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

Local news is facing an existential crisis.

My previous post looked at the way that corporate local news publishers are increasingly overseeing a grim process of managed decline as they attempt to preserve profits while revenues decrease.

Those of us who are in local news because we believe news matters reject that answer but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the question: in the age of the internet, what is local news for? And, more specifically, what are local news publishers for?

You humdrum it, I won’t sing it

The Cairncross review, commissioned by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in 2018 to look into ‘the sustainability of high quality journalism’ offers an important, if relatively narrow, take.

The review’s report (published in February 2019) uses the term ‘Public Interest News’ to define journalism that requires ‘specific government intervention to ensure that it survives’. It then highlights two areas of Public Interest News that are ‘often of limited interest to the public’ but ‘essential in a healthy democracy’.

These are: ‘investigative and campaigning journalism’ and ‘the humdrum task of reporting on the daily activities of public institutions, particularly those at local level’. In the case the latter: “it is in greater danger locally, mainly because the size of the potential audience for local issues is so much smaller, and thus inevitably attracts less financial support from readers.”

The point is essentially that local news is the democratic equivalent of the Health and Safety Executive, most of us are not interested in it — or keen to pay directly for it — but we wouldn’t like the results of it not being there.

Face(book) facts?

It’s also important to note that while the Cairncross report (uncontroversially) describes how the business models that previously supported ‘humdrum’ reporting no longer work due to the internet-inspired collapse in sales and advertising revenues, it also (more controversially) argues that online alternatives have significantly affected local publications’ wider reason to exist.

The sub-section ‘5.3 The challenges to public interest journalism are most acute at a local level’ notes that “The transition online has also made local news publishers less essential to community life. Facebook now frequently acts as a hub for local groups, and one which offers speed, versatility and local involvement that newspapers cannot emulate.”

This may be true but local newspapers (or journalism-based news websites) also have attributes that Facebook groups (and other local online forums) cannot emulate.

Fellow local news publishers have pointed out the devotion of some online forums to ‘curtain-twitching’ and subsequent gripes about fellow citizens’ behaviour but many of them also do a lot of good: whether it’s coordinating practical help for people in need during the Covid-19 lockdown, organising and promoting local campaigns, or just providing an outlet for local online discussion.

The key difference is that for both better and worse, Facebook groups are outlets for non-professional individuals. They don’t employ journalists and editors, with skills and responsibility to check whether what’s being published is true* and seek out both (or more) sides of the story. They don’t directly fill the gap left by an absence of local journalism.

Nobody does it better

For us, as an organisation publishing four social enterprise community newspapers, the three key (often overlapping) reasons for our publications to exist are: (i) to hold power to account (ii) to provide people with information (iii) to amplify the views of the local community.

Local news publications don’t have a monopoly on any of these activities but they have a particular role in all of them which cannot be (or, at least, is not currently being) fulfilled by anyone else**.

In the balance

The work of local councils — both the decisions of councillors and the day-to-day implementation by officers — is scrutinised by opposition councillors, challenged by campaign groups and complained about by individuals.

All these roles and activities are important, but the role of local journalists is distinctly different. Other participants (in most cases, legitimately and honestly) engage with decision makers based on their own beliefs and experiences, and their own perspective on what should happen.

The role of local journalists is to provide the facts about what is happening, to challenge decision makers to explain what they’re doing and why, and to enable people and groups with different views on what should happen to put those views across.

Sometimes our role is a relatively simple one. In May 2020, Enfield Dispatch broke the story of a local council cabinet member, who encouraged members of the ruling Labour group to get themselves tested for Covid-19 without an appointment and ahead of local key workers.

Sometimes it’s more complicated. In 2017 and 2018, Tottenham Community Press ran a series of stories on the Haringey Development Vehicle, a controversial partnership between Haringey Council and a property developer, which ultimately led to the departure of the council leader.

It was important for Tottenham Community Press, as a community newspaper, to report the concerns of people and campaigners in the community who were (a) heavily affected by the decisions that were being taken and (b) not able to access a taxpayer-funded communications department or PR machine to put their views across for them.

But while highlighting views that might otherwise have gone unheard was vital, it was equally necessary for us to report these views as part of balanced, factual reports that also gave the council’s side of the story.

This is necessary for two reasons: (i) so that local readers have the factual information they need to make up their own minds about what’s going on and (ii) so that the views of people in the community are amplified with the additional credibility provided by being published in a regulated news publication.

Getting personal

Holding power to account is not just about big policy issues. It’s also about telling the stories of individuals on the receiving end of power — when those stories would otherwise be ignored.

In its February 2020 issue, Tottenham Community Press reported on the story of disabled resident who had died in inadequate accommodation after the council’s housing provider repeatedly failed to meet her needs.

In its June 2018 issue, Waltham Forest Echo reported on the story of a 93-year-old RAF veteran whose Second World War diaries were lost after council contractors broke into his shed and removed his possessions. The story was subsequently picked up by the national press.

Those on the receiving end of these failures (and their loved ones) had done everything they could to get a response from the local authorities concerned and got nowhere — and it seems highly unlikely that either of these stories would be reported by the council’s in-house magazines.

Helping local voices get heard

Ongoing local news publications can play a particularly useful role in enabling the voices of local people and groups to continue to be heard over extended periods of time — as complicated, long-running issues are considered, debated and resolved (or not).

In 2018, Waltham Forest Echo published three reports on the campaigning activities of parents in Waltham Forest who were concerned about the local council’s planned cuts to buses for children with disabilities and special educational needs.

The first of the reports (of petition by parents against the changes) was published in May, followed by an update on confusion around what had actually happened in August and by October the Echo was highlighting the practical problems being experienced in the new school year. This kind of reporting brings the whole community — beyond those directly involved — into the process of decision-making and enables us all to share responsibility for the decisions taken on our behalf and their consequences. This doesn’t happen if you don’t have a local news publication.

At an individual level, Walthamstow resident Michelle Edwards writes a monthly column for Waltham Forest Echo detailing her experiences living on an estate that the council is in the process of demolishing.

There’s no shortage of macro-level discussion about housing but real life stories are either ignored entirely by the national media or only covered at specific moments of drama or crisis.

Michelle’s column focuses both on interactions with the council and the company working the redevelopment, and on explaining the day-to-day challenges from heating to fire safety faced by local residents in a situation of change and uncertainty.

Michelle could have written a blog about her experiences — but (while it would be well worthy of being read) it’s unlikely that thousands of local people would find it and read it.

What’s happening here?

Alongside the needs to challenge power and amplify voices, the role of a local news publication is also to help local residents get a broader picture of what their area is like, who lives there, what their lives are like.

Even the biggest local Facebook group is an inherently opt-in activity — but what about the people who don’t opt-in to the same groups as you?

As one of many month-to-month examples from our papers, people directly involved with the local football club might know about its work in the community, people not involved are less likely to if they don’t have a local newspaper like Enfield Dispatch to let them know.

More recently, the need for local information has become particularly stark due to Covid-19. The May 2020 issue of Waltham Forest Echo reported on the pandemic from a wide range of uniquely local angles — from an interview with a local hospital boss, to drawings from local children, to teenagers writing about their experiences of life without college to an 89-year-old writing about life in his sheltered accommodation — while providing information practical community activities that readers could support (or get support from).

Similarly, pages 6 to 9 of the June/July 2020 issue of our Clerkenwell-based newspaper, EC1 Echo, provide a round-up of a range of different community initiatives set up by local people in response to the pandemic.

Without a local news publication, there is no one else to bring together this kind of information and enable local people to see a regular, curated snapshot of themselves as residents of a place or — in particularly tough times — to understand that they’re part of a wider community that is there to help if they need it.

Keeping going

The fact that local news publications can fulfill (important, useful) functions that are not fulfilled by others is not, in itself, enough to guarantee their continued existence. And it’s certainly not an argument for the local publications that currently exist in any given area to continue to exist.

There may be some situations of market failure where communities want news publications that they can’t collectively pay for and subsidy is necessary — and philanthropy and state subsidy can both play a role in supporting the development of new models. But we should not support the development of an industry of subsidised news publications that are (in Cairncross’s words) ‘of limited interest to the public’.

The positive alternative is to create local news publications that fulfill the public service goals of news but are also valued by local people and organisations to the extent that they will provide them with enough support to keep going (and grow). It’s necessary and it’s possible.

*Beyond the narrow, legal obligation to take down something that is demonstrably untrue if they’re asked to

**The examples below are from our newspapers because they’re the local publications where I have most knowledge of quite specific types of content. (I think they’re great but) this should not be construed as implying that I think they’re the only local publications providing great examples of local journalism, and future blogs will use other examples.

Previous blog:

Part One — Broken (local) news

Upcoming blogs:

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