The Local News Plan project is being led by Sameer Padania of Macroscope for the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), and which is funded by UK news aggregator NewsNow.co.uk. Macroscope co-conceived the project with PINF and NewsNow to test our shared hypothesis that the crisis facing local news is not just a problem for news organisations and journalists, but for the whole community – and therefore representatives from across the whole community need to understand how they can play an active role in responding to this crisis.
It is widely acknowledged that a decline in or even disappearance of local news – what some call ‘news deserts’ – has negative impacts on local democracy, accountability and the economy, and this affects the health of the community as a whole. Concrete responses to this have tended, however, to focus either on trying to secure top-down solutions from government or philanthropy, or by suggesting that local media could be sustainable, if only they could find the ‘right business model’, despite the unfair market they have to operate in. (While there have been some positive steps from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, the UK government has shown little inclination to support locally-owned, locally-based media either through funding or policy; and philanthropic resources in the UK are more stretched than ever as funders respond to the cost-of-living crisis on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic.)
The Local News Plan initiative takes a different approach. It’s our hypothesis that there are existing and new resources for local journalism in communities across the country that can be better directed or unlocked. Because the lack of well-resourced local journalism affects the whole community, we have worked with a local freelancer – our Local News Plan ‘Stewards’ – to bring together stakeholders from across the community in Bristol, Folkestone and Manchester in England, Glasgow in Scotland, Bangor in Wales, and Newry in Northern Ireland. In each place, we have our Steward to engage with a wide variety of local stakeholders who interact with local media in some way – including local government, businesses, civil society and community groups, the NHS, faith communities, philanthropic funders such as community foundations, investors, and creative industries – but who might not know how pivotal their support is to the local media. In each place the steward takes the ‘sourdough starter’ list of stakeholders we provide them with, and develops it according to the particular needs and dynamics of their particular community, inviting somewhere between 25 and 35 people to a convening in the community.
At the convening, we facilitate a collective discussion about what’s working and not working in the present-day local media environment, what a better future could look like, and what support the various participants in the convening and beyond could offer to local media. We – the facilitators – then take the record of those discussions away, we distil them into a document which we share back to those community stakeholders, and which we then publish on localnewsplan.uk as the first version of their ‘Local News Plan’.
Why these 6 places?
Sadly, there are hundreds of places across the UK where local media are in a precarious situation, and where communities are set to lose a valuable community asset in their local paper, radio station, or digital media, and the rich diet of public interest journalism they say they want and need. As we are doing a pilot project in only 6 places, we had to narrow down to a few locations that represent a reasonable cross-section of the communities and geographies of the UK, and where the project could get off to a meaningful start. Building on previous work done in, for example, the Nesta Future News Pilot Fund, to understand the uneven distribution of journalism and journalists across the country, we looked at data sources including the OCSI Index of Multiple Deprivation to develop a shortlist of twenty communities across the country. We then selected six places to work in which, although diverse in size, represented a spectrum of local and regional media, diverse stakeholders, evidence of local activism or community engagement, some kind of funding sources, urban, rural, border, coastal and, in the case of Bangor, other language communities. Some of these communities have seen a long period of under-investment, others have experienced regeneration, and others are economic powerhouses, whether in their region or internationally – but common to all was a feeling that the locally-owned, locally-rooted media need support to fulfil their potential.
What has been achieved, and what’s next?
Each workshop has had a different character and different dynamic depending on the place and the composition of people who participated, and each has shown us different aspects of a community and its relationship with local media.
In all workshops, the participants left with a stronger collective sense that they have a role to play in the health, strength and independence of that place’s local media – the beginning of a more healthy, cross community, mature and responsible discussion about the state of local media and its place in a local community and economy. Participants also genuinely understand the financial crisis affecting local media, and the extent to which local journalists and locally-owned and -based news outlets of all kinds are working tirelessly to serve the local community, on sometimes shoestring resources, and many hours of unpaid overtime and overwork, in effect providing the city with an information subsidy. Ideally this would lead to some kind of new, increased and coordinated financing for local media in each community, including, for example, a rebalancing of advertising away from the digital giants towards local media, or a community news fund administered by an independent body.
We hope that each community, in finding its own response to these challenges, provides inspiration to others in neighbouring and other communities across the four nations of the UK that local journalism doesn’t need to wait for rescue from outside, but that the power to restore and reimagine it resides in those selfsame communities. For local journalism to reach stronger financial sustainability, it needs genuine social sustainability, and we hope the Local News Plans project is contributing towards that. Public interest journalism, although it is deeply public-spirited, doesn’t happen for free – it needs commitments from across our communities, as well as from philanthropy and government, to secure a stronger future. As part of that we’d love to take the project forward in 2023, both to deepen the process in the six pilot areas, and to expand it to new areas and with new partners, including place-based funders and investors.