new initiatives and the local communities themselves – passionate and entrepreneurial people, only some of whom will be journalists. What about local council initiatives to publish newspapers and local information? That’s not the way to go – covered in Part 3.

But how to fund it? Here are eight suggestions for the future of local journalism funding:

1. Save the big regional publishers through a public subsidy? The culture secretary, Andy Burnham, has already ruled that out: no state subsidies for beleaguered local newspapers. In some ways, that is good. Let’s not shore up businesses that have met requirements of shareholders over those of the local community, and which have – with a few notable exceptions – failed to innovate.

2. But… as Andy Price argued on this blog yesterday, “The regional press is the only institution with enough professional journalists to really cover civic Britain successfully.” So where public money is available, e.g. through the Digital Britain programme, efficiencies in government funding are necessary. As the authors of After the Crunch, published last week, write, “The DCMS, BERR, DCSF, Treasury, DIUS between them, spend a lot of money in the name of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’, but much of their effort is frustrated by the lack of a coherent approach.” If quality local journalism is a public service, then what portion of the public service budget could go to newspapers? And only on the basis that they reform their structures (as suggested by @Geoffrey Gevalt).

3. That could be knitted together with a second point made in After the Crunch: that “the small-scale nature of creative industry enterprises connects more easily, and more productively with smaller-scale government.” The government could streamline legislation and funding frameworks for supporting media organisations at local levels without the baggage of outdated business models. They can work with Business Link and entrepreneurship schemes to offer many more bursaries and small business grants to new ventures that establish in their business plans a commitment to produce quality local journalism covering local democracy issues. These will most probably be started by two groups of people: those local journalists who have been made redundant, and who are deeply passionate about local democracy and community; and new entrepreneurs who can see the potential in investing in a portfolio of local media products using new, free technologies and mash ups.

4. Where regional publishers can prove they are adapting to the new media environment, individual papers or sub-regional groups (similar to what Peter Preston called for in the Observer last Sunday) could be cut out of the dying corpse of their parent company, and given subsidies to see them through the migration to a new business model.

5. Reduce costs through ditching daily print routines. Newspapers become professional news magazines published once a week but constantly updated online by continuing to grow community engagement and news as a conversation, and by investing in non-traditional ways to access information, e.g. these maps empowering social change (h/t @JoshHalliday).

6. Media organisations, both new and traditional, turn to community-owned, community-sourced local journalism.  Two-hundred years ago it was pampheteering. In 1932, it was nine interested individuals fed up with newspaper oligarchs who raised £40,000 and set up their own local paper, the Bristol Evening Post. Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding have always been a part of the future of media. As argued for by former Northern Echo editor Peter Sands this morning on the Radio 4 Today programme.

7. Take a leaf out of new magazine membership models, as developed by numerous brands but articulated here via Alyce Alston: sell bundles of information.

8. Fund training programmes for current (recently redundant?) journalists in new technologies and entrepreneurship. This gives the next generation of media entrepreneurs preparedness for the need to adapt to rapid media change – and that means more money into projects such as Infuze at the University of Central Lancashire (h/t Laura Oliver)

What the typical local media organisation might look like?
So how about this? The future of quality local journalism is published immediately online and weekly in print, probably in magazine format.

  • A small group of editors, journalists and community managers work with a network of contributors to develop feeds in a number of formats, e.g. news stories linked to local maps, for geographical and issue-based hyper-localities: all of this online, using APIs to mash together maps, local government records, planning information etc.
  • A printed version provides a format for the weekend read and brings in advertising—similar to the ways the best Teesside hyper-local content gets published in weekly papers.
  • The media organisation supports investigative reporting through entertainment, sport and feature copy that attracts advertising and sponsorship.
  • The magazine is distributed freely around the local region.
  • This local brand was set up with a government grant, including ongoing training in technology and entrepreneurship.
  • The magazine is owned by the community through a crowd-funded structure (ten thousand people each pay £20 as a yearly debenture – not a subscription) and that community then have a vote on the governance and issues covered by the magazine… Want journalists to prioritise investigations into local planning decisions? Then pay for it.

Think of it as a combination of The Age of Stupid meets Spot.Us.

What other ideas are there?

6 thoughts on “Letter to Govt. pt6: “How to fund quality local journalism”

  1. silver

    I quote: “This gives the next generation of media entrepreneurs preparedness for the need …..”

    “Preparedness???????” How can that be an example of quality journalism??

    Reply
  2. James Rudd

    Well I have been doing it on my own for just over two years – sell the adverts (read that again), make the contacts, engage et al. and there it is. Also see twitter.com/towcesternews

    This is not a big deal, content, content, content, first. Traffic, traffic, then wander around selling the critical advertisers.

    Reply
  3. Ed Walker

    I like this bit: “The government could streamline legislation and funding frameworks for supporting media organisations at local levels without the baggage of outdated business models. They can work with Business Link and entrepreneurship schemes to offer many more bursaries and small business grants to new ventures that establish in their business plans a commitment to produce quality local journalism covering local democracy issues.”

    I’m going to see Business Link soon actually, in the hope that I can secure some business advice and funding.

    Reply
  4. alexlockwood

    @James – thanks, and the About my Area initiatives should have a broader awareness than perhaps they do in regards to alternatives to the regional publishing orgs. Do you have any figures on subscribers, RSS figures, etc, and the key indicator – impact – on local lives?

    @Ed good luck with Business Link, and stay in touch regarding the outcome.

    Reply
  5. James Rudd

    I send out a weekly newsletter to about 1300 local people and businesses, the site gets about 5-6000 visitors a week and drives a feed to Twitter.com/towcesternews. In terms of impact, its the only real source of news and what’s on etc, actively supports the town in a positive way, engages at all levels, business, council and community. The two newspapers, one free, one paid for carry very little Towcester info. I manage to keep up on a part time basis.

    Reply

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