US local news experiments leagues ahead of UK

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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.

US: Experimentation

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.

UK: Conservatism

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.

Written by Martin Moore

February 4th, 2011 at 5:10 pm

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