Engaged Journalism in the UK: making quality journalism pay
On the 14th June 2019 Social Spider hosted our first event as the Engaged Journalism Accelerator’s UK Ambassador. We were joined by over 30 engaged journalism practitioners from around the UK. Anna Merryfield discusses the key takeaways from the event.
In May this year, the Engaged Journalism Accelerator announced that I would be the UK Ambassador for the Accelerator (on behalf of Social Spider CIC), alongside five other ambassadors from Poland, Italy, Sweden, France and the Netherlands.
The purpose of the Ambassador Network is to develop networks of knowledge sharing and support among engaged journalism practitioners based on in-person meet-ups in the selected countries. Each ambassador is given a small amount of seed funding (5,000 euros) to run two meet-ups for engaged journalism practitioners in their country and to run a mini-experiment in their organisation.
At Social Spider CIC we have already hosted a handful of events in London, bringing together community news practitioners to discuss best practice and establish a network of support.
Through these events, we already know that the UK is home to a wealth of engaged journalism practitioners. By this we mean that there are many people, all round the UK, who are creating community-focused content, who are creating responsible journalism through dialogue with their communities (both geographical and topical) and who are providing news coverage for communities who often exist in the margins of society and are frequently not listened to or served by mainstream media or by those who are elected to represent them.
However, we also know from our own experience as publishers, and from the discussions held at our events, that many of these individuals or organisations are operating on a shoestring budget, struggling to make ends meet and to pay their staff. Many are working with very little or no income in order to continue to produce journalism which they see as a vital service for their communities.
Therefore it was clear to us that our first meet-up had to be about generating income, and had to focus on how to achieve this in a way which still allowed communities to stay at the heart of reporting.
After introductions from myself and Ben Whitelaw (Engagement Lead at the Engaged Journalism Accelerator) we asked attendees to work in pairs to discuss the following question:
How might we produce engaged journalism which puts community engagement (geographical or topical) at the centre of its ownership, reporting, distribution, impact and revenue?
In order to structure this discussion participants asked each other this series of questions:
Ultimate impact: How do you want to see journalism change?
Direct impact: In one sentence, describe how you or your organisation works to create this change.
Activities: What actions are you taking to create this direct impact?
Aspirations: What other actions could you take to contribute to this ultimate impact?
Attendees listed many ways in which they wanted to see journalism change, from “journalists to be better at listening” to “ more financial reporting transparency” and “allowing new voices, better representation, quality and more positive stories”. These hopeful statements about what journalism could look like in the future set us on a positive trajectory for the day and informed our discussions about how we could make that change happen.
This activity also allowed us to join up the dots between the work each participant was doing and their wider aspirations for journalism. It allowed us to identify how everyone in the room was working towards these ultimate goals in many different ways. For journalism to change for the better we require a multitude of different actions and approaches and it was reassuring to see how everyone in the room was contributing, using their own expertise, towards a more positive future for journalism.
But still the question remains: how do you fund these changes?
This brought us to our two speakers, Robyn Vinter from The Overtake and Tobi Oredein from Black Ballad, who came along to discuss their membership schemes and how their readers contributed to the cost of producing quality journalism.
Robyn started off by discussing her Patreon scheme. The Overtake is an investigative journalism site based in the north of England. She described how creating a trusted relationship with her readers through honest communication about The Overtake’s challenges and aspirations, and the challenges of independent media more generally, helped them get their Patreon scheme off the ground. Her article Independent media is in crisis — can you help? gave her readers the background information to situate these challenges within the wider media landscape and then directed them to ways they could help. In addition to this she stressed the importance of humanising your publication, referring to videos and photographs her team had taken to shine a light on the individuals who work hard to create The Overtake.
Tobi emphasised the importance of understanding the needs of your readers. Black Ballad is a publication which empowers black women through celebrating their culture, community and stories. Tobi explained how having a multi-tiered membership offering allowed them to tailor different membership packages to the different needs and financial means of their readers. As part of the higher membership packages, members are given discounted access to Black Ballad events as well as receiving access to a members only slack account where readers can discuss some of the themes covered in the publication in a safe forum. Both these elements help enhance the community-building element of Black Ballad’s work, fostering greater loyalty from their members and in return giving their members a meaningful offering.
A key function of our role as UK Ambassador for the Accelerator is to consider how we might be able to collectively strengthen and elevate the work of engaged journalism practitioners in the UK. At a time where distrust in the media is on the increase and fewer people are paying for journalism, we wanted to use our meet-up as an opportunity to consider ways of working together to raise awareness of the value and impact of our work, in order to convince members of the public, advertisers and funders to pay for it.
We heard from Shehan Perera from Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), who explained how SEUK launched the Buy Social campaign as a means of promoting the work and products of social enterprises all over the UK, most of whom are small organisations without large marketing budgets to help them communicate the value of their work or promote their products.
The Buy Social campaign acts as a means of stimulating public discourse about the importance of social enterprises; situating them within a wider discussion about ethical businesses and ethical consumer choices. We believe that engaged, independent journalism requires a similar coordinated campaign to shout out about how our work fits into bigger discussions about creating standards for journalism, tackling social inequality and analysing how people consume and pay for media.
We asked our attendees to get into groups to discuss how they would run a marketing campaign for engaged journalism using a cereal box template as a prompt to think about the different elements of the campaign, including designing a name, logo and tagline! By the end of the session we had:
“Press for Change: news you can trust/it’s your news, make it count”
“Get Engaged: marrying journalism with the public”
Going forward we hope we that we can foster more collaboration between our community so that together we can strengthen our impact and awareness of our work. The constant battle of trying to achieve financial sustainability is time consuming and juggling cash flow inevitably distracts from the production of meaningful content, which all those present are more than capable of producing given they have the time to do so. The UK is not facing a crisis of quality journalists who understand the importance of listening to and representing their communities, it is facing a crisis of how to pay them to do that work.
Internally, our sector needs to increase its awareness of different revenue streams which could help diversify income and make us more financially resilient.
Beyond that we need to increase awareness of our impact and value among individuals, businesses and funders who might be willing to pay for it.