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

The fourth of these blogs moves from the question of print vs digital to look at the changing relationship(s) between local journalists (and local news publishers) and the wider public.

These are a set of relationships that have moved from relatively simple to extremely messy in the post-internet landscape — and it’s currently unclear where they might ultimately end up.

Remember local newspapers? Try not to cry to when you see what they look like now

Previously, large numbers of people paid to read some local print newspapers — and/or people provided an audience for advertising in both paid for and free publications. Now both activities are far less prevalent.

Similarly, in the past local organisations’ would be confident about getting a story in the local paper by sending a press release (the church is holding its fete next week) which a reporter might follow up — and residents would ring up reporters with a tip-off (someone has knocked down a wall in our road) for them to investigate.

While both of these things may still happen after a fashion, that fashion is generally not for the reporter or a photographer to actually turn up to the fete, the best you’ll get is that your press release will be (slightly) cut, copied and pasted into the paper alongside a photograph you’ve supplied yourself. In many areas, your tip off will only be investigated if you have evidence that the person who has knocked down the wall is employed by the local council or one of their contractors, meaning that it’s directly related to machinery of local government and can be followed up by a BBC-funded local democracy reporter.

In London (where we’re based) most corporate local news groups have no locally-based reporters in most of the areas where they publish newspapers. And it’s a bit of a challenge to develop a strong set of local contacts across multiple London boroughs (and commercially-defined chunks of surrounding counties) that you don’t live or work in. The result is that in many areas readers (and businesses and institutions) have expectations of local news publishers that are no longer fulfilled.

Increasingly worthless

As discussed previously, the biggest single factor in this widening gap between expectation and reality is dwindling resources — and the disconnect between (significant numbers of) people’s desire to read local news and the generation of income from providing that news.

Incredibly (if you’re not already aware of the trajectory of online advertising markets) 2020 saw traffic to local news websites increase by 38% while, at the same, income from online advertising fell by 23.3%.

There are some local publications who have managed to generate significant online income in specific circumstances — but generally, as a local news publisher, if every single person in your local area read your publication, and cloned themselves several times to produce multiple other people who lived in your local area and also read your publication, you’d still find it difficult to develop a viable business model to enable you to pay for locally-focused journalism solely through online advertising.

There’s more to say about this in blog five but, for now, it’s enough to recognise that local news publishers need to develop relationships with readers that are about more than selling copies of newspapers and selling eyeballs to advertisers. Both the set of relationships that lead to the production of news, and the methods for monetizing the consumption of news, have become messier and more complicated.

Please make a donation to our shareholders

One way forward is through new kinds of transactional relationships. The most obvious is asking online readers to pay directly for content — either via subscription or micro/casual payment models, such as Axate.

Due to the numbers involved, pure paywalls are highly unlikely to work at a local level, and the ongoing search for something in-between has seen even the larger corporate groups begin to blur the line between treating their readers as customers paying for content as a product and treating them as supporters of local news as a public good.

In May 2020, Hold the front Page reported on the editor of the Basingstoke Gazette, Katy French, announcing her paper’s paywall — which (generously) allowed readers to read 40 articles per month before paying:

“Some readers may not know this but we are the only publication to cover courts and local government in our area. We cut through the spin and ask tough questions on your behalf to get to the truth.

“If you read us and want to support us, please sign up today to ensure we can keep going and do what we do best.”

One potential obstacle to this narrative is that Basingstoke Gazette is owned by Newsquest, which in 2019 had a turnover of £187.7 million in the UK — with its ultimate owners in the US, Gannet, posting a turnover of $3.4 billion in 2020.

While buying habits suggest that most people in the UK are relaxed about big businesses making profits in the course of supplying them with products and services that they want at a price they’re prepared to pay, the offer here seems to be confusingly located between being a paid-for service and a request for a public interest donation to the shareholders of a multinational conglomerate.

It’s not impossible that this sort of model could work for both readers and publishers but it seems like a long shot.

Members only

Slightly further (or, in some cases, much further) along the path towards the future of news comes membership. As the idea of ‘membership’ grows in popularity across the media world, perspectives on what it means grow in diversity. The Membership Puzzle Project has spent over four years looking at many of these perspectives at a global level.

In the UK, models range from The Guardian’s scheme — which is effectively a way for people who want to (and can afford to) support the existence of the publication but no longer want to buy the print paper to make a regular contribution, to The Bristol Cable and The Ferret (co-ops literally offering readers the opportunity to co-own their publication in exchange for a regular contribution).

In Breaking News, former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, explains that he considered introducing a literal membership scheme (like The Bristol Cable and The Ferret) but found that wasn’t what Guardian readers wanted — with large numbers prepared to make either regulator or one-off donations to enable (themselves and) others to continue to read the publication online for free.

We run similar donation-based membership schemes (on a much smaller scale) for our local publications) — the difference being that anyone donating to us or The Guardian knows that the money is going to support news, rather than profits for corporate shareholders.

Do it yourself

Beyond financial support, readers of local news publications are increasingly getting involved in the process of producing local news.

Last year, The Bristol Cable, developed a model for getting their owner-members to assist with their journalism through Cable Links, a pilot project funded by the Nesta/DCMS Future News Fund, which created a database where members could input details of their professional skills and life experiences — and then be consulted by Cable journalists in the process of writing articles.

At Social Spider, our newspapers Waltham Forest Echo, Tottenham Community Press, Enfield Dispatch, EC1 Echo and Barnet Post all use a social enterprise model where our editors commission features from volunteer writers in the local community — ranging from community groups writing about their activities to local residents writing about their life experiences.

For us, as a not-for-profit social enterprise, this model enables us to get a diversity of input into our publications that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford — while giving volunteer writers the opportunity to write about what matters to them and have it published with professional editorial support. It’s also a way that people who want to support their local newspaper can do so without needing to contribute financially.

Who cares if you even exist?

With conventional reader/publisher relationships either fraying or frayed, the challenge for local news publishers is: (a) to make enough local people care about your publication to the extent that they want to help you keep going and (b) to find attractive and practical ways for those people to channel that help.

It’s not yet clear what combination of these approaches will work in the long term — and it’s likely to vary significantly between different local areas. Corporate groups — particularly those whose consistently poor-mediocre publications people once bought because you had to if you wanted to buy a second hand bike in the local area — may find it difficult to get people to make donation-style contributions to keep their titles in business.

But one way or another, if significant numbers of people in an area want that area to have (or continue to have) a high quality news publication, there’s a good chance they’ll work out how to help make it happen.

Previous blogs in this series:

Part One — Broken (local) news

Part Two — What is local news for (now)?

Part Three — Print vs. digital?

Upcoming blogs:

Part Five — Who pays — and how?

Photo by Thomas Charters on Unsplash

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