We need The Mill but it's not going to solve the local news problem on its own
“The global decline of local news is one of journalism’s greatest challenges and it’s not going to be solved by a single idea, but by many entrepreneurial visions”
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“The global decline of local news is one of journalism’s greatest challenges and it’s not going to be solved by a single idea, but by many entrepreneurial visions.” Nicholas Johnston, Axios
In the fiercely independent and vibrant Devon market town where I live, the local school is selling off its playing field to developers to rebuild its crumbling classrooms. The nearby land trust, which owns huge swathes of the surrounding countryside, appears to be in financial trouble. A passionate community of river swimmers are working with the water company to end the sewage issue that’s plagued the local waterways. And the old dairy is at the centre of a major planning dispute over a community venture that’s been trampled on by opportunistic property developers.
Once upon a time every one of these issues would have been subject to thorough investigation and scrutiny by reporters for several local newspapers. Those reporters would have been embedded in the community and would understand the context and the history behind these issues and have the contacts to really dig into the detail. There would have been tough questions for those involved, public accounts sifted through, pages of newspaper commentary and reactions from everyone impacted in the community and beyond.
Instead, a press release appears on the front page of the local weekly paper and a vox pop on the BBC website reflecting a solitary local TV or radio news broadcast on any one of these issues. My former colleagues at DevonLive may carry a story at key moments and The Guardian may occasionally deem one of these issues reflective of a wider societal problem and invest the time and resource to bring a feature to life. But none of these issues are regularly and consistently scrutinised which means landowners, developers, councils and water companies can, to a greater or lesser extent, get away with it.
This is not just a problem for my home town. It’s the picture across almost every community in England. While acts of brilliant journalism happen every day, local newsrooms don’t have the size or scope of reporting teams they once had because there are no longer the kind of funds to sustain them that were once provided by print circulation, classifieds and advertising that has since migrated to the big tech platforms.
A lot has been written about some of the newer players in the local news market in recent weeks. The quote above from Johnston was written in reference to Mill Media, which has built up a network of 5,000 paying subscribers to its local news portfolio on Substack, including the Manchester Mill, Liverpool Post and Sheffield Tribune. It’s a great concept successfully driving revenue from paying subscribers for (usually) one thoughtful and thought-provoking story a day.
Michael McLeod’s brilliant Edinburgh Minute newsletter, also on Substack, provides a daily 60 second long read on all that’s going on in the city and again is sustaining a business through paying subscribers. Elsewhere in the UK, membership journalism models are sustaining some great journalism. The Bristol Cable pioneered an investigative local media co-op in 2014 and has just launched a new membership drive to become entirely member funded. Rhiannon Davies is doing some brilliant work in Govanhill to create a not-for-profit community magazine. And there are some seriously experienced hyperlocal journalists across the UK, such as my former colleague, Graham Smith, holding authorities to account in their communities and making a living from reader revenue.
Meanwhile the biggest industry players, like Reach and Newsquest, continue to produce stories that really matter in local markets, funded largely through advertising. They have built a model to sustain local journalism through scale, using data to inform what audiences are engaging with and creating content that readers are interested in.
All of these organisations want to sustain local journalism. They are all adapting to survive in a tough market. But too often we view those outside of our own organisation as rivals rather than people with the shared interests and values that I believe we all hold. I see the independents denounce the legacy media organisations as purveyors of ‘clickbait’ in order to drive subscriptions. And those bigger organisations can sometimes dismiss the hyperlocals as too small or unworthy of serious attention.
The value of diversity in the media landscape is rarely celebrated. Even the DCMS in its report into the sustainability of local journalism in the UK earlier this year consistently denounced the largest news organisations for ‘compromising the quality of local journalism’, while the small players were lauded for ‘focusing on quality, often long-form, journalism with a high degree of relevance to their local communities’.
But in reality, we don’t just need The Mills and Cables, doing brilliant journalism but often behind a paywall. We need a plurality of media, approaches to journalism and funding models to sustain a healthy, open local news ecosystem that works for individual communities and different audiences.
So what if, instead of treating each other as rivals, local journalists and media organisations collaborated in pursuit of brilliant, sustainable journalism to serve their communities? We’ve seen examples of this with campaigns such as Power Up The North a few years back. And I love the approach by Ping to connect a network of hyperlocal news outlets with regional and national news organisations to create new revenue streams for independent media.
Former colleague Ed Walker in his latest newsletter outlined a list of recommendations for how the BBC could support local news, including expanding the excellent Local Democracy Reporting Scheme, working together on investigations and creating journalism hubs around the country. There are some great ideas in there that could see the BBC better supporting a thriving local news ecosystem and encouraging collaboration.
Local journalism is best sustained by championing not just the independents but legacy media too and provide an environment where all new ideas are embraced and we’re solving the issue of local journalism together.
So how can we better work together across the industry to ensure a plurality of local news organisations not only survive but thrive and stories like those in my own community are given the scrutiny they deserve?
I’d love to hear your views on this. Email me at email@example.com with your thoughts
Stories of the week
"How might we tell different stories, in different ways, to meet the information needs of people and communities who do not currently see or get a value from journalism, to enhance the capacity of citizens to understand and orientate themselves in the world and take action on behalf of themselves and their communities, because healthy societies rely on an informed public". That’s the question being asked by Shirish Kulkarni in a new project, News for All, that aims to connect vulnerable communities with journalism.
🌍 Fathm has released its eight core principles for journalism sustainability. They include serving your audience, optimising for trust, measuring your impact and recognising the role of climate in every decision. Read the full list here
📰 The horrifying attacks in the Middle East this week have created a huge spike in the sharing of misinformation and fake images and video on social media. Journalists have a vital role to play here in verifying and sharing the truth about what’s happening. There’s a useful guide here from Poynter to how to avoid misinformation about the war.
🤖 As readers of this newsletter will probably gather, I’m quite optimistic about AI. I believe that journalism has an important role to play in navigating society through an AI era and that if we get on the front foot with it, we’re transparent about its use and we shape the legislation around it, then it presents a lot of opportunities to enhance journalism. It will also reinforce the value of human-created content, especially if we better articulate the time, effort and provenance that has gone into our best journalism. This week I shared my thoughts on AI with the lovely folk at Media Voices. Do have a listen and let me know what you think https://lnkd.in/e8mJvnG7
AI experiment of the week
Tool: Adobe Firefly
Prompt: Graphic to illustrate the circular economy
Tips: Of all the AI image creator tools that I’ve tried so far, I like Adobe Firefly best because the interface is so easy and because they have put ethics at the heart of their development. The AI tool is trained only on Adobe stock images, openly licensed content and images in the public domain and they’ve committed to compensating creators on whose content their tools are trained. That said, I’ve not yet mastered the image prompt. All tips gratefully received!
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Until next time.