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Why we need a UK equivalent of the Knight News Challenge

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This post was first published on the LSE Media Policy Project blog on 9th October 2014

You’ll remember the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life: the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would look like if he had never existed. Mr Potter owns virtually everything in the town. There are pawnshops, night clubs and neon bars all down the high street. Nothing functions in the re-named ‘Pottersville’ without Mr Potter taking a cut.

In five years’ time, a new media giant such as Google or Facebook could have a similar stranglehold on our local media.

Our local print press continues to decline. In the first half of 2014 alone, local newspaper circulation dropped by an average of 13.5 per cent year-on-year. Since 2000, regional newspaper paid circulation has more than halved.

Hyperlocal websites are starting to fill the democratic gap, but slowly and intermittently. There are fewer than fifteen hyperlocal sites in Northern Ireland and fewer than thirty in Wales and Scotland (Ofcom, 2013). Less than a third of hyperlocal sites make enough money even to cover even basic costs (Barnett/Townend 2014).

Open data has yet to animate an army of armchair auditors, as the Coalition government hoped it would. ‘Simply putting data “out there”’, the Public Administration Committee said in 2014, ‘is not enough to keep Government accountable’ (PAC, Tenth Report).

Civic technology has not taken off in the UK as it has in the US

We do not yet have an equivalent to – the private residents’ social network, or – the crowdfunding site for local civic projects, or – digital tools to involve people more closely in planning decisions.

The amount invested in local news and civic technology in the US – for profit and non-profit – dwarfs that invested in the UK. The Knight Foundation alone has put over $235 million into journalism and media innovation in the last eight years. MacArthur, Rockefeller, Open Society, Ford and other foundations have also supported innovation in this area. Private investors have invested more still, particularly in civic technology. Between 2011 and 2013, private funders put $364 million into civic technology in the US (Knight Foundation, 2013).

In contrast, our local civic innovators and entrepreneurs are starved of support. NESTA, Technology Strategy Board and Carnegie are almost the only non-commercial funders supporting innovation in local news and information.

The consequences are becoming clear. Local news and information providers are increasingly unable to perform the role expected of the Fourth Estate. Local businesses and services are ever more reliant on non-UK technology platforms. We urgently need to alter our trajectory. We need to move from deterioration and dependence to innovation and growth.

Spurring innovation

The best way to change this is through a local news competition. A competition in which individuals and organisations would compete for awards of between £10,000 and £50,000 to start, grow and run the local news and civic technology of the future.

Similar competitions already exist in the US – like the Knight News Challenge. Over the first five years of the Challenge, Knight gave awards to 79 news innovation projects – a total of $26.5 million.

A UK version of such a competition could see a transformation of local news. Ten million pounds a year for five years would lead to over 2,000 award winners: 2,000 local news and civic technology projects around the UK. It would be a bottom up revolution in local news, driven by people in the local areas themselves. Compare this to the 30 licenses granted to organisations to provide local broadcast TV services.

Neither does such a competition need to be supported through existing public funds. The French government set up a €60 million news transition fund paid for by Google (following a dispute about whether Google should pay to display news content in its search results). Eric Schmidt has since said he is happy to discuss a similar arrangement in the UK. Alternatively, there could be a more realistic charge for the collection and commercial re-use of personal data.

Such a competition could create a flowering of innovation and information about local communities. It could energise civic participation and democratic engagement. It could leave a legacy of enterprise, experience and invention that would put the UK at the forefront of digital information development.

The alternative? We could watch as new media giants – most US-based – colonise our local areas, providing digital platforms for everything from the council to the police to local business. These digital giants would necessarily levy a charge or subsidise their services through local advertising.

As with Mr Potter’s Bedford Falls – or rather Pottersville – nothing will function in Bedford, Bedfordshire, without Google or Facebook taking a cut.

The full report on which this post is based – ‘Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality’ – was published by the Media Standards Trust on 9 October 2014. 

Written by Martin Moore

October 17th, 2014 at 11:33 am

News Innovation 'Unconference' – Friday 10th July

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What do these have in common:

Audioboo – an ‘iphone audio blogging app’ that came of age during the G20 protests and is now being touted as the ‘YouTube of the spoken word’ (from Matthew Weaver on

Addiply – ‘Perfectly targetted local advertising’ software aimed at entrepreneurial journalists and online news organisations. Rick Waghorn tells you more about it on his blog, and you can see it in action on the Peoples Republic of South Devon

Guardian Open Platform – enabling people to build applications out of the Guardian’s content (like trending swearwords…). A ‘chasmic leap into the future’ says Tom Watson.

Talk About Local – ‘a project to give people in their communities a powerful online voice’ by teaching them how to use online community and reporting tools.

Journalisted – a directory of all the journalists published in the national press and on the BBC with links to their articles and other useful info (statement of interest – we built and run Journalisted – and are about to launch a new version) at

Debategraph – enabling you to use interactive graphics to help structure debate. “What’s cool here: This tool lets you “see” and engage with ideas, and explore their inter-relationships, very elegantly” says Craig Stoltz (from

Help Me Investigate – where you will be able to ‘Collaborate with other people to investigate things you all care about’. Paul Bradshaw explains more on his OnlineJournalismBlog

They are all news innovations that have the potential to change the way we fund, gather, publish and consume news on the web.

But it’s rare that the people who developed these innovations, who use them, or who who want to understand their potential, get a chance to meet and discuss them (the recent JeeCamp being a notable exception).

That’s why we, the Media Standards Trust and the Web Science Research Initiative, are organising News Innovation London – a half-day ‘unconference’ on 10th July, supported by NESTA (and at NESTA’s swish 1 Plough Place venue).

The idea is to get a bunch of journalists, developers and thinkers (academics and think tank types) together to talk about this stuff and learn from one another. It’s an unconference so there’s no formal programme and anyone can put their name down to present (wiki to go up shortly).

It’s free – as long as you register in time, and as long as you’re prepared to participate (and maybe even present). You can register at

If you’re developing an online news innovation yourself, or know about one you think should get an airing, please do tell me about it here or, even better, come along on the 10th.

Written by Martin Moore

June 4th, 2009 at 9:51 am

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