What we talk about when we talk about community media.

On 17th January Social Spider CIC hosted a round-table event, inviting those working in, or with an interest in, community media to discuss financial sustainability within the sector. We hoped to create a better understanding of current and future income streams for community media and to discuss ways our organisations could work together to increase mutual success and sustainability. Here’s the first of a two part blog series on the event.

How does the way community news organisations talk about their work affect how they understand their purpose and their value? Does the language they use affect the kind of opportunities available to them?

It is a difficult time for local newspapers in the UK — research published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 2018 noted that local print advertising revenue dropped from £1,273 Billion in 2012 to £675 million in 2017. Now, more than ever, it’s important that as an industry we are able to frame the value of our work.

Increasingly our product cannot just speak for itself; if we want to convince readers, funders and advertisers to pay for our journalism, we have to spell out our value in clear terms: linking our daily work to its wider social and political impact.

The following image lists some of the terms our attendees used:

“Independent, engaged, responsive, accountable, transparent, ethical” — these weighty terms have an important function beyond just describing our work, they act as a way of differentiating our work from corporate or mainstream alternatives.

At a time when trust in the media is at an all time low, rebuilding that trust means knowing how to talk about your work. This is not purely a branding exercise — it means doing ourselves justice, communicating our value loudly and clearly. It means knowing exactly what our strengths are and ensuring that our hard work going to council meetings, engaging with our communities, scrutinising decision makers and listening to our readers does not go unnoticed.

Forming a common language to make the case for our existence is a simple step we could take towards increasing recognition of our sector and situating it within wider debates on the future of news. At a time when 80% of all local newspaper titles are owned by six corporations, we should be unifying to make the case for independent community news which truly aspires to represent its readers and hold power to account. Through more events like our round-table, we hope to continue these conversations.

We then asked our attendees to write down “what they want to do but can’t afford to do”. We asked them to be as specific as possible, so that we could paint a clear image of what the concrete aspirations of community news practitioners are. Where possible, we asked them to estimate the cost of that activity. Responses included:

  • Produce more investigative public interest work
  • Have a full time editor, not a volunteer, to increase content and quality (£25,000 p.a.)
  • Employ a digital/creative director (£25,000 p.a.)
  • Launch two more newspapers (£50,000)
  • Create digital-first content (podcasts and videos £10,000)
  • Provide a better experience to supporters of our membership scheme (£25,000)
  • More training of citizen journalists
  • More time to go to meetings
  • Increasing frequency of publication and/or number of pages
  • Regular youth section in community newspapers (£5–4,000)
  • Hire a dedicated photographer
  • Launch in print (£3,000 start up costs)

These are relatively humble aspirations. The fact that many attendees cited covering the costs of activities which might previously been thought of as essential for any media outfit (having a paid editor, photographer, paying contributors), says a lot about the state of finances in our sector. Beyond that, it also speaks volumes about the importance of the work being done: that community news practitioners see their function as so vital that they are, in some cases, willing to go without pay so that their communities don’t have to go without news.

There was general consensus in the room that the future of funding our work was uncertain. The decline of print advertising and the low amounts generated by online adverts, means that many organisations are having to consider new routes for generating income and there appears to be a growing desire to tackle this new territory collaboratively.

In our next post we look at suggestions for diversifying revenue for community news, and assess how useful the options are likely to be, drawing from the experiences of those in the room. In this discussion we come back to the importance of language, of knowing how to sell the value of our work to multiple parties so that we can clearly indicate why what we are offering is worth paying for.

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