Archive for the ‘subsidies’ tag

Local news needs ‘bottom-up’ structure to survive

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Orkney Today has announced it is closing. The paper, which served the small islands of Orkney just off the Scottish coast, was — like countless other local papers — battling against declining circulation and disappearing ad revenues. “Orkney Media Group management and the newspaper’s excellent staff have tried a number of initiatives to reverse the fortunes of the newspaper,” the paper reported, “but to no avail.”

If the news industry as a whole isn’t exactly the picture of good health, local news is in the emergency room. News problems at a national level — falls in circulation, and collapse in classified and advertising revenues — are acute at a local level.

This has serious political implications, particularly in terms of who acts as the democratic watchdog, which is why this concerns not only news bosses but also politicians.

“We are concerned that … the problems in the local media industry are leading to a scrutiny gap,” read a report, Future for Local and Regional News, from the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport.

Defining local

The problem is, when thinking about what to do about it, how do you define local? For Orkney Today this was pretty easy. It served a clearly defined geographic area — the Orkney isles — that is run by the Orkney local council, and that has a long established sense of community. But what about places that aren’t surrounded by sea, that don’t have a single local authority, and may not have such a long established sense of community?

This isn’t an academic question. In political — i.e. public policy — terms how you define local will determine what you do and how you do it. How can a government, for example, even consider direct or indirect subsidies, for example, without knowing who to give them to and what parameters to set?

Boil it down and you can probably define “local” in three different ways: Politically, economically, or socially. (I’m deliberately ignoring random geographic boundaries even though that’s how regional broadcast news appears to be defined right now). The way you choose to define local then has fundamental implications for the type of journalism you end up with.

If you’re in government you’re probably most worried about the health of democracy and so it makes logical sense to define “local” in political terms — i.e. at the ward level, or the local authority or county council boundary, or the constituency. This way you highlight the watchdog role of journalism. You make clear that, as a society, you believe in the idea of a “Fourth Estate” — a section of society whose role it is to scrutinize local politics, uncover corruption, and tell truth to power.

The problem with this is that political boundaries don’t necessarily make economic sense or correspond to what people think of as local. Take my ward in England, called “Kingham, Rollright and Enstone.” I don’t live in Kingham, Rollright or Enstone, I live just outside Chipping Norton. So a news service called The Kingham, Rollright and Enstone Times wouldn’t seem very relevant to me. On top of which my ward is pretty spread out (it’s rural) and there are only about 4,000 people in it in total. That’s too few for most professional news organizations to bother with, unless they can get costs close to nil.

Because if you’re a news organization then while you’re thinking about local politics you’re also thinking economics. You have to be if you’re going to survive. You have to think about how many eyeballs you need to make enough revenue via circulation, subscriptions, classifieds, etc. You’re making a calculation that, say, you need to sell 10,000 print copies a week to get by. With 10 percent penetration that means you need to serve an area of about 100,000 people. Multiply the numbers considerably for bigger publications or for broadcast. But the problem with an economic definition of local is that it’s unlikely to match the public’s perception.

If you’re a member of the public then local probably means your street, your neighborhood, your town. What the news industry likes to call hyper-local. As a participant in a recent Birmingham focus group said, “If it’s not within a 10 mile radius, it’s not local news as far as I’m concerned … it might as well be national.” That quote comes from “Meeting the News Needs of Local Communities,” a research report released this month by Media Trust. News at this level is great for building community cohesion and for making people feel a part of a bigger society, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but volunteers and non-profits providing it in a sustainable way.

Recipe for success

That’s why it’s so hard for a government, or a news organization, to know what to do. You can’t create this sort of genuine hyper-local news service from the top down. Neither the government nor a news organization can direct the public to produce news about where they live. This sort of news has to be from the ground up. It has to be participatory. It has to be by and for the local community.

Which is why the local news organizations/co-operatives/forums most likely to work are those that start from the bottom, and that build participation, collaboration, mutualization, and partnerships into their DNA. This is very hard indeed for legacy news organizations to do. And it means that the best a government can do is to create a framework in which people are able to fill the vacuum being left by the disappearance of local news, rather than trying to subsidize the existing industry or provide top-down direct support.

This post was first published on PBS MediaShift IdeaLab on Monday 27th September, 2010

Written by Martin Moore

September 28th, 2010 at 10:23 am

Whatever local news funding model you support, if we don't know what's out there, we won't know what's working

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Arguments are starting to solidify. Camps are starting to coalesce. Policies are being set.

Now that many people have realised the seriousness of the crisis in local journalism in this country, we are – finally – moving briskly into the ‘what can we do about it?’ phase.

And already there are three camps forming:

1. The ‘Free the Corporations’ camp, as represented mostly by the senior executives at news corporations and by the recently created ‘Local Media Alliance’ – set up to make sure the government is aware of the desperate need to liberalise competition and ownership rules (though the Alliance stresses it is not a lobbying group). This week the F-the-C camp gained a considerable filip when the Conservatives came out in support of such liberalization and the CMS Select Committee announced it would look into ‘the desirability of changes to the regulatory framework for print and electronic local media, including cross-media ownership and merger regulations’.

2. The ‘Don’t Free the Corporations Camp’ as represented by the NUJ, 90 MPs who signed an Early Day Motion, and assorted others. Their argument is that deregulation would simply allow the Corporations to continue what they have been doing for the last few years, i.e. reduce editorial resources, make more journalists redundant, and centralise editorial and production. It’s not clear exactly what this camp wants as an alternative (the NUJ has called for politicians to come up with ‘big ideas’), though some are starting to argue for government subsidies. Roy Greenslade, for example, has proposed the State commit funds to a central pot which can then be distributed by a semi-independent body (similar in some ways to OFCOM’s ‘Public Service Publisher’ idea, dropped back in 2007). But the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport has, for the time being, rejected the possibility of subsidies.

3. The ‘Survival of the Fittest’ camp, as represented mostly by people like Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis. They take the Darwinian evolution line – experiment and experiment then let the free market decide. This approach doesn’t necessarily exclude future public or private subsidies for news, but argues strongly against government support for ‘old industries’.

Needless to say the three camps are not necessarily mutually exclusive (though (2) and (3) would probably have a hard time agreeing).

Given the urgency of the situation it seems highly likely that this government and/or its successor will liberalize to some extent. And with or without liberalization, number (3) will necessarily happen by default – some newspapers will die, and some news organisations probably will too.

Which leaves (2), and this is where we really do need some more thinking. One of the most interesting ideas so far is Matthew Taylor‘s suggestion building on Martin Bright’s plan for a ‘New Deal for the Mind’. Taylor has proposed providing small scale start-up funds, of around £30,000 each, for hundreds, if not thousands of new journalism ventures. This way you not only take advantage of the low start up costs of the net, but you release enormous amounts of creativity at relatively little cost (everything’s relative, of course).

But if this idea, or others like it, are going to happen, we need to know more about what is and isn’t working now. We need to explore new, small scale models in this country and abroad. We need to do some research, and fast.

Written by Martin Moore

March 27th, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Local press subsidies are not the answer

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Most people would now acknowledge that there are serious structural issues facing regional and local news. ITV says it’s too expensive and it will stop providing it unless the government makes it worthwhile (see Michael Grade’s piece in the Telegraph). Local newspaper circulations have been dropping virtually non-stop for the last few years and, more importantly, their advertising and classified revenues keep falling. As a result news organisations are cutting local staff, closing offices and shutting down newspapers (see Job Cuts Timeline at journalism.co.uk, Roy Greenslade on Archant shutting offices, and the FT on newspaper closures).


Some local areas have it worse than others. This week two Welsh politicians called Wales a ‘media wasteland’ where stories of public and political interest simply go unreported – despite the devolution of power to Wales a decade ago. ”Since 1999″, Dai Davies said, “we have seen a vast increase in powers to politicians in Wales and yet more and more journalists losing their jobs, and less and less reporting of politics and political debate and decision-making” (from BBC News Wales).

Now English politicians are also starting to become animated about the decline in reporting and lack of political coverage. Ashok Kumar, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland says he is next week going to ask the government to provide state support for the regional press (from Press Gazette).

Kumar and other politicians follow a growing number of voices from within the media itself who are suggesting the government should subsidise local newspapers. Most notably Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who wrote back in November:

“Is there any reason why local newspapers – whether in print, on broadband or broadcast – shouldn’t compete with the broadcasters for some form of subsidy in return for providing the public service of keeping a community informed about itself?”

But subsidising the local press is not, IMHO, a good idea. For at least three reasons:

1. An independent commercial press would be neither independent nor commercial if it was taking hand-outs from the government. The watchdog role played by the local press would be seriously compromised were it to be state subsidised. Imagine the attitude of local councillors to reporters whose salary was partly dependent on government financing?

2. There are huge changes taking place in the way news is collected, edited, published, delivered and consumed. These changes are forcing news organisations to completely rethink how they do business. Subsidising a 20th century model will not help them rethink and reform, it will just encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing

3. It would distort local editors and journalists view of who they serve. Instead of feeling – at root – responsible to the public, they would inevitably feel a degree of responsibility to the government.

This is not an argument against intervention per se. The government can set parameters – particularly fiscal parameters (i.e. tax) that incentivise people to collect and publish public interest news. But this is fundamentally different from providing a subsidy, however arms length, that organisations can apply for. 

Written by Martin Moore

January 16th, 2009 at 1:06 pm

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