Imagine there’s no local news. You hardly have to try. Hundreds of local newspaper titles have disappeared over the past 10 years, BBC local radio is in freefall and local television has sunk from view. More than 4 million people in the UK live in “news deserts” without adequate local journalism, and millions more reside in “news drylands”, where local news is close to collapse.
But this isn’t the whole story. While legacy publishers and broadcasters grapple with economic headwinds and blame social media platforms for their woes, a new generation of independent news providers is emerging. Unsung, unfunded and mostly underpaid, these indies are reimagining local news in communities from Shetland to the Isle of Wight and from Caerphilly to Newry.
In Manchester, the Mill has attracted thousands of paying subscribers to in-depth local journalism via its Substack newsletter. The Bristol Cable produces investigative journalism on a co-operative basis, with local people setting the agenda. In Glasgow, two nonprofit outlets – Greater Govanhill and the Ferret – have come together to open the UK’s first community newsroom, where local people are invited in to talk about their concerns and take part in editorial meetings.
Not all of these indie publishers are confined to a single location. The Bylines Network has 10 outlets, from Sussex to Scotland. Social Spider runs five papers in a number of north London boroughs. And the Mill has launched spin-offs in Birmingham, Liverpool and Sheffield, with more to follow.
In some ways, these initiatives are part of the long tradition of local journalism in the UK. In other ways, they are subtly radical. They don’t just treat the public as sources or consumers of journalism, they co-create the news with them. They don’t provide journalism in order to make money, they make money in order to provide journalism.
You might think that the government would want to support these news entrepreneurs, who are levelling up information provision in communities across the UK. But no. In fact, successive governments have channelled a range of subsidies to the corporate publishers who own the surviving legacy local papers, while the indies have received next to nothing.
Rather than benefiting from subsidies, indie publishers are instead footing the bill for the information needs of their communities, providing public interest journalism at a fraction of the cost it takes to produce, simply because they care. This is unsustainable. Already, we are seeing indie news providers burning out – full of passion for their work but frustrated that they don’t get the recognition they deserve. When we asked indie publishers about their greatest challenge, many simply said, “surviving”.
This sector isn’t perfect. There are concerns that the focus on digital news will exclude people who aren’t online, and that small independent publishers simply can’t keep up with everything that’s happening in their local communities. Indie publishers are aware of these limitations, and desperately want to do more to serve their communities with up-to-date news in multiple formats. But there’s only so much they can do on a median turnover of only £35,000.
We can turn this situation around. The government could rewrite the rules around public notices, to allow local councils to advertise with those outlets that reach the most engaged local audiences, whether they’re in print or online. Central government could also place a chunk of its multimillion-pound advertising budget with indie publications. Big tech companies could reimburse indie publishers for the traffic and engagement they generate on their platforms. Philanthropists could recognise the huge social value of independent local news, and donate money to local news funds to stimulate grassroots media around the UK.
Initiatives to revitalise local news are under way in other parts of the world. Philanthropists in the US have pledged $500m to rebuild local news, with the target of raising $1bn over the next decade. Governments in Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand provide subsidies for local news through arm’s-length mechanisms to protect journalistic independence. The City of New York puts more than 80% of its advertising budget in the hands of community media. In Canada, there are tax breaks for journalism.
The UK is an outlier in its lack of support for independent local news. Despite the recommendations of the Cairncross review in 2019 and at least four other inquiries since then, the government has allowed our local news industry to become ever more concentrated, and ever more fragile.
We are locked in a downward spiral when we could be in a cycle of renewal. The government keeps throwing money at the newspaper publishers who have done the least to solve the problem, rather than unlocking the potential of the indies.
This isn’t an either-or situation. We don’t have to abandon the legacy papers that have been part of the fabric of British life for hundreds of years. We could explore placing them in community ownership, as the National Trust for Local News is doing in parts of the US, or at least make their subsidies conditional on investing in journalism, as recommended by the National Union of Journalists. At the very least, we urgently need to create a level playing field, where new entrants are able to compete on equal terms.
Audiences will pay for quality local news. But it will take concerted action to build a sustainable local news economy. The indie news entrepreneurs are the key to a better future. They are giving so much to society. It’s time they got something in return.