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.

Mirage?

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.

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