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Can independent community-based news save local journalism?

Community journalists are putting local news back on the agenda. Author provided

Can independent community-based news save local journalism?

The debate over the changing state of the UK’s local media has been ignited once more, after a journalist left his job over frustration with changing content practices.

The anger of Gareth Davies, a former reporter for the Trinity Mirror-owned Croydon Advertiser newspaper, was sparked by the inclusion of two separate (and non-local) web-style “listicle” articles on consecutive pages of his former publication.

Davies is not alone in his exasperation: like others in the trade, his anger arose out of his former employers seemingly chasing clicks at the expense of what he sees as quality news in the public interest.

For their part, Trinity Mirror have denied the claims and defended their digital strategy. Senior staff have said that “the more people who see a story locally, the greater chance we have of convincing local advertisers to jump on board”, and, that “journalists have to think like their audience, cover the questions and concerns they are likely to have and present stories in a way that makes them want to read it”.

Huge companies like Trinity Media own most of the UK’s local newspapers and websites that communities rely on for local news, making the practices Davies disapproves of a new norm. But could the declining local news market survive without corporate ownership? Davies and others suggest that hyperlocal media co-operatives offer a possible “hint” of what can be achieved.

The idea that community or hyperlocal journalism could fill the vacuum left by a struggling traditional local news industry has been mooted before – but is it realistic?

News black holes

Like many other UK towns, Port Talbot in south Wales recently lost its weekly newspaper, and now news and information is provided by the Port Talbot Magnet – a quarterly newspaper and website run by a part-time mix of volunteers and paid freelance journalists – and the South Wales Evening Post, based ten miles away in Swansea. The latter maintains a Port Talbot edition with some bespoke articles from the whole Neath Port Talbot county area, staffed by just two dedicated reporters.

Research found that between 1970 and 2015 there was a 90% drop in journalists covering Port Talbot, coupled with “process changes” such as reporters only leaving the office by express permission, with increasing reliance on managed news sources and press releases.

The rise of DIY hyperlocal news means many hundreds of volunteers and smaller independent news companies now also cover the minutae of local life. They often produce news that plays roles traditionally associated with the retreating traditional local journalism: they cover local politics, hold local elites to account, represent community life, and publicise local campaigns. They often embed themselves in community life in ways many established local journalists no longer can, and their dedication means that local audiences too small to be commercially profitable are given a dedicated news service.

Though it’s likely that this unprecedented level of citizen participation in news will continue well into the future, its overwhelming reliance on volunteers makes it a precarious practice. Community news sites are often very different from local news organisations in that they lack the institutional clout of a local newspaper, with its authority, budgets and support mechanisms. Then there’s the numbers game: the many thousands of professional journalists lost to the local news sector in the last 15 years dwarfs the relatively modest numbers of community news producers who have emerged.

Sustaining local news

A 2015 overview of UK community journalism found that the few community news organisations which aim to generate revenues are taking different paths in order to do so, such as forming reader-owned media-co-operatives. These co-ops democratise local media by allowing community co-owners to set policy and influence editorial direction. They also provide a continuous, crowdsourced, stream of revenue to supplement others such as local advertising. It is still early days, but they are growing, becoming more embedded in communities, and beginning to pay contributors for their work.

Other community news publishers have already begun to employ full-time, salaried staff, sustained by mixed funding models: combining online and printed advertising, sponsored advertorials, membership, crowdfunding, and more.

The true value of hyperlocal news cannot be put into purely financial terms but their current success is a strong hint that these models will continue looking forward. The community news sector is beginning to fill some of the the gaps left by the diminished local newspaper industry – whether it can replace it entirely is another question.

A longer version of this article is available on the Centre for Community Journalism website.