Social Spider CIC’s Managing Director, David Floyd, with the first of a series of blogs on the future of local journalism — and how it doesn’t have to be rubbish

Rubbish sacks and recycling bins

Most business activity has been negatively affected by Covid-19 but, for the news media, the crisis has been a perfect shitstorm. Demand for journalism has increased while (conventional) revenue from publishing news has decreased, and the results are relatively predictable.

As the publisher of four social enterprise local newspapers — Waltham Forest Echo, Tottenham Community Press, Enfield Dispatch and EC1 Echo — I’m one of many in the industry currently thinking about what to do next.

I’m going to do some of that thinking over the course of five blog posts. This first one looks (briefly) at the current situation facing local news in the UK.

Sad news

Covid-19 has not broken local news but it has made the widespread acceptance of local news’s fundamental brokenness impossible to avoid. Many in the industry have spent the last 20 years desperately attempting to ignore the increasingly frayed connections between their public facing services and their business model.

While some national and international news brands have successfully adapted their models, local news publishers have not. Pre-Covid-19, local news in the UK was a deeply depressing party with no kitchen to escape to. Thanks to Covid-19, it is now (more or less) over.

In response to collapsing revenues, some publications have stopped printing, while others are scrabbling around trying to find new sources of income, whether through paywalls or donations. These developments are tragedies for people who are losing their jobs but they are only shocking due to their pandemic-induced speed: this the end of a painful story not the beginning.

The grim reality is that local newspapers have been closing for years and the reasons are not complicated. According to 2018 research for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, newspaper print advertising brought in £4.62 Billion in 2007 and £1.43 Billion in 2017. During that time digital advertising income went from negligible to £0.48 Billion — nowhere near enough to cover the losses from the decline in print ads.

Specifically at a local level, total advertising income dropped from £2.74 Billion in 2007 to £1.27 Billion in 2017. Income from paid-for sales is dropping massively too. The direction of travel is towards the abyss.

Bad news

The big five* local news publishers: Reach, Newsquest, Johnston Press, Tindle and Archant — who between them own more than 75% of all local newspapers in the UK — might like you to believe that they were doing a great job before Facebook and Google rocked up and ruined everything.

Unfortunately, they have reckoned without the fact that many of us were alive before Facebook and Google existed and some of us actually read their publications. There are plenty of good local papers but — particularly outside larger cities — many have been mediocre (or worse) for at least the 30 years or so that I’ve been reading them.

Pre-social media platforms, corporate publishers were already closing local offices, firing lots of journalists and forcing the overworked, undermined ones that remained to regurgitate press releases from a distance while they (in many cases) exploited near monopoly conditions to generate huge profits from local advertising.

Since the social media giants turned off their money taps, the ‘big five’ have — to a lesser or greater extent — switched to pursuing a policy of managed decline while attempting to preserve profits in the process.

There are papers that have closed entirely but — almost as bad in terms of actually providing news — there are many more publications featuring an ever-diminishing proportion of editorial content, with that content ever more tangentially linked to the local areas they purport to serve.

There’s no reason to believe that corporate local news executives are inherently more rapacious than any other executives — and the ‘big five’ are a spectrum rather than a monolith — but even the better ones are ultimately trying to do something that doesn’t work.

The economies of scale that you can (just about) make to work in a commercial sense — the newspaper that used to serve a single London borough but now serves three London boroughs plus half the neighbouring county — don’t enable you to produce even a half decent news product.

Of course, great newspapers can and do serve large populations and geographical areas but not when those areas only exist as a result of a corporate publisher’s crude segmentation of their residual advertising market.

Based on their current trajectories, the ‘big five’ may or may not be able to reshape themselves as sustainable businesses but — even if they do — these are unlikely to be businesses that are primarily focused on or successful at providing local people with news.

Better news

One conclusion that could be drawn from this situation is that we need the state (and potentially philanthropic funders) to step in with grants and other support so that the decline of local news publishing can be managed more slowly.

Steps have already been taken to do attempt to do this:

Pre-Covid: the BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service (launched in 2017) which involves the BBC paying for reporters to be hosted by (mostly) ‘big five’ publications to write reports on the activities of councils and other public bodies.

In response to Covid-19: a government advertising campaign buying space in corporate local news publications to communicate Covid-19-related public health messages.

While there has been justified criticism of the way these schemes have been administered, they’re positive interventions in themselves — but the danger is that a plethora of similar initiatives creates a new comfort zone for narrow, unimaginative thinking about what’s possible in the future.

We are encouraged to believe that the two choices for local news — particularly outside of large cities — are publications that will require ever-larger subsidies while also getting gradually worse, or nothing at all.

These are not the (only) two choices.

What if it was possible to develop local news publications (and organisations) based on the starting point that news matters: that it is important to hold power to account at a local level, to understand the areas you serve and to amplify the concerns of people who live there?

Then, from that starting point, you could develop the business model that enables you to make the possible job of that in your local area?

It is possible. We are doing it. Others are doing it, too. The next four blogs will look at how.

*At time of writing, by the time you read this 2 or more may have merged.

Upcoming blogs:

Part Two — What is local news for?

Part Three — Print vs. digital?

Part Four — Journalists vs. the people?

Part Five — Who pays — and how?

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