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The Future of Local Journalism Lies in Community Ownership

Across Britain, local newspapers are dying – reduced to chasing clicks before the inevitable next round of layoffs. The only way to save the industry is to hand it back to the community.

Regional news is in crisis. For many decades, we have been able to take the continued existence of local journalism for granted, but I’m afraid to say we no longer can.

Regional offices have closed, paper sales have seen a steep decline and reporters often are removed from their local patch, working out of centralised offices miles away from the communities they are supposed to be serving. Once-revered local publications have fallen victim to syndication, which has seen community trust in regional news as a reliable source of local news come crashing through the floor.

As well as being detrimental to local democracy, the declining standards in local newsrooms is actually also incredibly sad. On Monday, Mirror publisher Reach announced plans to cut 550 roles at its 150 national and regional titles across the UK. 

Their goal is to centralise both national and regional titles, cut reporters and eventually, I suspect, close down regional offices in a bid to save the company over £35 million as it deals with the impact of the current coronavirus crisis.

However, pandemic aside, it has been unanimously agreed over the years among industry professionals that the relentless focus on page views, or clicks, has completely decimated the regional press. But that’s not to say that local reporters haven’t fought every damn day to do their best to represent their communities on important local issues.

Each morning, in my role as a regional reporter, I am required to come up with a list of six or seven story ideas to pitch to my editor which we then go through during our morning conference.

Typically, each reporter’s list is filled with quick, easy hits. Stories about traffic accidents or press releases become priority; quick, often self-contained easy hits possible to turnaround in the space of an hour. This isn’t out of lack of imagination or creativity on behalf of the reporter, it’s born of the pressure to rapidly produce content to fill the daily Facebook schedule.

My patch is a small, close-knit community, where the desire for hyperlocal news is still going strong. Good news stories about a new community project or a quirky feature on a well-known local character often land in my inbox.

When these stories are pitched to my editors, I’m told not to waste my time with them because ‘they won’t do the numbers’. In my experience editors tend to refuse what are, more often than not, important community stories on the basis they won’t score well online. And this isn’t necessarily their fault.

Editors, both nationally and regionally, are under huge pressures to continue to build audiences almost exponentially and are held hostage by rising, and increasingly arbitrary, page view targets. And the better the site performs, the higher the target will be for the next quarter.

Over the years, there have been attempts to fill the gaps in regional journalism which are recognised by the industry, with varying degrees of success.

The Facebook-funded Community News Project (which in itself is laughable when you consider what tech giants like Facebook and Google have done to the industry) is the latest, founded to report on underrepresented communities in regional newsrooms.

Launched in the UK at the start of 2019, the project has produced more than 80 new community reporter roles in newsrooms across the country.

While it has witnessed some success in larger newsrooms, often the community reporters based in smaller newsrooms, where teams are small and resources are tight, are used as spare general reporters; as an extra brain and pair of hands at a computer, ready to bash out centralised content.

So what can be done to save regional news, and begin to rebuild the trust that has slowly dwindled away over the years between communities and their papers? Could handing ownership of local news back to its communities be a way forward?

The idea that community-owned or hyperlocal journalism could potentially fill the void left by failing traditional local news outlets isn’t a new one. Across the UK, there are a number of local news cooperatives that have emerged in the face of declining regional news standards.

Take as an example, The Ferret, based in Scotland and launched in 2015, is a registered co-operative which reserves places on its board for both journalists and subscribers.

In the About Us section of their site, the outlet says it invites its readers to be paying supporters and aims to build a ‘community of like-minded people’ by inviting them to actively participate in the running of the paper.

Its board members are split between a regulatory committee, consisting of reader members only, and an editorial committee, consisting exclusively of journalists. 

In Canada, a newspaper called The Gleaner, established in 1863, looked set to shut down for good in November 2018. Instead the company who owned the paper, Gravite Media, decided to offer the paper’s rights back to the community it once served.

A town meeting was held and from that an 11-member steering committee, consisting of former Gleaner journalists and community volunteers, began publishing the paper again. As of December 2019, the paper was working on securing 1,500 paid subscribers in order to facilitate establishing The Gleaner as a bi-weekly publication.

A media co-operative like The Ferret or The Gleaner democratises local media by allowing its readership to influence policy and set the agenda. 

It removes the constant need to chase clicks for advertising revenue, allows its journalists to become embedded within their communities and imbues its readers with a sense of involvement and control.

There is no doubt that local papers are facing an existential crisis. But instead of frantically trying to preserve the floundering traditional business models, making journalists and readers shareholders in their own paper may be an easier way of giving local media the capital it desperately needs, while at the same time giving reporters the stability and space to properly pursue quality local content.

Ultimately, the future of regional journalism under the ownership of corporate conglomerates looks set to fail. In order to survive, we must look at new ways of working.

Regional journalism is crucial to local democracy as the need to properly hold those in power to account grows ever greater.

But it’s not just the need to hold power to account that makes local journalism so essential. At its best local journalism represents its patch, and helps people imagine themselves as part of a wider community, connected through the dissemination of information, ideas and debate.