The messy business of funding the news

Mark Brown contemplates the funding challenges for local news.

It’s amazing to be making three community newspapers, that reflect the wishes, aspirations, dreams and fears of communities. If you count our national mental health magazine One in Four, which we retired in 2014, and various magazines with young people and communities, Social Spider CIC has been publishing community print and news media continuously since 2006.

We aren’t a big company. We don’t have shareholders or high net worth individuals to bankroll us. We started our newspapers from scratch, with only our knowledge, our community contacts and cash we’d scraped together from our other trading activities. We do it because we love it and because we passionately believe people need newspapers. We know how to do community media well, but what’s frustrating is the community journalism sector doesn’t attract funding from charitable or other funders.

We, like other community news organisations, are committed to making news media that reflects real communities and that is guided and created by, and with those, communities. We’re always learning how to do that better. The big problem is it’s a very precarious business model. We’re trying to hammer out a business model for local news publications that works. In January we organised a roundtable with fellow community media producers discussing just how community media might achieve financial stability. It’s not easy to resource the production of local news.

The value of community media is using journalism and publishing skills in partnership with local communities to get the news people want and need in front of as many eyes as possible. It’s creating things that others want to read, watch or listen to that supports communities to be themselves. Many poorer communities in the UK never see news stories about their own lives and issues unless a big national media organisation turns up to take a look at the countries ‘forgotten places’. These places aren’t forgotten to the people who live there. Community news media could be seen as a public good. At its best it uses the skills of journalism and publishing to bring to light stories and issues that communities care about in way that adds value. Journalism and publishing skills + community self determination = social value. Charitable funders in the UK are very good at looking at what community value a community news publication might create but still have a gap in understanding what is needed to actually produce that publication.

We’re currently working on research for Power to Change, which will consider viable business models for community media. A viable business model for community newspapers is a model where, at the end of the year, you have an amount income for the newspaper or newspapers which is roughly equal to the amount that has been spent on producing and distributing them. And yes, community media does need a business model. Journalism costs money if you want to get it in front of the people to whom it matters. Local news operates in conditions of market failure. Your local papers disappeared when advertising revenue dried up and big media companies couldn’t make the margins to keep them going. We don’t have shareholders or fancy offices but still need cash to continue the basic task of publishing and distributing regular newspapers.

For me, it can sometimes feel like charitable funders can picture funding everything around community media except the production and distribution of the actually printed media itself. Often community media is seen by funders as community building activity not community-reflecting activity. Community media works with communities already and grows from them. What it needs is readers, viewers and listeners and the best way to get them is to make something that is really, really good. Funders are happy to fund community activities and training courses and ‘engagement’ but seem to stop short when it comes to funding the actual day-to-day costs of making media that people want to read. The value in community is not just that it is made with, or by, the community. The actual content of the media and the fact that it gets to people who want and need it is the prime generator of social value. What the media actually says is what’s important. Community media generates social value by the standard of journalism it upholds and its wider purpose to inform, to inspire and delight the people it serves.

Making consistent, valued and useful community media like our local newspapers requires a business model. Ours is efficient and always based on the newspapers being free. So our three choices of revenue are advertising; charitable funding and partnerships with other bodies. Other forms of revenue for community media overall which are very important are supporter subscriptions; things like Patreon for individual journalists or membership schemes; crowdfunding for specific projects and one-off donations. It’s like a board game where the objective is not to go bust at the end of the month. It’s real heart-in-mouth stuff.

Things that people don’t realise about doing community newspapers like ours is that it costs money (or time) to secure advertising; that journalism (and editing and commissioning and design) costs more in our business model than printing actual papers and that people and advertisers love having actual, physical papers.

We’re making newspapers, not content. We’re covering people’s worlds as they actually are, not merely pushing information at them. In a time of increasing division and ‘fake news’ we’re trying to make journalism happen that reflects our communities as they are, not the way outsiders would like them to be. The same is true of other community media organisations across the country and the world.

Given more resources, and a chance to have a chance to breathe, community newspapers like ours could be the home for the stories that need to be told defined by the people who need to read them. Local community media ties communities together by showing them at their best, even when they are living through their worst. More than ever, communities are finding it hard to hold those in power to account. For every tragedy you’ll find a blog or social media account that tried to raise the alarm before the calamity happened. Community news media is vital and, at present, funds aren’t there.

And no, charging for the publications isn’t usually the answer. Free publications work because they get to people and that’s what advertisers need. The fact that we’re operating a precarious, hand-to-mouth business model isn’t evidence of us being feckless. It’s evidence that the business model for all news-making is precarious. It’s a difficult time for local newspapers in the UK. Local print advertising revenue dropping from £1,273 Billion in 2012 to £675 million in 2017. There has been a net loss of 245 local titles between 2005 and 2018. The money just isn’t there. In places that need to see and hear news about their lives and issues, advertising revenue is even harder to come by.

So, in short: if you’re a funder community media might look like a messy thing to fund because we also rely on advertising but that’s how community media works and we do need other financial support to make high quality journalism happen for people who need it most.

The big media companies didn’t pull out of communities because there was lots of money to be made. They pulled out because there wasn’t enough.

If you’re a member of community; support your local community media organisations if you can. We need your support.

Community media is always doomed to be ‘those people who published that thing I liked ages ago but I wonder what happened to them?’ because when it comes to it, making media and doing journalism is hard and costs money if you want to do it keeping a promise to your community.

Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC. He is also writer in residence at Centre for Mental Health. He is @markoneinfour on twitter.

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