A recipe for success: baking engagement into your journalism business model

As UK Ambassador for the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, I have been tasked with running two meet-ups in the UK; to create opportunities for practitioners of engaged journalism to meet face-to-face and share skills, knowledge and create a network of support.

As Social Spider is based in London, it made sense for us to organise our first meet-up there, making use of our existing contacts to host a large event attended by over 30 practitioners in June 2019. However, we knew there was no way that an event in London alone could come close to conveying the breadth of engaged journalism being practiced in the UK — so we decided to travel north to Edinburgh for our second meet-up.

As I reached out to people to help plan and promote the event I was met by a very warm and supportive community of journalists; from The Ferret, to Broughton Spurtle to Clydesider, Scotland is home to a mix of great, innovative organisations addressing a need for quality, community-focused journalism.

Similarly to our previous meet-up, we began the day by asking participants how they wanted to see journalism change, how engagement could be part of that change and what actions or approaches they could (or already do) take to create this change. Responses ranged from: wanting to see more community journalists and a more bottom-up approach being adopted, to seeing longer term more contextualised pieces of journalism, to journalists getting out of their offices and talking to people.

One participant saw engaged journalism as part of this change as it gave journalists the opportunity to:

“work on a beat: taking pride in that micro involvement”

Participants thought these changes could be made by nurturing trust through dependable well-known journalists who are able to get out into the community, and building engaged journalism as a practice into journalism degrees and classes. One academic stressed the importance of teaching students that it is ok to fail — at a time when traditional models for producing and funding journalism are themselves failing, we need to encourage people to think outside the box and trial new approaches, even if they won’t always work out.

It was also suggested that there needed to be more coordinated advocacy for quality journalism, something that was also discussed at our London meet-up.

We were lucky enough to have Dr Jennifer Jones at our meet-up, an academic and journalist who in 2016 launched Media for Communities. Media for Communities stemmed from Media Trust’s Brilliant Scotland programme; it equips communities with the knowledge and skills to strengthen their voices through citizen journalism training and media education. In addition to this it also conducts research and advocacy for community voices and community media.

Jennifer has worked in community media for many years, she stressed the importance of not only including communities’ voices in journalism, but fully respecting those voices by ensuring everyone is informed and equipped to understand and engage in the production of journalism. She emphasised the importance of approaching community media as a participatory process.

Jennifer has recently been exploring how to work with communities to develop ‘media literacy’ — the process of helping people to better understand how the media works and to critically evaluate the output from different sources. This is not about labelling particular media organisations as being right or wrong, bad or good but helping people to identify what different types of media are aiming to do — whether that’s reporting facts, offering opinions from a particular perspective or campaigning on particular issues.

In order to realise these plans for the brighter future of engaged journalism, it is imperative that we have the correct business models to support our work. Finding the right model can be hard: for engaged journalism organisations, we start by identifying a need for high quality news and reporting, then seek the business model that best enables us to meet that need on an ongoing basis. It’s important that our business models both reflect our principles and draw on our strengths as organisations engaged with communities.

Increasingly, journalism outlets are adopting alternative legal registrations, such as cooperatives, charities and other forms of social enterprise, to reflect their social mission. For the second half of our meet-up we heard from David Floyd at Social Spider CIC and Rachel Hamada, a founder of The Ferret who told us more about their organisations’ business models.

Social Spider CIC is registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC) and is a member of Social Enterprise UK. A CIC is a type of limited company which exists to benefit the community rather than private shareholders. As a CIC we can better align our social mission and our trading activities: we are committed to ensuring that the money we make from selling advertising and running a membership scheme is used to facilitate the production of journalism which meets a local, social need. We do this by providing quality local news reporting and by supporting members of the community to write about the issues affecting their lives and report on the things they are passionate about — publishing their articles in our monthly newspapers.

The Ferret (an investigative journalism platform based in Scotland) is run as a cooperative, placing journalists and subscribers on their board and allowing members to own a part of the Ferret in return for their financial contribution (£3 or £9 per month). Their cooperative model means that they can move past the traditional placement of readers as passive consumers of a news product, and instead equips them with the power to become actively involved in shaping and running the media they support. This not only allows for a more engaged readership, it also offers the Ferret a revenue stream meaning they can run as an independent, ad-free platform.

Finding the best business model for an engaged journalism outlet requires creative thinking. As the landscape for producing and funding journalism changes, so will the business models required to sustain it. Which brings us back to the point made at the beginning of the session: there needs to be scope for publications to trial new ideas, with the possibility of failure accepted as a risk worth taking.

A worksheet created by Social Spider to help participants design their business model for engaged journalism (Credit: Social Spider CIC)

Our Edinburgh meet-up will be our final event as UK Ambassador for the Engaged Journalism Accelerator. However, we hope that the impact of our events will live on and that through the contacts made we will be able to continue to grow our networks of engaged journalism practitioners and believers!

We’d like to thank the team at the Accelerator for all their support and of course we’d like to thank everyone for coming along to our events, for sharing their experiences and ideas and for helping to create a stronger, more connected network of engaged journalists here in the UK.

Start Spreading the News is a place to find out about Social Spider CIC’s community newspapers: Waltham Forest Echo; Tottenham Community Press; Enfield Dispatch

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