The risk of killing local journalism with misplaced kindness

Last week, I sat before the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism.

While there were many views presented, it was clear everyone in attendance cared deeply about local journalism.

As a representative of one of the big publishers – and the employer of the largest number of local news journalists in the UK – it was always likely that I was going to have a tough time. But local journalism is in a tough place, so tough questions are understandably in order.

However, on reflection, I can’t help but think we spend too much time within our industry trying to answer the wrong question about local news. By focusing on the money question – how do we fund local news – we are spending too much time looking at the effect, rather than the cause. 

The question we should be asking is: How do we get more people interested in local news? And if we want a bonus question: How do we get more people interested in local news, more often?

Where the money question takes us

Because we focus on the money question, we end up in the wrong debates. A common consensus goes as follows:

  • Local journalism suffers because large corporations put profit ahead of everything else
  • This leads to journalists focusing on stories which will be read by lots of people (characterised as clickbait) over public interest journalism
  • A new generation of small, community-based news sites run by people with pure motives are just waiting to fill the void if only they got a little bit of help to get going.

There are plenty of vocal supporters of this approach, such as the Media Reform Coalition, which was represented at the committee alongside me. Its core belief is that journalism would be better served away from big companies. 

Sadly, like a lot of organisations which dip in and out of local news, it relies heavily on the swathes of academic research about the industry which, too often in my experience, don’t pass a basic journalistic sniff test of being tested fully before publication. (A colleague ex of academia said this can be because of the pressure on academics to get their work quoted regularly into the future.) 

Much of this research has been put on display to the DCMS committee (I’ll cover this in a later post). The irony of local journalism being called out for not doing enough public interest journalism for the good of the community by academics who pollute discourse about local journalism with often sub-par research is an irony we shouldn’t lose sight of.

But is the utopia being presented really that, well, utopian? Evidence and history would suggest not.


If you look at recent history, you see that independent publications have struggled to survive significant changes to our industry. Publishers who historically found favour with local journalism’s champions – I’m thinking CN Media in Cumbria, for example, or latterly Archant – have not been able to make a lower-margin business model work as digital news consumption rose and traditional classified verticals continue to migrate from print. The stable of titles Iliffe Media has rescued in recent years, is further proof of that.

So why should we expect much smaller, newer publishers, to fare any better, even if they work in loose co-operatives? This is not to demean the work done by such publishers (a point often lost on critics of established local journalism, who often forget, or don’t care, that behind every article they put up for criticism is a journalist who may well wish to take pride from their work). But too much seems to hang on the notion of ‘well, we’ll tell people how important our work is, and that will work.’ It’s a view which pops up right across our industry, in organisations of all sizes.

Do the sums add up?

The sorts of numbers being presented for a viable alternative to established local media should worry us all, too. The Public Interest News Foundation recently said the median income of an independent news outlet is between £30k and £40k. Average profit is £3k. These are not numbers on which public interest journalism can be protected. A £3k profit will soon be gobbled up in legal fees when responding to  the first litigious complaint about a story. Public interest journalism can’t function effectively in that way.

PINF argues to have a vibrant public interest news sector, covering each of the 374 local authorities in the UK, would require revenues of around £200m a year. That works out at revenue of £534,000 on average, assuming each local authority area had its own title. Once a very small profit margin is put to one side (as prudence to cover unexpected costs), and operating costs are factored into account, realistically very small teams remain.

And if you further assume that bigger cities will see a larger share of the revenue – as PINF argues that reader revenue models are there to be developed to underpin this model – you quickly have a very similar challenge to the one all existing publishers face: How do you make local journalism work in sparsely-populated areas, or relevant enough locally in densely-populated ones? 

The model PINF outlines may well work for boutique local journalism operations, which define their own terms of local journalism, be that features, or investigations, or community activism (all to be cherished and valued), but it doesn’t seem a route to ensuring that the always on, reliable source of local information now news service which is required in the 21st century, is available to all.

I don’t like it. It’s therefore clickbait

Too often, we fall into the trap of wanting to celebrate the journalism we love, while at the same time dismissing (and sadly, demeaning) the journalism we don’t have as much time for. That’s the crux of the clickbait argument being played out before the DCMS committee. Clickbait is now a catch all term for ‘stuff I don’t like’. 

If it’s clickbait which misleads the reader into clicking, in the long-term, the publisher doing it suffers because they don’t build loyalty and readers become wary when they see a brand in search or social. It’s a deterrent built into the behaviour of savvy news consumers. If the story does what it says on the tin, criticism more often than not is rooted in snobbery. Ian Carter articulates this far better than I can.

The worst you can say about a lot of the local journalism which gets sneered at is that it’s helping to fund the journalism which struggles to stand on its own two feet, financially, in a free-to-air world. From what I see, it has also helped reconnect millions of people with local news providers. Generally speaking, the brands I work with reach at least half of their local populations every month – many of them achieving the same percentage every week, Our challenge is to engage the other half.

A look at the real-time data dashboard (in other words, evidence) shows readers in those local areas reading a mix of local, and non-local news. In the same way they always did with the paper.

Public interest news has always needed a popular companion

We need to deal with the elephant in the room, which now dances more loudly, and with ever more impatience: It’s arguable that public interest news has never been able to pay its own way through reader revenue. It’s always had to rely on being aligned with something people will pay for – be that bumper classified sections, local football coverage, the crossword puzzle or the TV listings.

There’s a reason why newsdesks know the greatest number of complaints come from readers about incorrect crossword clues. There’s a reason why the paper bags i lugged around a Chorley suburb as a teenager were twice as thick on a Thursday than any other day of the week – it was jobs night in the Lancashire Evening Post, rather than public interest news day in Chorley.

There remains precious little evidence that anything other than the smallest of local news operations will be funded by direct reader revenues. Digital news migration has merely exposed that news is best funded when part of a package. Asking people to pay will only ever appeal to a relatively small number of people who see local news as a public service. 

That’s great as far as it goes, but it also creates a news elitism, a preaching to the choir who in turn sing in harmony back. Meanwhile, outside the relatively empty church normal life goes on. Local journalism needs to be part of that local life, not just for those who can afford it or who believe in paying for it, but for everyone who might need it, at any moment, on any day. That’s the model we need to keep on building. 

To survive, journalism needs to be relevant to readers. In that regard, it’s no different to any other business – anyone arguing otherwise risks killing the industry they love with kindness. A dangerous place to be, and a place we really should know better than to find ourselves in.

Ignorance isn’t bliss: Journalism needs the numbers to stack up — and journalists are best placed to do that

Are petrol prices news? Readers think so – even when the price isn’t going through the roof

By David Higgerson, Chief Audience Officer, Reach PLC

Local journalism has undergone massive change during the last two decades — the move to online, the dominance of third-party platforms, the rapidly changing revenue sources — but there are some constants which remain.

We have always needed local people to value the journalism we produce. And we’ve always needed a business model to underpin our work.

The difference in 2022 to, say, 2002, is that the two necessities above are now more entwined than ever. Whether your business model is free to air, or a subscription service which asks readers to pay, every act of journalism is much more closely linked to the sustainability of that journalism than ever before.

For journalists, this can be empowering — but also not without risk.

At any given moment, a journalist knows how widely-read their work is, and how it is being received generally. This is undoubtedly a double-edged sword, but if you believe, as I do, that the future of local news depends on understanding your audience, then we have to adapt to the online world as it really is.

The biggest threat to local journalism is irrelevance. Warren Buffet’s famous quote is worth remembering here: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

The tide went out on local journalism during the 2000s. As the verticals — motors, property, recruitment, classifieds — moved online, so did the revenue which underpinned journalism locally. Declining circulation trends made it very clear, at the same time, that many readers no longer felt they needed to buy local news in the way they once did.

That was brutal for local journalists — but it also exposed a growing separation between what newsrooms felt readers needed, and what readers felt they wanted. In hindsight, the model of old risked disconnecting newsrooms from their readers. At its worst, if we didn’t like what readers had to say, we could ignore them.

Fast forward two decades, and local news in the UK reaches more people than ever before. Latest Iris data shows local news produced by commercial publishers is read by 75% of the population every month. More than 1bn pages of local news were consumed in January — the highest number recorded to date.

Much of that growth has been built thanks to having open conversations with journalists about what does and doesn’t work online. All publishers have to decide for themselves where they choose to lead readers and where they are led by readers, but for local news to thrive, we need to start with an honest view of what people find interesting.

Then, when we identify subjects which we believe should appeal to readers but for whatever reason, aren’t connecting, it’s our job to find ways to turn this around (not our job to berate readers about what they ‘should’ find interesting).

And it works. Council and local political journalism is often described as ‘dry.’ It is also important — so important in fact, we need to find a way to make it reach as many people as possible. Across the company I work for, journalists — we call them agenda editors or agenda writers — use data to find ways to get their stories to as many people as possible.

The same is true of court journalism. A 500-word write-up used to be what readers got, now many spend up to 30 minutes a day following a live blog of a big trial, because court reporters are informed by data about how people want to read what is happening.

Ibelieve putting the onus on us to attract readers to important public-interest journalism is a far healthier, and far more sustainable, approach to local news than the counterpoint which often sounds like ‘local news has a divine right to be here, and readers should know they should jolly well be paying for it.’

Which brings up the issue of numbers in newsrooms, a hot topic again recently after Reach launched a new trial geared to putting journalists and their expertise at the core of our strategy. It’s called ‘Accelerating Performance Development’ and is based on detailed, ongoing analysis, of how different subjects resonate with readers in different parts of the country.

From that, editors can share with journalists what would be expected from their role and subject matter. It ensures a conversation about what can be done to ensure journalism reaches more people takes place in an open, constructive way.

We’ve taken this approach because there are so many variables in journalism. Platforms can turn cold against a title. One news event can suddenly command all reader attention. An unexpected press release can inexplicably go viral. But there are always things within our control: How to present a story, how to promote it, how to develop it. All of these require conversations.

The reality is that local journalists have always had a numerical judgement against their work. Newsrooms were judged on their newspaper sale, or the profitability of their title. Newsrooms had their own targets too, derived to try and help newspaper sales. Story counts, front pages per reporter, letters to the editor are all numerical judgements I’ve seen used with the best of intentions but all were, at best, abstract. And I’ve seen in my own career what a lack of clarity around these measurements can lead to — confusion, passive aggression, the breakdown of team spirit.

The only difference now is that some organisations are choosing to directly involve everyone in the newsroom in the discussions around the numbers — and numbers which aren’t abstract, but an immediate reflection of whether we’ve successfully managed to engage readers.

If your business model is built on subscriptions, you have data which tells you what works and what doesn’t. If it’s a paywall, you know the articles which drive conversions and which paying customers return to.

Those who argue against this data being central to discussions in newsrooms are presumably arguing that ignorance is bliss. It might make you feel good in the short-term, it might make life a bit easier for now, but it only stores up problems for the future. Those with a long-term interest in the viability of local news want to avoid that at all costs.

A friend once told me of a time in local newspapers where management joked that if they were short of the revenue target for the month, they told the classifieds team to open the windows a bit more to let more money in. Those are portrayed as halcyon days — and maybe they were. But those times came to an end, and when the tide went out, we weren’t exactly fully clothed. And that was a surprise to many journalists.

Surely it is only logical for journalism businesses to involve journalists in constructing a growing future for their work. That some commentators lurch to catastrophising about clickbait, rather than understanding the detail, suggests an unwillingness on their part to fight for a sustainable future for local journalism — and a patronising view of the apparent inability of local journalists and editors to distinguish between the right way to support local journalism, and hitting a ‘target’ for the sake of it.

I firmly believe local news can and must be a successful business. Not a charity, not a luxury for some or a cultural accessory for those who can afford it. We want people everywhere to actually want it. We must ensure that they want to visit us in their precious free time — that we can give them the information they need and the stories they want.

While I believe every media outlet should be held accountable for mistakes and committed to improving their content, I also see a worrying trend in criticisms of what is often called clickbait but may simply be “content I think I’m too good for.”

Critics turn their noses up at what people want — be that an article on where to get discounts, TV news, fun articles celebrating local identity (all staples of local newspapers in print, lest we forget) — and want them to want something that is, in their minds, better. And something that, actually, never existed in isolation anyway.

A more thoughtful, empathetic observer would wonder, why exactly is this one of our most popular articles in this area? Could it be that readers in Oxdown — actual living human beings, flock to the content because this is essential information for them? Should helping them with this information be something to sneer at?

Having worked in newsrooms at a time when we had little visibility on the business side of journalism, and in the business now where the page view tracker is omnipresent and the ability to use journalism to sustain and grow journalism, I know which one I’d rather work in.

Why low election turnouts are bad news for local journalism – and what could be done about it

In the early hours of Friday morning, Roseanna Wain was elected to Salford Council. Local Democracy Reporter Joseph Timan was there to see the result announced. But it’s the turnout figure which grabbed the headlines.

Just 10% of people eligible to vote in the Blackfriars and Trinity ward bothered to do so. 788 people. You may shrug and say ‘so what’ – after all, only a quarter of people in Salford found their way to the polls for the spring’s mayoral elections in Greater Manchester, meaning three-quarters felt having their say on a role which could potentially influence billions of pounds of public sector spending wasn’t worth their time.

It should worry us, both as journalists and, obviously as citizens. The citizen argument is relatively simple – the fewer people vote, the less accountable politicians become, the more likely it is rogue elected officials will begin trying to make public life work around their persona l priorities. Indeed, you could argue that’s exactly what happened in Westminster last week when the Conservatives led a botched attempt to rewrite parliamentary standard rules to suit their own world view. Thankfully, it failed – largely because the media ensured we all knew about it.

But it should also bother us as journalists. If just one in ten people can be bothered to cast a vote in local elections, can we really claim, as journalists, to have a mandate to hold the elected politician to account?

Who is going to march on Downing Street when the Freedom of Information Act is squashed? Who will sing protest songs on College Green when rights to report on meetings are rescinded? Who will fill the editor’s postbag with letters of support when a council decides to put pretty much every important council decision ‘below the line.’

The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme – funded by the BBC and operated on a franchise model by publishers large and small – has 150+ journalists working across the country, providing a level of scrutiny many councils haven’t enjoyed for years. I say enjoy, rather than endured, because I remain convinced the vast majority of councillors believe they should be held to account and see us, as journalists, as an essential part of public life.

There are a few, though, who through their actions, clearly don’t. And the LDR scheme spotlight shines brightly on them too.

The Salford turnout might be headline-grabbingly low, but it’s only an extreme of an ongoing trend. Local elections have become muted affairs, often focusing on a few key wards in each council area as parties, short of volunteers and active members, have to manage their resources accordingly. Too often, they become a proxy for life in Westminster – a trend both politicians and the media could stop tomorrow.

It’s entirely possible to live in a ‘safe’ council ward and go through an entire election period without seeing a politician, and maybe only seeing those ‘insert name of place’ election leaflets which essentially the same in Redcar and Ramsbottom.

That’s ultimately bad for journalism. If you can’t be bothered to vote, are you really that fussed about what’s going on at the Town Hall? Isn’t it just easier to ‘blame the council’ as though it were some thing you have no influence over, ever, rather like the rain this morning or yet another Mrs Brown’s Boys repeat?

Digital journalism shines an intense spotlight on the popularity of local news. Harnessed well, that spotlight can be a powerful tool to support public interest journalism, and across the country, political journalists who set out to find ways for their work to reach the widest audience, and to have an impact, find success.

But to a certain extent, local journalism and local councillors find themselves aligned in a fight to save honest local public life. An empty echo chamber, with reporters talking to the one in ten and councillors realising the same, can only lead to bad things. It needs more than just reporting, it needs a rethink of the electoral system, one spearheaded by the politicians who believe public service should be scrutinised.

No, I’m not talking about compulsory voting. Mandating people to vote would only serve to create resentment. For local democracy, and local accountability to work, people need to opt in. To opt in, they need to be informed. To be informed, they need a system which makes information easy to find.

Here’s how I’d do it.

  1. At local election time, anyone who can garner more than 100 supporters, all elected voters in their ward, can stand. Those supporters cannot also be standing, or be serving politicians.
  2. The Government creates a Local Democracy Election fund, and every person who stands receives £500 to promote their message in their local ward. They can do so how they choose, but legally.
  3. Each candidate signs a Respectable Campaigning Contract, enforceable by law by the council, which requires them to respect the laws of libel and defamation, and also commits them to campaign in a way which does not break any law.
  4. Each candidate is required to produced to provide a 10-point election manifesto of what they would do for their ward if they won. Each point must be relevant to what can be changed or administered by the authority they are standing for.
  5. The Local Election Fund would also cover the publication of each candidate’s manifesto in local publications which can point to a meaningful local audience in the relevant area, and have a strong track record of covering councils. Local Returning Officers would administer this, and be accountable for ensuring the coverage reached the widest possible audience in print, and online. The funding available should reflect local population size, and the need to reach as many people as possible.
  6. Publishers engaging in publishing the manifestos would have to demonstrate how they would attract the largest voting audience possible. Involvement in the Manifesto publication should have no bearing on regular election coverage.

This could, in theory, cost millions – but what price a healthy public discourse? It’s just an idea, thought up after reading the Salford story, and there are probably better ideas out there. But we need something to turn the tide.

At the moment, the vast majority of councillors are in office with the right intentions. I’ve covered councils where the BNP has managed to sweep in. Thankfully, they were soon found out, but low turnout and low levels of civic engagement made it easy for them to win temporary friends and find themselves in public office.

Next time, it might not be so easy to save public life from the extremes. A 10% turnout shouldn’t prompt a sad shake of the head – it should prompt calls for action.

What local elections tell us about the future of local journalism

Like many journalists no longer reporting, election night brings with it a pang of envy. The long hours waiting for something to happen, the many tells of what might be about to happen (counting voting stacks, judging body language, noting who has suddenly left the room) and the snacks. If you’re lucky, the council provides them. If you’re not, well, thank goodness for 24-hour petrol stations.

This year’s local elections were dubbed ‘Super Thursday’ due to the volume of elections which took place. Last year’s – cancelled due to Covid – were rolled over a year so we had perhaps more elections on one day than ever before.

And there’s been plenty of drama. The quotes have been amazing. The interpretation less so. No local election should be an assessment of Keir Starmer’s performance as Labour leader (a byelection, on the other hand…), nor should the Tories taking Nuneaton be a mandate for Boris Johnson’s policy agenda (that would be the 2019 general election, of course).

That too often, the Westminster bubble annexes local elections to support particular narratives, or local politicians who’ve failed to win favour hide behind ‘the national picture’ is a huge worry – and perhaps explains why fewer than 40% of adults in Greater Manchester bothered voting at all. And Greater Manchester is far from alone in this regard.

The audience data I’m seeing suggests that interest in local government is growing – year after year, more people see the stories about who is standing, who has won, and what they’re promising. Is this because more people are actively seeking it out or because they’re stumbling across it while reading other stuff? It probably doesn’t matter – that it’s being read is surely a good sign.

What election night reminded us of is the importance of the industrial nature of local journalism.

We often debate whether journalism is a profession or a trade. Wags throw in “calling” too. Truth is, it’s all three/four. Most importantly, however, it’s an industry that is at its most powerful when it has an industrial strength.

Within that industry there should be all sorts of ownership models – non-profits, memberships, small businesses, large businesses. Any organisation that is committed to the future of journalism should surely be welcome.

What election night demonstrates is the importance of an industrialised journalism, one which succeeds if its journalism is read, and appreciated, by readers. A journalism which seeks out people, rather than waiting for readers to seek out the journalism.

The real-time Tweets from thousands of local journalists, on the ground and in the room, and paid to be able to provide both fact and instant context, is made possible by an industrialised journalism. Election night is both a niche pursuit – how many ‘normal’ readers stay up any more? – and a demonstration of the power of local journalism’s ability to inform at scale.

Too often, the debates around the future of journalism dismiss the role of large, profit-seeking companies. “Their model is broken,” you’ll hear critics cry. Yet their journalism is being read by more people than ever before, and it’s these organisations investing the most in journalism at the moment. Newsquest’s £1.5m last week (50 jobs), or the c.150 digital local news jobs Reach (the company I work for) has created since December.

In the case of Reach, Chartbeat has been remarkable to watch this weekend. Alongside the established brands such as WalesOnline, the Liverpool Echo, ChronicleLive and the MEN, huge numbers of readers have been getting local election coverage in counties like Yorkshire, Hampshire and Northamptonshire. That’s important civic journalism reaching more people than ever before.

These are newsrooms which are always on, which have strength in depth, and can get important stories in front of readers who might not be looking for them. Newsrooms which write for anyone and everyone, and which are relentlessly reader-led.

Scale matters in more ways than one. Larger companies, especially under the umbrella of organisations such as the News Media Association, can make a louder noise about the support the industry needs. Against the huge tech companies that have become the gatekeepers of reader attention, they can make a stronger impression. In the face of councils who’d rather do without the hassle of public notices being seen, they can make a noise. Against councils and the press offices who constantly try to control public debate about civic issues, they have the ability to by noisy.

Politicians, local and national, are happy to attack the credibility of journalism and journalists when they don’t like what they’re reading. Maybe the politicians of Bristol who subjected the local democracy reporter Adam Postans to childish and petty ridicule in the council chamber didn’t expect a full-throttle response from his title, Bristol Live and the Bristol Post, in response. That’s what they got – and it’s proof that scale of organisation can be empowering for journalism too.

Thursday night’s local elections were further proof of that. The audience is reading – how do we get them voting?

Let’s hear it for the trends writers – local journalism’s hidden heroes

Every newsroom has stars – the reporters, or editors, whose work is publicly known, whose byline stands out when it leads the website or the front (or back) page of the paper.

Every newsroom also has heroes – the people whose contribution is every bit as important but whose work often goes uncelebrated.

It was ever thus – only, as local news has migrated online, a new type of unsung hero has emerged. The nature of digital publishing is that every article carries a byline, and as a result, previously unheralded hero roles are now firmly in the public spotlight.

The role of trends writer – sometimes known as SEO writer too – is one which divides opinion. Journalism being what it is, we’re an industry not short of opinion, but too often, I see the work of trends writers being used to criticise a newsroom’s digital strategy, or, sadly, as a negative reference point to help celebrate other, different forms of journalism.

But without the trends writer, local journalism would be in a very different place today. This isn’t a scale and page view argument, this is a local relevance argument. Asking yourself “what are local people interested in today” and then working to fulfill that need is the key to being relevant.

Trends writers have the same goal as any local, digital, news journalist: To write stories which will engage with readers. The advantage they have is that their brief is more flexible: Find stories which appeal to local readers away from the things already being covered by other journalists.

They have to play by the same rules as any other journalist – everything they write has to be accurate, and they carry the same accountability for their work as any other journalist.

In old money, their role can be similar to that of a news editor tasked with managing the news wires and changing content between editions. Having done that roles, it would not be uncommon to handle 50 or 60 stories a shift. The difference between then and now is that the trends writer will likely see their byline on the digital story – and quite right too. Readers need to know who to go to if they have a problem with a story.

It’s also at the same time similar to the old community editor role many newsrooms had, one of those backbone-of-the-newsroom jobs which rarely got plaudits at journalism awards, but which probably had a greater sense of what really mattered to readers than any other role. Again, such roles would handle dozens of pieces of content a day – stuff that people really appreciated.

Their content may not be overtly local, but (in my experience) it is written to appeal to local people. The nature of the internet is that stories can be read anywhere – Jeff Bezos describes it as the ‘gift of the web’ for journalism – but no local newsroom builds its future on reaching readers outside of its area. The challenge for local news titles is to be relevant to local lives, not just a news source which (lets not forget) readers spent two decades turning away from before local journalism really embraced online news.

I’m regularly told such roles, and such stories, exist solely to drive page views. “It’s not the fault of the writer,” I’m told. “They just have to do it.” The blame-the-company-not-the-person criticism is intentionally misleading. It also ignores the fact that local journalism is an industry where jobs are constantly being advertised. Indeed, at Reach, where I work, so far more than 50 local news jobs have been created this year. Newsquest is regularly advertising on too.

As with the community news editor, or the wires editor role, the trends writer helps generate an interest in a brand which helps underwrite other forms of journalism in the newsroom. Previously, that was through providing reasons to buy the paper. Online, it’s about attracting attention. And as MEN political editor Jennifer Williams pointed out on The Media Show recently, all journalism works best when it’s read by as many people as possible.

But the stories written by trends writers also help discovery of content readers aren’t looking for. I’ll regularly have a story Tweeted at me saying ‘why are you writing this, it’s not local’ (because local newspapers only ever did local news, it seems) or ‘I thought you said you didn’t do clickbait’ (we don’t – but when we err, we correct).

Invariably, when I then track the story in question, it turns out that thousands of the people who read it subsequently went on to read something which would be seen as ‘true local news’ – because once you convert a reader from a ‘searching state’ to a ‘reading state’ you’ve a much better chance of saying ‘while you’re here, have you read.’ Quality trending content affords local news that opportunity.

We also shouldn’t lose sight of how trends writers help shape journalism generally. The best heroes, the ones whose bylines make the powerful quake, are the ones who constantly try and work out how to get their work to a bigger audience. Frequently, they’ll build on the ideas of trends writers, formatting stories differently as as result, and building bigger audiences for the stories readers need to read, as well as the ones they want to read.

It’s all about balance. Too much of anything isn’t a good thing – and the same applies here too.

Trends journalism isn’t a means to end – it’s a role which has helped empower local newsrooms to become more relevant. Ultimately, the reader, not our industry, decides what is valuable, and what is quality and what is relevant to them. Interest in the work of trends writers in news and sport across the country’s local newsroom speaks volumes in that regard.

Platform, publisher, publican: What if we treat Facebook as a pub landlord?

Within the fuss of Facebook’s heavy-handed temporary ban on fact-checked news in Australia last week, the company also answered the question it has constantly sought to ignore: Is it a platform or a publisher?

When pressed, the organisation always argued it was platform. It provided a space for people to share stuff, but it wasn’t responsible for what was shared. But when you pro-actively stop people sharing stuff because they are professional information sharers, then surely you’re a publisher – or at the very least, a very, very proactive editor!

Semantics aside, perhaps the best way to view to Facebook’s actions in Oz – and the results of their actions – in the last week as if they were a publican – after all, don’t all social media analogies rely on a pub at some point?

The job of a publican is earn an income by attracting people to his or her venue, and finding ways to keep them there. To that end, Facebook’s actions are entirely in keeping with a pub landlord’s personal interests.

But what of the landlord’s community responsibilities? It’s for this reason that pubs and restaurants are subject to licensing and council laws in the UK. The publican needs to ensure he or she is operating a safe space, and one which doesn’t result in damage to the community. That involves the publican setting out to create a safe space, and attracting a clientele which help create the safe space, plus ensuring they behave.

Worryingly, what we saw last week was that, when push came to shove, Facebook was happy to be the publican which didn’t pay attention to creating a safe space. Leaving this ever-so-slightly tortured metaphor alone for now (although not as tortured as the one from Nick Clegg which follows), Facebook at a stroke created a space which was fundamentally dangerous for local life throughout Australia.

It locked out journalists from sharing their work. It locked out fact-checking, creating a world where any old rumour could take hold. It took the gamble that its users wouldn’t notice, and that its revenues would therefore be unaffected.

Data from Chartbeat says audiences in Australia to news dipped as a result. Would that have returned over time? Maybe – but Facebook’s strength to society is its ability to get trusted news in front of people when they aren’t necessarily looking for it. And Facebook benefits too.

Yet, Facebook showed it was happy to facilitate a low-information community despite the well-known dangers of such an approach. In the last few days, led by former former deputy prime minister of the UK, Nick Clegg, it has sought to blame publishers for this state of affairs.

Clegg wrote:

The assertions — repeated widely in recent days — that Facebook steals or takes original journalism for its own benefit always were and remain false. We neither take nor ask for the content for which we were being asked to pay a potentially exorbitant price. In fact, news links are a small part of the experience most users have on Facebook. Fewer than one post in every 25 in your News Feed will contain a link to a news story, and many users say they would like to see even less news and political content.

(I’ve kept the link in because if you read the actual research, it doesn’t mention news at all, it talks about political content. Once a politician….)

Clegg is basically pushing the ‘big society’ model he and Tory PM David Cameron promoted in the early 2010s: Only it’s not Government relying on volunteers to pick up the services it wouldn’t fund anymore, it’s journalism somehow voluntarily expected to make the Facebook Newsfeed a reliable source of information, when, to be frank, Facebook can afford to fund much, much more.

Then it got a bit weird:

“It’s like forcing car makers to fund radio stations because people might listen to them in the car — and letting the stations set the price. It is ironic that some of the biggest publishers that have long advocated for free markets and voluntary commercial undertakings now appear to be in favor [favour] of state-sponsored price setting. The events in Australia show the danger of camouflaging a bid for cash subsidies behind distortions about how the internet works.”

If Facebook is the car maker, it’s one which also found a way to hoover up shed loads of the revenue regulated radio stations relied on to keep going, by installing its own methods of getting advertising to you in the car. Sounds crackers doesn’t it?

Ultimately, it’s the job of a car maker to keep those driving it as safe as possible – and that is what Facebook should be worrying about, too. The fact Facebook chose to ban fact-based information from its platform (the safety), at almost no notice, is similar to a carmaker installing its own speakers and running constant noise at your ears while you are driving.

Only, of course, that would be annoying. What Facebook does so well is create experiences people enjoy. Thinking about it from a safety point of view, would Facebook-the-car-company decide those pesky brakes companies were realising their worth to the auto industry, and therefore a brake-free world was the way to go?

Back to the publican again. The difference between a publican and Facebook is there are laws in place to ensure publicans aren’t causing a greater harm.

The fact Facebook gives the impression that journalists are somehow uninvited on Facebook to share news, and are only allowed there because Facebook says so is a sobering moment to reflect upon.

Real news, properly-researched, makes Facebook a better, safer, place. Facebook commands a huge amount of online time every month – and like a pub (sorry!) it has to take a responsibility for the influence that time spent on Facebook has in other aspects of life too.

Too often, I draw on my experiences of reporting on the rise of the BNP in East Lancashire in this blog. But they thrived because they targeted low-information communities. They did it through leaflets and door-knocking in pre-social media age. And it was effective, for a while – until scales dropped from eyes and many, including alarmingly some BNP councillors, realised that the propaganda they flogged didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Without the free flow of journalism on Facebook, the platform risks becoming the largest low-information community in the world – and potentially a very real risk to civic society.

That’s why the logical response to events in Australia in the last week is to obligate platforms which allow people to congregate to support journalism for the good of society. To ensure that journalism is support to improve the knowledge held by users of that platform.

Mark Zuckerberg has often talked of Facebook as a town square, with a desire to create more ‘front rooms’ for people to congregate in too. Fine and laudable – but as the landlord, the responsibilities go way beyond just letting people in they want, or evicting them when they ask for a proper compensation for the difference they make.

Journalism has benefitted in many ways from Facebook. It has forced us to look at ourselves and understand the disconnect between what we believe is important and what our readers instantly find important. It has, on many fronts, been a force for good – more voices, more sources, more chances to connect with people. And many, many people at Facebook care about journalism. I know that.

But that, at the very top, it fails to recognise that the benefit journalism brings to Facebook goes beyond the transactional click for the publisher is very worrying – and should alarm law-makers around the globe.

Local journalism’s vaccine challenge

The short version: When racist comments flooded threads underneath Black Lives Matter protests stories on Facebook, some newsrooms felt they had no choice but to stop posting those stories on social media. With 1 in 4 of the population said to be unsure about the Covid-19 vaccine, newsrooms are taking a different approach – using facts to dispel fear, and allowing people the space to express their concerns. We’re here to inform the public, not police public debate.

Over the summer, I heard from an editor I work with who had some grim news: Their newsroom had taken the decision not to post stories about Black Lives Matter protests in their area, on Facebook.

The reason? The volume of racist, abusive (and frequently both) comments being posted under stories about people showing solidarity for a movement which gained worldwide momentum in a matter of weeks. It was clear many weren’t even reading the articles before venting. How do you rationalise with people for whom racism is something they are happy to literally put their name and face to?

It was a sobering moment. Like many publishers, Facebook is an important source of audience for this newsroom. But more worrying was the fact that for many people, Facebook is their primary source of news – so if they aren’t reading about local protests from Black Lives Matter from us on Facebook, are they reading about it at all?

Local newspapers have long not only spoken truth to power, but truth to readers too. Sometimes, that can be an unpleasant experience – but when does that become too much for the journalists involved? We had to consider the duty of care we have to the journalists whose job it is to oversee social media activity, and report back to the newsroom as the voice of the reader – what was coming back from a small number of readers was just too much.`

How to solve this problem?

There are ways around the commenting problem on social media. Facebook groups, if run by us, allow us to share information and control which posts have comments on them – but at the expense of a wider audience seeing the story as presented by us – thus limiting its impact and reach.

Other editors suggested Facebook empower publishers to determine which posts made by brands had comments or not – Facebook have said they would look at this. Indeed, Twitter has now introduced such a function.

But given that success (ie visibility) on Facebook relies on engagement of previous posts, such a move would have unintended consequences.

Many big brands use agencies to monitor and manage reaction to their social media posts – to protect the brand. That’s great if you’re Pepsi, Sainsbury’s or Persil – social media is a means to a promotional end. The relationship between local publisher and local reader is different – to work, it has to be conversational. Simply deleting comments to curate a thread which represented a brand-safe view of the world feels wrong. And as any savvy social media brand manager will tell you, if you close down an angry conversation on your brand page, it’ll likely just emerge elsewhere – and be far more damaging.

Then, of course, there’s the financial dilemma. How to fund such agencies at a time when local news is financially challenged. Do it in house? Of course – but do we really want to divert resource away from newsgathering to managing conversations?

So to the vaccine debate…

This dilemma for local news has come to the fore in recent weeks as a vaccine for Covid-19 has attracted a lot of attention. It is a good news story – the end is in sight – yet not everyone is convinced. Indeed, the Royal Society for Public Health reported studies which showed 3 in 4 people would take a Covid vaccine, which means 1 in 4 won’t. In the hunt for herd immunity, this is a big deal.

Social media is awash with people who simply have a different version of the truth. When Liam Thorp of the Liverpool Echo presented a two-part article on life currently inside Liverpool Hospital’s ICU wards, one of the reactions suggested we’d hired actors to create the story. If only such budgets existed… But seriously, that isn’t one of the more extreme reactions. Almost daily, reporting of Covid infection rates and deaths are challenged as scare-mongering.

The solution isn’t to remove our stories from social media. Our duty of care to readers, and staff, is to surely to keep giving factually accurate information about the pandemic all the oxygen it can find. A minority of the one-in-four unsure about the Covid vaccine may be true anti-vaxxers, and noisy to boot, but we can’t allow them to shape how we cover the biggest global story of the century. A global story which is intensely local too.

Shooting the messenger

Public sector comms expert Dan Slee asked ‘What the heck are Reach doing’ in the headline in a blog post which looked at commenting activity around vaccine-related content. He noted a lot of anti-vaccine comments below articles from Reach publications in the Midlands, and implied this could even be an intentional move on our part. Worried enough about it to blog about it, not so worried about it as to ask Reach what was going on.

Policing opinion is not what we do

His solution was that Reach should spend more time policing – his word – what people said under our stories when we posted them on Facebook. By his own admission, he has no idea of the level of resource needed to make this happen. I’ll give it a go: A lot, to the point of too much. The only way of doing that would be at the expense of other newsroom activities – ie newsgathering. A surefire way of making sure true anti-vaxxers win is to divert resource from original story-gathering to fighting falsehoods.

It’s not the job of journalists to control the conversation around our work. We didn’t dispatch reporters to the Lonsdale pub in Jesmond when I (briefly) worked on the Journal to ensure people were saying the right things about what they read in the Chronicle or Journal.

The difference between 2004 and 2020 is that we do have much greater visibility of the conversations going on around our work, thanks to social media. As a publisher, Reach puts a greater emphasis on ensuring this debate is heard in the newsroom than any other organisation I’ve encountered. We are informed by it, but not led by it. Challenging it is part of what we do – through journalism. Social media provides a legitimate connection into the (virtual) pub conversations taking place about our work the world over.

A lesson in futility

But even if we did police what appeared under our articles on social media, we’d only be policing a sliver of it. For every time an article is shared on a brand account on Facebook, it is likely shared many times more by individuals in groups, on their feeds, on their own pages. People may disagree with what we are writing, but they can’t change the way we assemble the stories: Based on facts, attempting to inform the public.

(And in most cases, what the policing would say would be little more than: Have you actually read the story? – a prompt Twitter helpfully has added recently)

Dan’s blog post draws a distinction between the lack of anti-vaxxer activity on public body Facebook accounts and those of publishers (and indeed, he draws a distinction between Reach and other publishers – which is simple to explain: Scale and reach of Reach brands means they are seen by more people). Anti-vaxxers don’t tend to go near sources of truth for fear of their views being challenged. In America, it’s easier for Trump diehards to attack CNN than it is the actual ‘authorities’ – we’ve seen that for four years or more now.

No-one likes a know-all, and no-one likes being told they are just wrong, and nobody likes just being deleted. For local journalism to do or be any of those three is a retrograde step – and to that end, my preference during the Black Lives Matter protests to be able to pick and choose which stories we allow comments on within Facebook, falls down here.

The BNP problem

Attempting to silence, or publicly correct, those we believe to be wrong, when they believe they are right does no good. I saw this in the early 2000s with the rise of the BNP in East Lancashire. They were expert at propaganda which ran parallel with the truth so as to be believable:

  • Asian communities being prioritised for regeneration funding in Burnley, was actually an abuse of deprivation data which was being used to prioritise where need more money, first.
  • A former council care home in Blackburn to be used as an asylum seeker centre was the BNP jumping on a Government demand for councils to provide more accommodation for asylum seekers.
  • Plans to recreate Saddam Hussein’s Victory Arch in an Asian part of Blackburn was actually the BNP’s interpretation of a plan to reinvent the area inspired by Rusholme’s Curry Mile, and drew on Blackburn with Darwen Council’s love of odd public art at the time to make it sound plausible.

We tried ignoring the BNP in Burnley at the paper I was working on back then. They used their media blackout as a weapon to support their propaganda that we were part of the multicultural establishment. When we addressed head on their propaganda in Blackburn, we were accused by mainstream political parties of giving them the oxygen of publicity, and blamed for their victory. Neither were true – but what I did learn was the worst thing you can do as a journalist is tell people what to think – as the Lancashire Telegraph saw when it assembled Tony Blair and various other leaders in urging people to reject the BNP in a byelection.

That was a few council elections, after which the BNP somewhat burnt itself out. The vaccine debate is, in many ways, far more important – and local journalism must focus on what it does best.

To function, local journalism needs its readership to be a broad church. Remember one in four people in the UK are unsure about the vaccine at the moment – that’s a lot of people, a lot of readers.

Local journalism will fail if it just closes down worried conversations about a vaccine. Our time is best spent making sure we’re reporting stated science, sharing the facts – and allowing people to come to their own conclusions. Just as we would if it was three in four people who were unsure about the vaccine. Our job isn’t to tell people what it to think, it’s to give them a source of trusted facts and analysis on which to form their own opinions.

We even have an editorial policy on how to report on the vaccine. That’s what the heck we are doing. It’s not easy – and we accept as the messenger, we will always be there to be shot at.

If I was working in public sector comms, I’d be asking myself how I could get involved in the conversations around the fact-based stories journalists are writing, and understanding why such a chunky proportion of the population are worried.

Sadly, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, we were unlikely to change the views of people happy to post racist comments next to their face and real name on Facebook. To that end, we risked doing more harm than good. Now, however, when one in four of the population is unsure about a vaccine, we can change minds through fact-based journalism and a determination to listen to readers, rather than police them.

What if being free was an ambition, not a problem?

For as long I can remember, there has been a very simple debate about whether local news should be paid for online. One based on practicalities.

On one hand, those who felt that yes, we could ask people to pay for it. The logic is simple: People paid for their news in print, why couldn’t they do the same online?

Then there were people who felt that no, we couldn’t ask people to pay for it. Various reasons were given, including lack of evidence people will pay for news, people will just swap news on Facebook instead, the BBC makes it impossible to charge for news and, of course, that when people paid for newspapers, they weren’t just paying for news.

In essence, it’s been a practical debate: The coulds argue in favour because news needs to be paid for. The couldn’ts argue against because they don’t see that it would work.

I’ve never been opposed to people paying for new online, but I’ve never believed that people would pay for local news in the numbers needed to keep local journalism at the scale it is today. Many in our industry like to cluck in disgust when we talk about the number of people who read local news in the UK for free, making sniffy comments about the state of local news, but precious little evidence is offered up of a meaningful future for local journalism if we sacrifice scale for fewer people paying for it.

But maybe we need to change the question – from could, but to whether we should charge for news. Stop seeing in practical terms, but in philosophical, meaning-of-life terms.

Surely the last couple of weeks in America, where it’s much more commonplace to see local news from historic publishers of record locked behind a paywall, should give us pause for thought.

Like many people last week, I’ve was absorbed by the US Presidential election. Philadelphia has been a key battleground, and I’ve been reading the Inquirer a lot. It turned out, a little too much:

Maybe it’s fine for me, as someone not from Philadelphia, to get this message. But what if I’m someone living in Philly, in the eye of the political storm, wanting to know what’s going on? In a country when almost half of voters have endorsed the man who has built his political success on trying to diminish the media, is it smart for journalism to lock out people seeking for information?

Maybe philosophically it doesn’t matter in Philly – there are plenty of other places to get in-depth information, not least the plethora of local TV stations who have become like-for-like competitors for many traditional print publishers online. But where does that leave the Inquirer’s journalism, especially in an era of misinformation?

CNN’s Reliable Sources reported this week that Newsmax, a TV news station which sits to the right of Fox News, has seen a surge in viewers since Fox News called Arizona for President Elect Biden, which suggested the Democrat would win the Presidential race.

That takes the idea of people choosing news based on their broad world view to a new, frightening level: That’s people rejecting honest news based on their world view. Can society really afford for news to be put behind a paywall then?

Elsewhere in the USA, local news sites have made a point of dropping their paywalls for stories related to the Coronavirus pandemic. A laudable (and in my opinion, correct) thing to do. But what message does that send to readers? Hey, we don’t think you should pay for the really important stuff, but you’ll need to for the less important stuff?

Above all, as a trade which is relies on the public good we do for to justify the access and privileges we expect to take for granted – from reporting on court through to having access to political leaders – is it not a contradiction in terms for us to then say to the same public ‘ah, but you’ll have to pay to see it.’

The notion of getting readers to pay is very neat: It replicates where we’ve come from, and appeals to the natural desire of not wanting to be overly-reliant on a single revenue stream (Referencing back to our over-reliance on classifieds back in the day, which at the time, masked the gradual decline in interest in local news anyhow). But there are two outcomes if publishers put too many eggs in this basket.

News enriches, when you’re rich enough.

We would essentially become a service for those who can afford to pay for news. We live in a country with record usage of foodbanks at the moment. Do we really want to be saying to readers that our news can only enrich their lives if they’re rich enough to be able to pay for it? Or that the news which campaigns on their behalf isn’t available to them?

Recent research for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport suggested that voter turnout improves if there is a daily local newspaper operating in the area.

The data methodology is up for discussion, I think: For example, I’m more likely to get detailed information about my local elections from my local weekly newspaper than I am from my daily, and the data used in the research makes no reference to digital-only brands which can be every bit as dedicated to council accountability as a 150-year-old daily newspaper.

But I want to believe the conclusion: That journalism does a good which makes your local world a better place, and makes you want to have a say in it too. But what happens if the local journalism we’re doing is less available than, say, political propaganda, intentional misinformation or honestly-held, loudly-shared but fundamentally poorly-researched opinions?

On one hand, we pay for water, don’t we? We pay for our bins to be emptied every week (maybe)? But we don’t have a choice there – and would end up in court if we didn’t.

If we truly believe in the impact local journalism can have, we surely need to make sure it reaches as many people as possible. Charging for content prevents that from happening, and starts to make it exclusive to those who can afford to pay for it.

The second result is that we become diminished

What would happen when local news gets locked away from the wider public in 2020 Britain? Disinformation would thrive. Back in the USA again, and how wonderful that when Donald Trump starts talking about a fixed election, free-to-air media like CNN can forcibly explain to a global audience why that is nonsense. Indeed, how remarkable that Fox News even cuts away from his press conference on ‘election fraud’ to say it can’t be proved.

This plays out at a local level too, and on social media: Forget the ‘Facebook killed the ad model’ argument and think more about the Facebook group dilemma: The constant swapping of news and opinions is a real threat to the perceived value of local news, even when local news is freely available. Often, conjecture is instant, researched news is not. At 3am when I hear a helicopter above my house, someone in a Facebook group can tell me it’s a robber on the loose. Sounds plausible. It could be hours before local news reports the fact – that the helicopter was looking for a vulnerable person. We can never compete … but at least when free, people freely share what we’ve created. Put it behind paywall, and something else will fill the gap.

Unintentionally, but the focus to date on the practical debate about whether to charge for news online or not has helped us increase our relevancy. It turned the tide of our declining readerships and audiences (the collapse in classified revenue forced us to ask difficult questions about why readerships were declining).

For anyone with any sense in power, local journalism has become more powerful as a result. A council press officer who tells the council leader in 2020 they shouldn’t worry about their ‘local paper’ any more because no-one reads it shouldn’t expect to remain in work for much longer. Our news has impact, because it freely informs.

Advocates of charging for news talk of The Times as a success story. It is – but it also isn’t the primary source of reliable news for any one given location in the way local news brands are. Or the FT gets referenced. It is unique, and provides content which can’t be replicated easily. Or the New York Times. An amazing brand, but also not a local one. And, indeed, the outlier, rather than the norm in the States – and one many, many people consume for free still.

Quality Street? Quality cul-de-sac…

The idea the stories you pay for are somehow better than free ones is a nonsense. You don’t pay for Channel 4 News. You don’t pay (transactionally, at least) for Sky News, BBC News or even Times Radio. Free papers in 80s and 90s also proved this point. Indeed, arguably the most important newspaper investigation in recent years was the paedophile ring uncovered by the Yellow Advertiser.

Tindle closed it (it’s since returned online) due to it becoming unprofitable – but it’s an example of knocking for six the argument that you have to pay for quality. Equally, the Manchester Evening News slashed its price on Fridays to 10p in the 90s – but did the quality of the paper fall as a result? No … MEN journalism reached far more people as a result. It then went free in the city centre on certain days, again reaching far more people than would have thought to have bought the paper.

I began my career in free weekly newspapers – and we absolutely set out every week to give the local paid fors a run for their money (and maybe let readers keep their own coins in their pockets too).

But how to make it pay?

It does raise the question that if journalism is too important to be locked away from all who just want to and/or can pay for it, then how do we fund it? To go back to the tortured water metaphor, it’s highly unlikely the Government is going to order the public to pay for news. Nor is a form of long-term state subsidy particularly appealing.

Corinne Podger, below, argues the front 5 pages of the paper never paid the paper’s bills (no matter how much we want to think otherwise) … and cites Damian Radcliffe’s list of 231 ways to fund journalism:

None of this is to say that people shouldn’t pay for news services. Curating the news in 24/7 media world is a powerful proposition – indeed, the enduring sales of newspapers even during lockdown speaks to that. There will be areas and niches which you can charge for because interest is so deep.

Archives too, could be an area charged for. Or interactive experiences.

Paying for a better reading experience is another way. Or for membership. Or for services which trade on trust – reader holidays anyone?

In hindsight, I’m guessing there was a reason why the reader holidays desk was the first you encountered in the reception of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph in the early 2000s. Journalism has always been underwritten by the activities which go on around it.

Reliable sources still exist. The ones which have embraced being free, and challenged themselves to be part of people’s lives are the ones which help keep communities informed most effectively.

Do more people vote if they are local news consumers? I’ve no idea – but there’s no doubt they arrive at the polling station better informed if they do.

That feels like something we’re too ready to sacrifice in favour of demanding readers pay for news. Not because readers want to, but we because we want them to.

Local journalism has a ready-made cure for the Government’s chronic cloth ears

The 2016 EU referendum was supposedly won on the ability of the Brexit camp to reach beyond the Westminster/media bubble and speak to real people.

The history being written about the 2019 general election suggests the Conservatives won because they spoke more effectively to the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies across the North of England than Labour. What the ‘Red Wall’ responded to remains unclear: Was it ‘Get Brexit Done?’, was it ‘Can’t Trust Corbyn’ or was it the promise to ‘level up the North,’ whatever that odd last phrase means.

My guess – and it’s just a guess as anyone who claims to speak for the North on the grounds of living in the North (I do), or having lived there is normally wrong, given the North is actually 15m people – is that it was a combination of the Brexit/Corbyn arguments.

Whichever it was, events over the past few weeks have suggested that far from being in tune with the country at large, the current government is more out of touch with life beyond the M25 than any other in recent history.

While the Andy Burnham v the Government standoff dominated the headlines over the last week (and you’ll find no better coverage of it than from the Manchester Evening News), it’s perhaps via the vox pops on telly that you get a rounded sense of how people feel: Broadly, it’s fed up and confused, with many citing a loss of faith in ministers.

But perhaps a more stark example of the Government ‘losing the country’ is the free school meals fiasco. At its heart, it’s not a complex situation (unlike the response to Covid): In a time of national crisis, should the government step in to help ensure the most vulnerable children are fed?

The emotional, and human, answer is of course: yes. There is an argument which allows some to reach the answer of ‘no’ but it’s a very complex one, and requires cartwheels throughout government policy. In short, in a world where soundbites often carry the argument, the government is on the wrong side of this one.

The fact that at the time of writing (Sunday, four days after the free school meals vote), Tory MPs are still trying to justify their decision, and blaming the ‘abuse’ they claim to be getting on deputy labour leader Angela Rayner for using the phrase ‘Tory scum’ in Parliament, rather than seeing it as a response to their actions, further speaks to a populist government losing touch with popular opinion.

(Or of a large number of newly-elected Tory politicians who never really did the groundwork to connect with their constituencies, and instead rode the coat-tails of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Government to blame backbenchers for not raising the pitfalls, if they really didn’t already know.)

The pandemic has shrunk many people’s immediate worlds. It has made local more relevant than ever and has, I think, played a part in such a strong reaction to the free school meals vote – both in terms of anger but also in working together to solve the problem within communities.

It’s one thing to say you’re in tune with life outside the Westminster bubble, but actions, often, speak louder than words. On that basis, this Government is wasting a golden opportunity to reset relations with the regions, by failing to take regional press seriously. And in the process, missing a chance to cure its chronic case of cloth ears.

To an extent, this Government has done more than others to engage with local press. The sight of local reporters at PM briefings has been very welcome, but it risks being tokenistic if nothing more substantial emerges.

Daily briefings, virtually, for regional political reporters would be a start. Not only does it help get the Government message beyond a Westminster-centric press bubble, it also would help the Government understand what matters in different regions of the country.

The scale of the free schools meal backlash is clear. In Liverpool, Liverpool Fc has stepped in to feed hungry kids, reports the Echo. Pubs in Sheffield are offering free meals, reports The Star in Sheffield. BirminghamLive mapped every business helping out. Cafes offering free food in Teesside are banning Tory MPs at the same time, reported GazetteLive. In Sunderland, a tea room is offering free meals. The list goes on, and on.

This would have been clear were Government engaging effectively with regional media on a daily basis, across the country. Local news via the regional press reaches more people than ever before. It is not a media you can dismiss as being politically biased or irrelevant ‘because no-one reads you anymore’ (copyright: local councils everywhere in the early 2000s) because neither point is true.

This could work via a lobby-style briefing/q and a via videolink for a different region on a given day of each week, for example. Or weekly ministerial briefings specifically for the regional press. It might not always be comfortable for those answering the questions, but they’d get their message to more people, and a real sense of the issues which are resonating locally too.

It’s easy for regional media to be dismissed as parochial, or put to one side because its diversity makes it difficult to manage centrally from a government department press office. But both are actually strengths: In tune with what people in a local area are thinking, and therefore worth engaging with properly.

Local news has to be representative of local priorities and views because if it’s not, it can’t survive – be that in print, or online. For any Government, that must be worth engaging with daily.

To be fair, the Government has done a lot to help keep regional media upright during the pandemic, with a major advertising campaign. Now the spirit which made them step in with advertising needs to be applied to the way Government deals with local media on daily basis: The government might have lost step with large parts of the country, but local media hasn’t – as borne out by the relative reslience of print sales during the pandemic, and the remarkable loyal online audience growth seen in many places too.

“Can’t pay? We’ll take it away” is a strategy to kill local journalism as we know it

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In times of crisis, it’s easy to become enchanted with a simple solution. Faced with a pandemic which has devastated local revenue at many local news organisations, the idea of a paywall can be attractive. And so the argument has gone: “Local journalism would be much stronger if news publishers hadn’t started giving stories away for free online 20 years ago.”

The logic is attractive: Had the industry insisted people pay for journalism online – as they did in print – then we’d be more immune to market forces (and recessions), and wouldn’t have to pay such attention to scale metrics which influence decision making in newsrooms.

In other words, the good old days would have continued. We’d have written, people would have read. Everything would be fine.

This isn’t a new view. Coronavirus has given this view its latest lease of life, but it is reborn every few months. It was doing the rounds in the heat of the ONA19 conference in New Orleans last year, under a ‘the reader must now pay’ mantra (there were even t-shirts saying as much). Dame Frances Cairncross also pushed the idea that readers must pay in her review of local media. The words vary, the methodology is tweaked, but the underlying message is the same: You got it wrong 20 years ago. And you should correct that now.

I’d like propose a counter to that: Had local journalism gone behind a paywall in the 2000s, there would be next to no local journalism still functioning in the UK now.

To conclude that publishers made a mistake by not launching paywalls in the early 2000s is to forget why many of those owners entered publishing in the first place: to make money.

If there had been a credible model for online payment which enhanced their business, they’d have taken it. They didn’t because online was seen as a threat to the established business – a business which was worth far more than today, but one which, as history has shown, was vulnerable. Indeed, they did the very thing which some still call for today: Protecting newspapers because that’s where most of the money is. The dotcom bubble bursting made it much safer to retreat.

The print circulation declines were already there. This was in the days before the sort of rounds of redundancies which we subsequently have come to accept as a regular occurrence. Blame cover price increases if you like, but even they point to local news only having a certain value to readers. People were already choosing not to have a daily local paper in their lives at a time when dial-up internet was still very much a thing. A golden era we remember for journalism perhaps wasn’t so golden for readers.

The simple – indeed on some levels, logical – solution was to ignore the internet, or pay lip service to it, and circle the wagons around print. The seismic shocks to the industry caused by the financial crash of 2008-10 resulted in even more circling of those wagons, as the verticals of revenue which had protected us from having to ask searching questions of our relevance to readers as circulations declined, started going south too.

Editors, publishers, managing directors were all doing what they felt was right in the moment – trying to keep people handing over their 50ps for a paper every day. In the moment, it makes sense, but still the internet was growing. Facebook came to the fore, allowing people to swap news without needing a newspaper. Google search exploded as mobile internet expanded. No need to wait for the paper, I’ll just search for it now. And what we should have been finding from our local news site, we were finding from elsewhere. Or better still: “For the full story, just put down your computer, put on your shoes, and go to the shop and spend 50p buying it.” Hindsight, of course, is great.

It does give us insight into what a paywall would have done though: If readers can’t find news on their terms, they’ll keep looking elsewhere. The very fact so many newsrooms have encountered the mantra ‘I can get my local news from the BBC’ speaks volumes.

Paywalls were experimented with in some quarters, but they were soon removed. As with all too-simple-to-be-true solutions, the you’ve-always-paid-for-it-so-do-so-now-online was too good to be true.

Why revisit this all today? As the authors of the first draft of history, we really do owe our profession a hindsight vision which is as close to 20:20 as possible. That involves asking tough questions of ourselves.

Though it wasn’t the intention at the time, keeping us free online probably saved us. A paywalled local Press would have made it far easier for an expansionist BBC to, well, expand. That would have put far more local news at the mercy of Government policy than is the case today. Not good.

But once we got beyond the ‘protect the paper at all costs’ mindset, local journalism started asking tough questions of itself. Or rather, audiences represented in the newsroom through the metrics which record their activity, started making us ask those questions.

That’s led to a revolution in journalism which has profound effects, overwhelming good ones. Newsrooms which embraced local, digital journalism sooner are stronger today for it. The ‘I told you so brigade’ who argue chasing clicks (audience) has led to the job losses we’re seeing this year are merely choosing to see what they want to see.

No industry could come through the sort of revenue declines ours has seen so quickly this year, unscathed. But those reaching more people, more often are far better placed to come through it than those which have been driven by the platform which works best for the business.

And where there’s a disconnect between the stories a newsroom values, and stories readers show they value, the solution isn’t a paywall – it’s to work on making the less-read articles better appreciated by a larger number of people. Don’t rage against click culture, empower your newsroom to protect local journalism by making local journalism valuable to lots of people.

There remains precious little evidence that people will pay for online local news. They may be prepared to support it via contributions – publications as diverse as the Ipswich Star, Liverpool Echo and latterly the Yorkshire Post all believe so, and so do I – but it’s only part of the answer. Contributions could work because you’re tapping into the belief that local news serves a purpose which is worth supporting, rather than selling a service.

Micro-payments, too, make sense in some contexts – for stuff people *really* need to read, and where the value exchange is immediate.

Selling a paywall is far harder. It’s not like a subscription to Netflix, with so much choice there’s bound to be something you’ll want to spend a lot of time with. It’s not like a subscription to Peleton, which guarantees you the chance to ride a bike in your bedroom while a loud chap shouts positive messages at you. It’s something inbetween – neither specific enough to know what you’re getting, nor so broad that you’re guaranteed to find something you like all the time. And that’s problematic.

The challenge with local journalism is it does what it says on the tin. But unlock Ronseal, once you’ve seen the tin, the job is done: the reader is informed. A ‘must pay’ approach is essentially asking readers to pay for a lucky dip service.

For paywalls to also be part of the answer – and that’s all they will ever be – we need local news to be essential for as many local people as possible. It’s a hard sell, especially when people were already turning their back on the need for a daily paper prior to the onset of mobile internet.

Push the paywall view too hard and you end up closing off local journalism to everyone bar a core of super-engaged, civic-minded readers. That diminishes local journalism’s power and relevance, not enhances it.

A paywall will work if your newsroom is in listening, not broadcasting, mode.

JPIMedia’s paywall allows you them to be noisy locally, while targeting readers who read more than a handful of articles a week. Newsquest’s asks the super-loyal, some 40 pages a month I think, to start paying, while encouraging others to take up a subscription much sooner. Both models blend scale and engagement – which is as it should be.

Paywalls in the early 2000s would have all but killed off local journalism by now. A dash for paywalls now will have a similar impact.

With popularity comes relevance. With relevance comes a voice. With a voice comes the ability to articulate who we are, what we do and what we stand for – and why it’s worth supporting.

That was true in 2002. It was true in 2010. It’s true now, still, in 2020. Lets not make the mistakes of the past by trying to get the reader to fit around our needs. Lets keep working on ensure we fit around their needs. It’s not rocket science.

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