Local news is vital for communities
News is about agency.
Gossip, frivolous stories, comment sections, sports – all of these things can be insightful, fun, entertaining or, at least, harmless. But forget all that. Newspapers are about news, and news is about information, and the power this information bestows.
It is great to live in a democracy, where each person has their say in how society is governed, but without a good and reliable source of information on which to build our opinions the system is undermined.
Scope wrote about this recently, detailing why newspapers used to be hugely profitable and now are not.
Financial pressures from the market collapse have led to huge cuts in media at national, regional and local levels with the greatest losses, in general, at smaller outlets, some of which have collapsed.
However, this is not the death of original media, because media did not begin as a for-profit enterprise - its roots are in philanthropy, sort of.
Newspapers in this part of the world started in the mid-17th century as propaganda tools of the protagonists in the English Civil War (and, thus, the very first news was Fake News). They were never profitable, originally - that was never their purpose.
Centuries later, successive governments regarded them as so potentially dangerous in fomenting dissent that Stamp Duty was increased to crippling levels in 1792. This was effectively to force those who did not receive government grants out of business for expressing unfavourable opinion.
By the mid- to late-19th Century the political press was born and by the 1880s it was widely viewed that ownership of the Times was equivalent to controlling 100 MPs.
The great newspaper magnates – Beaverbrook, Northcliffe et al - were more concerned with political influence than making money. Newspapers run explicitly for profit dates from the mid-20th Century.
So, the history of media is rich and colourful and rough as hell.
But media is still important. It is still vital, at least in principle, even if many of its key purposes are not being met. The question, therefore, is how to create a news landscape that works.
Our previous piece mentions some measures being put forward in Canada – including tax breaks, efforts to move newspapers into charitable status, and CAN$50m investment – to bolster the country’s ailing media, where a third of all journalism jobs have disappeared since 2010.
If the job of covering courts, councils and tribunals is no longer able to wash its face in NI or the UK, could we do something similar here?
The first thing to say is that this already happens. The BBC is funded by taxpayers and provides a huge amount of news coverage on a regional and national level. However, Auntie does not send reporters out to the bread and butter of local journalism, like magistrates’ courts or council meetings, except to follow a specific (and large, and already known) story.
Or, rather, it does not do that comprehensively. An exception should be noted, because the BBC has a pilot scheme to address this very problem, with its “local democracy reporters”. It has been running for over a year and has proved popular with the publishers who have benefitted, but it is small scale compared with what is needed (and, given the constant political pressure faced by the BBC, it would be unwise for any solution to come entirely under its remit).
On a much smaller scale, The Detail is an excellent investigative news outlet specialising in in-depth reporting, and it draws funding from philanthropy and public, as well as private, sources.
Again, however, it does not provide all core services.
Outside of large urban areas – and even within those – the basic civic standards of journalism are becoming tough or impossible.
The UK government commissioned research into these problems, and the findings were published in February. The Cairncross Review – a sustainable future for journalism is a wide ranging look at all aspects of journalism, which has specific observations about local needs and the preservation of democracy.
It says change is necessary to sustain “activities which are important public goods, essential to the preservation of an accountable democracy, with poor market incentives for supply (and limited demand), but which it would be inappropriate for the state to finance directly.”
However, the research makes the point that it is difficult to know what any solution looks like to the market crash – because the market is still crashing, while big tech (Google and Facebook) has swallowed advertising revenues but may face pushback, so the problem itself has not entirely settled.
Per the report: “In considering recommendations, the Review has primarily looked for ways to help publishers become self-sufficient: for ways to foster innovations in technology and in business models, and to ensure sustainable private provision of public-interest news. In the shorter term though, more direct support from government may be necessary to ensure a minimal level of provision. Undoubtedly new institutions will also be required.”
A solution, not a fix
“I accept that there is no clear business model to replace the 160-year-old one that has been wrecked and is now in the process of being destroyed. Advertising revenue alone will no longer provide enough resources for news-gathering…
“[T]he future is not about saving newspaper chains, but about saving journalism. The two are not, as publishers would wish us to believe, inextricably linked.
“Down the years, they had their chance. They took their profits and they are still taking their profits. Meanwhile, they have allowed high-quality journalism to go into decline.
“Time now for a different approach, for the emergence of a journalism based on public service and run by not-for-profit enterprises funded through a mixed economy.
“Bring on public subsidies, Silicon Valley subsidies, philanthropy, joint ventures with the BBC and, yes, some advertising as well.”
The Guardian recently ran a piece about the death of all newspapers in Walsall, which is an area of similar size to Belfast on the fringes of the Birmingham urban sprawl. In this interesting article – which makes bleak reading – another media expert echoes Greenslade’s view:
Others suggest a different approach, where hyperlocal news outlets run by one or two people return to boots-on-the-ground reporting for a small area, freed from the need to contribute to a corporate owner’s debt repayments.
“All this thing about the death of the newspaper isn’t about the death of the newspaper, it’s about the death of the corporate-owned newspaper,” says Dr Rachel Matthews of Coventry University, who specialises in the history of local journalism.
“Despite all this wringing of hands, perhaps it’s a good idea if the corporate local newspaper dies and if something comes in and takes its place.”
Imagining something new
Buffeting existing institutions will not fix this matter. Perhaps the trick is to imagine what a solution would look like and work towards that.
That means identification of areas of necessary interest to democratic accountability – like local councils, like tribunals, like the courts, and more – and the calculation of how many journalists it would take to cover them all adequately.
This coverage would need to be independent – the last thing a new venture, or series of ventures, like this would need is to be mired in politicisation from the off.
There also needs to be a recognition that this is utopian thinking. Journalism is never that clean. There is a question about whether independence and objectivity are even possible, in the purest sense (there’s also an answer: no).
Every local councillor will have a view on how a meeting is covered, no matter what way it is written. Moreover, if and when reporters working this way are part of a major breaking story, rather than a documentation of the fair and natural debates of civic life, expect them to face a backlash. Corruption never goes quietly and is unburdened by honesty or fairness.
Then there is the funding. Government will have to stump up, most likely (note that statutory funds are extremely important for the third sector in general), but philanthropy and donations would also be desirable. As would commercial income, where possible.
What about readers? The answer is such a venture should be for everyone. Copy that is freely available for newspapers to mine for stories, and for anyone else to read as they wish.
Creating such a system will be difficult. The alternative is unthinkable.
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