Archive for the ‘local news’ tag
This article was first posted at PBS MediaShift Ideas Lab on Tuesday 1st February
It is easy to overestimate the similarities between the US and the UK. As Oscar Wilde wrote back in 1887, ”We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”
But one of the unfortunate recent similarities has been the parallel crisis in local news, especially at newspapers. In both countries existing local news providers have been the hardest hit by the structural changes in news provision and consumption, each having relied so heavily on classified and recruitment advertising.
Yet the reactions of the two countries have been very different, particularly in the last couple of years. Comparing these different reactions helps illuminate why the US is starting to see a future for local news in the digital era while the UK is still mired in the soup of its analog past.
Over the last five years the U.S. has seen – and continues to see – lots of experimentation in the provision of local news and information. This has been due to:
Severity and speed of the American crisis Between 2007 and 2009, U.S. newspaper advertising revenues fell 43 percent, according to the State of the News Media 2010. Some news groups went under. In the majority of cases, however, this did not lead papers to close. Instead, the papers themselves became much less substantial (i.e. costs were carved out of editorial resources). At the same time, those within and outside the news industry searched frantically for new ways of gathering, publishing and delivering news.
Provision of foundation grants for new ideas and start-ups Since 2006, J-Lab estimates that “more than $141 million in non-profit funding flowed into new media.” U.S. foundations – most notably the Knight Foundation – invested millions of dollars in experimentation. The Knight News Challenge, which funds this website, has given people a chance to compete for a share of a $5 million pot each year since 2006. The same foundation funded New Voices, an initiative that awarded “small grants to seed the launch of innovative community news venture.” Other foundations, such as the Sandler Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and Omidyar Network, also provided grants and start-up funds for projects as diverse as ProPublica, the Voice of San Diego, NewsTrust.net and Ushahidi.
Role of universities in hothousing and nourishing start-ups Many US universities have, for many years, published highly professional local newspapers and news outlets. This has broadened and deepened since the crisis in local news kicked in. Some college news outlets, like the University of Miami’s Grand Avenue News, have formed partnerships with commercial newspapers (in this case the Miami Herald). Some have developed news outlets and then sold them off to outside news companies (as with Montana University’s Dutton County Courier to the Choteau Acantha newspaper). Others have won awards for their investigative journalism (like ChicagoTalks.org from Chicago’s Columbia College). All these examples are taken from J-Lab’s excellent research on What Works. There are many more.
Investment in regional or national networks of digital sites As the traditional news players collapsed, some new media players have jumped in to fill the gap. AOL launched Patch, a national network of local sites like Montclair Patch, and Chicago Heights Patch. In 2010, the Vocus State of the Media report found there were 724 online news launches, all but 36 of them on Patch. Other companies like Main Street Connect are trying to provide a similar local news template and service, if on a smaller scale than Patch (e.g. see the Daily Greenwich).
Through this experimentation, the U.S. has learned lots about what works and what doesn’t. That is not to say it has “solved” the crisis in local news. That assumes there is a single solution, which there isn’t. But there are different ways to address the underlying problem – how people get the information they need to participate fully in democratic society – and the US has progressed along the road towards this.
By comparison, there has been far less experimentation in the UK. There are important exceptions to this rule but, compared to the US, the conservatism of the UK is striking. The reasons for this include:
The continuing dominance of four big news groups Four news groups control between 60 to 70 percent of the local news market: Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Northcliffe (owned by DMGT) and Newsquest (owned by Gannett). They have not distinguished themselves by their experimentation. Of the four, Trinity Mirror has, after a slow start, shown the most interest in trying to adapt to the digital era. It is launching hyper-local sites and collaborating with existing bloggers and community news sites. Northcliffe has a network of hyper-local sites but they are very cookie-cutter (see Market Harborough People vs. Melton Mowbray People), and appear to have minimal investment. Johnston and Newsquest are crippled by debt and many wonder how long they can continue. Yet while they do they help to squelch the development of nascent local media ventures.
The lack of foundation funding The UK does not have a similar legacy of supporting public media. Perhaps because of the dominance of the publicly funded BBC, foundations have not, in the past, tended to give grants to local media provision. This is now changing gradually, but we have yet to see a foundation investing heavily in local media in the way the Knight Foundation has in the US.
Introverted universities Similarly, though most universities have a university newspaper (and sometimes more than one), most of these are for and about the university, rather than for the wider community. Nor have many journalism departments sought to incubate, or launch, actual news startups. There are exceptions, of course. Goldsmiths College in London launched eastlondonlines.co.uk, an independent news website serving Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Croydon. But there is nothing on the scale or ambition of media ventures at US universities.
Negative government intervention In the US, the government has stayed away from direct intervention in local media, and US foundations have stepped in to partly fill the gap. In the UK not only have foundations not stepped in, but the government has, if anything, suppressed experimentation. It has done this partly by searching for ways to prop up the existing incumbents, and partly through its adherence to a top-down policy on local TV news.
Despite the conservatism of the incumbents, the lack of foundation funding, the lack of incubation at universities and the negative government intervention, there are British innovators, entrepreneurs and intrepid local startups (see here, here and here). But right now they are working against the grain in the UK, which is not as it should be.
This post was first published on the Media Standards Trust website on 31st January 2011
In 2010 we – Media Standards Trust – started a joint project with Cardiff University’s School of Journalism looking at whether a democratic deficit was emerging due to the decline of local news.
The project won backing from KESS – the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships, funded under the European Social Fund (ESF) Convergence Programme by the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO). This, combined with contributions from the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University, enabled us to set up a fully funded a three year case study in Wales.
We chose to focus on Wales because the position of local news in Wales is already far more precarious than in most other places in the UK. Over 90% of newspapers read in Wales are published in London and contain almost no Welsh news (from Institute for Welsh Affairs research). Unlike Scotland, Wales has no real national newspaper but a series of regional and local papers. Many of these have closed in the last few years, and those that have not have shrunk in terms of editorial resources. There are areas in Wales there is one editor editing three or more local titles at once.
In parts of Wales there are now no local newspapers at all. In Port Talbot, for example, the Port Talbot Guardian closed down in 2009. The South Wales Evening Post has a Port Talbot insert of a few pages. But otherwise there is almost no local coverage.
This is why we have chosen to study Port Talbot – to see what happens when town of 50,000+ people has almost no professional reporters left and no local news outlet.
Questions the project is trying to address include:
- What evidence is there of a decline in local news gathering and provision?
- If there has been a decline, where has it been focused? What ‘news’ is now not being covered that once was?
- Is there evidence that news of significant public interest has not been reported?
- How are people now finding out about local news?
- Who is most affected by the lack of local news provision and how?
But the project is not simply about researching the problem. We also want to know whether the opportunities provided by digital media can address the news deficit.
So in addition to the research, we are experimenting with new digital models of local news provision, collaborating with both the commercial and public sector and closely involving local people.
The project is being led by Rachel Howells. Rachel has worked for more than ten years as a journalist, and is now one of the founding members of Local News South Wales, a co-operative of journalists based out of Port Talbot. She is doing her KESS-funded PhD on local news and the democratic deficit at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, working in collaboration with the Media Standards Trust.
The Kess Award (on Google Docs)
Coverage of the project on journalism.co.uk
Given that the reinvention of local news seems to fit well with the UK government’s idea of a ‘Big Society’ why does the government’s current media policy seem to contradict both?
It is becoming increasingly clear that the reinvention of local news will have to be from the ground up. There are certain aspects of news gathering and publication that are not profitable to do (think court and council reporting). Therefore assuming there are no direct government subsidies – which seems a pretty safe assumption right now – if it is to be done it will need to done by people who want to do it, are committed to doing it, and are not looking to make lots of money out of it. In other words, people who live locally and want to contribute something to the society in which they live.
This is just the type of thing this government wants to get people doing. Just last month the Prime Minister David Cameron said he intends: ‘to build a nation of doers and go-getters, where people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better”. The government, Cameron continued, wants to empower people, particularly at a local level, ‘breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society.”
Local media is a great first step on the ladder of community involvement. You can start with a very low level of commitment – participating in a local online forum, posting pictures to a local flickr site – and then progress organically towards a deeper and more substantial commitment – organising local events and writing up reviews, reporting on discussions at the local school’s open meeting.
Read ‘What Works’, a fascinating recent report by the J-Lab assessing 46 local community start-ups that they have been involved with, and you’ll see how closely local media links with local community and local participation. Take The Forum in Deerfield, New Hampshire. It is run by a core group of local volunteers, but more than 350 people have contributed news, articles, photos, columns, art and literature to the site (50 of whom contribute regularly). According to J-Lab ‘The School Board and Select Board now seek out coverage. The local police departments send crime reports. Recreation departments and libraries submit articles.’ And the whole thing is run from within the community.
Yet, current government media policy seems to run counter both to this bottom up reinvention of local news and to the ideals of the Big Society. This was made manifest last week in two one-day conferences that, by chance, happened on consecutive days last week – 1000 flowers in Norwich, and Local TV news at City University in London.
At 1000 flowers Rick Waghorn had gathered together a motley collection of grassroots initiatives, entrepreneurs, local businesses, and local media players. Panels focused on the entrepreneurial side of local news, collaboration, and how to avoid onerous regulation. Even the big players who were there – like Trinity Mirror and STV – were clear about how much they had learnt these last few years about the limits of the top down approach. Trinity Mirror has, for example, now struck partnership deals with over 20 local bloggers in Birmingham. STV has spent the last few months talking to as many people as they can about collaborations.
By comparison the local TV news conference the following day illustrated how the local TV idea – the one on the table from government – seemed to come from another era. There were panels talking about transmitters, DTT platforms and whether Birmingham Alabama really is like Birmingham West Midlands (it isn’t). The assumption appears to be – from the government side – that if the State decides that the future of local news is local TV, provided on a digital terrestrial platform, then that is what the future will be.
This is classic top down thinking. Exactly the opposite of the Cameroonian Big Society. Rather than “breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power” this is a Kevin Costner Field of Dreams approach: ‘If we provide the transmission frequency it will be filled’.
But it won’t. It won’t because the economics don’t work, the demand is not proven, and there is little evidence that this is what people want to do (unless the government pays them to do it). On the economics, many many people with much more knowledge than me on money matters have made clear that local TV in the UK would not be profitable. If it were, as Claire Enders said on the Friday, people would be doing it.
The future of local media is likely to be messy – just like the Big Society. Messy in the sense that different communities will do things differently. There will not be homogeneity. Some communities will have a thriving community of journalists, geeks and bloggers covering local politics, local schools, and weekend fetes (like Birmingham). And they will do it in whatever way makes sense to them and what works for their community. Other communities will have very limited provision.
It is these gaps in provision we should be worrying about. But the way to fill them is not to ‘provide space on the DTT transmitter’, it is to motivate people and incentivise people to fill it. The way to do this is to lower the cost to providing this sort of information and scrutiny (e.g. though transparency) and then provide incentives for people to do this in a sustainable way (e.g. by providing tax breaks for public interest news provision).
But let’s please start to realise that telling people to do this, and telling them to do it on a DTT TV platform, is not going to make it happen.
More posts about #1000 Flowers and City Local TV conferences:
Last week was, Stephen Glover writes in The Independent, ‘as bad as could be’ for the newspaper industry. Falling circulations, plummeting advertising, and large scale redundancies. The Independent announced 90 jobs would go. The Daily Mail and General Trust said 400 would lose their jobs. Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press continued to drop ever further in value.