2020 was a crossroads for local news journalism, as a pandemic swept the globe, threatening lives and also livelihoods. Media outlets large and small have been affected, and things look grim financially despite soaring traffic and engagement (Mayhew, 2020). With advertising revenue already nosediving this decade, Covid has helped to hammer home another nail in the coffin.
The future is uncertain: while the traditional media struggle and furlough staff, freelance journalists are struggling to find work, and many hyperlocal and niche publications, often run on the energy, passion and sometimes the personal finances of founders, are floundering.
The bright side of this picture is that, in the face of this stress, local newspapers, radio stations and hyperlocal sites are playing a vital role in the provision of reliable news and information. While conspiracy theories abound on What-sApp and Facebook, local news providers share often real-time information on everything from food availability to support services. They are also asking hard questions about how crises are handled on a local level. They are illustrating exactly why knowledge is power and why news is a public good.
Many of us are currently more “local” than we have ever been before, stuck in a circuit of our flats, houses and immediate neighbourhoods, and we are more dependent on our geographic communities than ever before. The concept of “community'” now seems more tangible and not just a buzzword.
There is much talk of reimagining the news so that it really serves the public and represents the issues that are at play in their daily' lives — not just those of a still relatively' middle-class, privileged core of newspaper, television and radio journalists. This is particularly true as the coronavirus crisis has exposed differences that were already' present in society', for example, who can stay' at home safely' and who is forced to go out to work, or the disproportionate number of deaths of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
The National Union of Journalists published its News Recovery Plan in 2020 with a view to mobilising its members and the wider public to demand short-term measures to protect the news industry - such as a windfall 6% tax on tech giants like Google and Facebook — as well as broader medium-term measures to create a foundation for a generation of media to serve the public good.
These include recommendations such as the establishment of a government-funded but independent journalism foundation to invest in local news and innovative journalistic projects; the establishment of an “asset of community value” status on local newspapers so that titles are preserved for potential community ownership and tax breaks, rate relief and other financial support for local social enterprises and journalistic cooperatives taking over titles from major regional operators, running them as not-for-profit enterprises.
NUJ head Michelle Stanistreet told an online gathering of NUJ member journalists at Edinburgh’s freelance branch on 20 April 2020 that this is a time for “spearheading collective solutions . . . we need to use this crisis to see how we can collectively improve things”, emphasising the need for a plurality' of media. She added that journalism bodies around the world were having these conversations with their respective governments, too.
Time will tell if local journalists and outlets in the United Kingdom and in other countries can seize this opportunity' and whether they will be supported by public sector and philanthropic funding and ultimately by the public directly. It could go either way.
In the meantime, it’s important to recognise the recent historical context in order to understand where the local media sector finds itself.
Over the last decade, many local newspapers have been asset-stripped by' their owners, and large numbers of journalists have been lost from the landscape. The number of full-time journalists in the UK newspaper industry dropped from around 23,000 in 2007 to 17,000 in 2017, and in the same period, over 300 local and regional newspaper titles were lost (Meditique, 2018, 57).
Industry shrinkage, the move to online and likely also a decrease in the volume of quality content saw weekly' circulation of local and regional titles plummet from 63 million to 31 million over the same decade (2018, 6).
Senior journalists, seeing the writing on the wall, often accepted voluntary redundancy, and where there have been new posts, these have often been filled on a default basis by inexperienced journalists to save costs. This, coupled with an increase in casualisation, has led to a decline in the number of dedicated and knowledgeable council reporters, court reporters and other key beat reporters. Their ability' to build up a network of sources and experts in their field, and a resulting understanding of key context and policy, has been lost.
Sometimes newspaper offices in smaller towns and rural areas have been closed by newspaper groups and events in those places covered by' writers sat at desks tens of miles away' or more, often unaware of local dynamics. Fewer journalists means more column inches to fill per head, more stories via press release and phone and fewer than ever through shoe leather and face-to-face conversation.
Local reporting and the health of local democracy are inextricably interlinked, and decisions that affect people’s daily lives are now often going unscrutinised. The Cairncross Review, an independent review commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, designed to investigate the longterm future of public interest journalism in the United Kingdom, was published in 2019 and makes the issues clear. The chair, Dame Frances Cairncross, underlined that as the number of local reporters has diminished, so has their news organisations’coverage of all aspects of local democracy (Hall, 2019).
Newspapers have been squeezed hard by the rise of Google and its peers, losing much of their key advertising revenue (almost a 70% decline between 2007 and 2017). In a declining market, traffic became king — and Kardashians tended to get a lot more clicks than councils.
The irony is that today there is actually more information available than ever before about our public services and how things are run, from a national level down to a hyper-local level. Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation heralded a new dawn for access to information. There are still many transparency battles to be won, but there is at least a consensus that government should be transparent and share statistics and other data online wherever possible.
All of this has led to an ocean of information but one which for the average citizen is incredibly difficult to navigate. Extracting the key data from that sea and understanding what it means is a critical skill that experts need to exercise on behalf of society.
This is where the journalist should come in. They should bring the ability to source and sift information, understand what is important and what is just noise and to help tell the human story that the data represents. This can help us all understand where society is succeeding, where it could be improved and where people experience harm as a result of government policy and implementation or neglect. However, if a journalist is inexperienced, unsupported and has eight stories to file a day, this process will not happen, these stories will go untold and these harms will continue to be done.
Not only this, it is clear that there is a relationship between quality' local news and engagement with civic life. For example, where there are newspaper black holes, it has been shown that people vote less and that local institutions are less accountable (Howells, R, 2015). This is called the “democratic deficit”, and it should worry' us all.
There have been some attempts to address this issue on a structural level within the traditional media industry'. For example, the BBC launched its Local Democracy Reporters programme with a view to strengthening reporting across the United Kingdom on local government. The scheme has had a mixed response and is far from perfect. Reporters often say that they only' have the capacity to cover council and other local stories on a surface level and not go into any depth. Nonetheless, the scheme has helped fill some local news gaps, which is not to be sniffed at.
The Cairncross Review identified the likes of council reporting as somewhat of a conundrum - a public good with no obvious way of generating commercial revenue but also unsuitable for direct funding by the state (Cairncross, 2019).
The report states:
As a result of falling revenues, publishers have cut costs dramatically.
This has hurt the provision of all types of public-interest news, but local level democracy reporting the most. Some start-ups have begun to provide local coverage and there are promising examples of innovations to bolster the provision of public-interest news, but these are unlikely to be sufficient. While all types of public-interest journalism are in difficulty, the scale of the revenue gap of local publishers, combined with the publics limited appetite for local democracy reporting, creates a unique challenge.
While the report has shed a valuable light on the challenges facing media for the public good, its recommendations were critiqued for not going far enough, and the implementation of the recommendations by the government were weaker still.
Sustainability is undoubtedly the holy grail for local news providers, old and new. There are a good number of new(ish) projects alluded to in the Cairncross report that are experimenting with ways of creating local accountability, investigating wrongdoing, rebuilding trust with members of the public and making enough cash to support that work.
What these projects have in common are the prioritising of public interest over profit; collective, democratic ownership structures; an ethos of collaboration over competition and the aim to report with communities rather than on them.
Traditional media models have been for profit and often held to formidable moneymaking standards. The profit margin sought by newspaper group owners has often been much higher than that generated even by the likes of UK supermarket giant Tesco (Mayhew, 2020). Meanwhile, news is undoubtedly a harder sell than groceries.
New models, in contrast, tend to be not for profit and often adopt collective ownership structures. The Ferret in Scotland, the Bristol Cable and the Manchester Meteor, for example, have all chosen to operate as cooperatives — allowing them to be community owned and rooted in the places they serve.
This means that journalists are now answerable to local communities rather than owners with a profit motive. Those who share in ownership of those models are acting in the role of citizen rather than the role of consumer, and this paradigm shift in journalism can be sited within a broader framework of societal change from consumerism to citizenship.
Strategy, decision-making and ideas about priorities and editorial themes to cover are all influenced by this wider community' of member-owners in a way' that is democratic, as opposed to the autocracy of the classic proprietor owner. The Bristol Cable, for example, often asks members at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) to give their thoughts on upcoming decisions. A recent Ferret AGM saw supporters vote against campaigning and advocacy on issues such as the environment (despite being very supportive of its reporting on the topic), as it was thought this would threaten the neutrality' of the journalists — however, supporters felt it was appropriate for The Ferret to lobby' on issues directly' affecting journalism such as Freedom of Information, transparency and defamation.
Almost all of these new projects retain control over editorial on a story-by-story basis, free from interference by either member owners or funders. However, journalists often ask members and readers to offer a steer on the topics they' think are the most important. When The Ferret crowdfunded for its launch in 2015, it also asked funders to vote on the topic they most wanted to see investigated. This turned out to be fracking, and thus this made up the first-ever investigation package published on the platform, which in turn contributed to a Scottish moratorium on fracking. Now, five years later, The Ferret continues to operate a model that allows readers to vote on the stories they' want to see — and to suggest their own.
Transparency' is also a keystone of many of these new projects, with The Ferret, for example, producing quarterly' reports, including information on how money' is raised and spent as well as stories covered. Interestingly', the publication of transparency' reports often seems to stimulate a number of new member sign-ups, indicating that the public value not just stories that resonate with them but also being included and informed about a project, rather than being treated as merely' consumers of its content.
As financial and editorial transparency' and collaboration come to the fore as key principles, there also comes the question of spaces - are physical and digital community hubs that include journalists but also engaged citizens the direction that we are travelling in? The curation of spaces where resources and skills can be shared and ideas brainstormed mean that smaller local projects can punch above their weight.
These are the kind of innovations that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is looking at with its ambitious Bureau Local project, where I am community organiser. This involves a network of over 1000 people across the United Kingdom — journalists, bloggers, coders, academics, lawyers, community' leaders and activists - who all come together to work on investigations and commit “acts of journalism" beyond straight reporting.
Whoever is interested comes together to work on each specific story', and a dataset is usually' compiled — sometimes from the top down through Freedom of Information requests, or sometimes from the bottom up through networked grassroots data gathering. This data is used for storytelling at a national, regional and local level, and partners work together to publish on the same date.
Part of the beauty of the project is that issues can be reported from a macro, systemic level down to a micro, granular level, creating multiple points of engagement and potential impact. For example, a domestic violence story could be reported on BBC News and picked up by a parliamentary committee, applying political pressure at a government level. Meanwhile, it could be reported on by the local newspaper and hyperlocal - reaching the communities directly affected and equipping them with evidence on what is happening but also applying pressure to MPs and local politicians who want to be seen as responsive to their voters.
Topics addressed must have relevance at a local level across the United Kingdom, but collaboration also helps to reveal national, systemic patterns, which can be reported on by national partners with the aim of securing positive change.
This model has proved effective and has inspired others - for example, Corrects in Germany, who took on the same model to set up Corrects Lokal, and The Correspondent, the global news features platform headquartered in Amsterdam, which has used the Bureau Local’s collaboration model for its latest investigation into surveillance during the corona crisis. The Bureau Local operates on an open source basis wherever possible and shares open resources online - including a blueprint for its own model, Building the Bureau Local: A User Guide, as well as a Manifesto for a People’s Newsroom and Roadmap for Local News Collaboration.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand how a model like this can work is to walk through an investigation from start to finish. A strong example of a Bureau Local investigation is Dying Homeless.
The seed was sown for this investigation in 2018 when a 35-year-old homeless man was found dead on the “doorstep” of the Houses of Parliament (Topping, 2018). MPs condemned the circumstances leading to the incident, saying it illustrated the rising problem of homelessness in the country as a whole. The Bureau Local team decided to take a look at numbers of deaths across the United Kingdom - but then came to the realisation that nobody was collating this data centrally. People were dying unacknowledged, without lessons being learnt and without commemoration.
So we put together a plan - we asked members of our network to look out in their areas for details of people who had died while homeless - whether they were rough sleeping, stuck in temporary B&Bs or sofa surfing. These could be submitted by online form; we would verify the case and build up a database to form a picture of what was happening around the country.
As part of this process, we gathered the stories of those who died - from Hamad Farahi, a quantum physicist from Iraq who nearly ended up working with Stephen Hawking but finally had to resort to sleeping in his car in a Tesco car park before dying in emergency accommodation, to Valerie Collins, a grandmother who was forced to sleep in shop doorways but still created a makeshift garden of potted plants.
It was important that we compile reliable data but also that we collect stories to show the real people behind the numbers and the things that might have led to their often-premature deaths. These causes varied.
One man who died was not yet 40 — he had been a successful sailor and had also regularly volunteered, including building schools and helping in a homeless kitchen. However, he lost two children in succession, and this sent him to rock bottom. One woman, in her early 30s, was found dead in the tent she shared with her partner in Cardiff, just a few days before Christmas. She had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Building up a database of deaths and stories was key to showing how, where and why these deaths were happening. We worked with our network of members all over the country and used social media to encourage as many submissions as possible to the database — using the hashtag #MakeThemCount.
We also wrote a reporting recipe, which was sent out to members. This is a standard part of our process and is a document that walks reporters through the data and how they can use it in their stories and also offers other content that reporters can use such as key quotes.
Members will also regularly support each other by brainstorming on reporting ideas, and the more experienced members often mentor others when it comes to the technicalities of Freedom of Information requests or data analysis and interpretation. We hold story clinics and regular check-ins so that people working on the story can touch base.
Participants also sign up to an embargo date, and then everyone publishes from that day onwards. This has the effect that many stories — local, national, newspaper, broadcast and specialist press — go out on the same day, creating momentum for the story.
In the end, when we published our Dying Homeless investigation, we showed that 800 people had died over the 18-month period. Almost 100 local stories were put out across the country, and Channel 4 News led its programme with a 20-minute segment on this story. We created a social media campaign around the findings on the same day, and this was taken up by many others, such as national homeless charities and public figures.
Next came the first wave of impact: we shared our methodology' with the Office of National Statistics, and it decided to start gathering data on homeless deaths. National Records of Scotland also confirmed it would record this information.
This was a concrete victory, as this data will allow patterns to be identified and help government, national and local, to understand where services are failing people. This was reinforced by a piece we published in 2019, which showed that:
Nearly a third of homeless people die from treatable conditions, meaning hundreds of deaths could potentially have been prevented. . . .
The research by University College London also shows that homeless people are much more likely to die from certain conditions than even the poorest people who have a place to live.
At the end of this investigation, we needed to move on to new work. Although as an organisation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is able to focus on more long-term investigations than many news organisations, we can’t stay on the same story forever. However, we had built up a community around this topic and didn’t want to waste this.
Fortunately, we were able to find two solutions. First, we agreed with homelessness charity the Museum of Homelessness that it would take on the collecting of stories. From January to June 2019, its work showed that someone affected by homelessness died every 19 hours in the United Kingdom. The Guardian newspaper also launched a project aimed at recording the deaths and stories of people experiencing homelessness.
Second, we used this work to form the question that would shape our next investigation: “Why can’t people get out of homelessness?” The exploration of this issue formed the basis of our subsequent Locked Out investigation, which used data to highlight the inadequacies of Local Housing Allowance, collected evidence to show the ineffectiveness of recent homelessness reduction legislation in England and used story circles in badly affected parts of the country, from Edinburgh to Bedford, to listen to experiences on the ground and then to feed back our findings to policy makers and politicians (Hamada 2020).
A totally different kind of local investigation that we ran was Sold from Under You, and this looked at public assets and spaces being sold off by councils in order to make ends meet. A data-driven story initially, this investigation was based on an exhaustive batch of FOIs to councils that were collated into a database.
Again, we collaborated with our network of members so that they could investigate what was going on in their area — and translate addresses into real places that meant something to people. From boxing clubs in Birmingham that had been real community hubs to libraries in Bristol and swimming pools in Leeds, places for congregating and talking, exercising or reading had disappeared off the map.
We worked, too, with a national media partner — HuffPost UK (we work with a range of publishing partners depending on the nature of each story) — and a sectoral partner - Locality — to show the big picture and to allow the public to tell their own stories. We created an interactive map that people could enter their own postcode into to find out which of their local spaces had been sold off. This also flagged up the councils that had failed to respond to Freedom of Information requests and meant that they could be held to account by their own citizens.
These are just a few of the projects that we have worked on as a collaborative network - we have also looked at domestic violence, police stop-and-search and risky council investments.
The Bureau Local’s approach has won plaudits but most importantly has regularly led to change on the ground at the national level but also at the local level. This is because we work in collaboration with so many members who are local journalists and experts and know the specific landscape of their area. They in turn will ideally engage with under- or misrepresented communities in their postcodes to make sure that we capture the issues that most negatively affect peoples lives and wellbeing.
Editorial judgement is still required to say what is a strong story, what has universality or some kind of systemic relevance, how data can be reliably collected and validated and how a story should be told for maximum impact and potential for positive change. But the story ideas should come from the ground up, not the top down, if journalism is to be relevant and useful to the public -and to survive.
Meanwhile, there are more and more news organisations springing up in the United Kingdom that are strongly rooted in place and have the public interest as their raison d’etre. These include the Bristol Cable, which is a democratically run cooperative running investigative journalism on topics from modern slavery to air pollution, and The Ferret, which has produced award-winning journalism on everything from surveillance and the far right to domestic abuse. Other notable publications include Nation. Cymru, the West Highland Free Press, Portsmouth’s Star & Crescent, the Manchester Meteor and the Clydesider, as well as hyperlocals.
All of these have different aims, styles and content - but all have public interest at their heart over profit, and a desire to provide truthful, useful information and news for the areas they serve. ICNN, the Independent Community' News Network in Cardiff organises and lobbies on behalf of this sector and will have up-to-date information on which news outlets are currently' active.
The legacy' media sector — including big newspaper groups and broadcasters -remains a key pillar of local news despite the challenges it faces. Local newspapers can also drive big national stories. For example, the Manchester Evening News published a deep-dive news feature looking at Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena bomber, and understanding the context of his life and radicalisation (Osuh, 2017), as well as an investigation into sexual offences in the Armed Forces (Gouk, 2020).
The BBC also continues to do essential work in this area through its Shared Data Unit, a partnership between the broadcaster and the News Media Association. One example is a vitally' important story published by the BBC in 2019 on the number of disability benefit appeals winning at tribunal, which was also covered by 40 regional partners (Homer, 2019). The unit also published work looking at credit card advertisements targeting people looking for benefits advice on local government websites (Ferguson, 2020).
BBC East’s Impact Hub spent four years investigating missing from Northampton Town Football Club - and in the process uncovered secret payments to a local MP. As a result of the investigation, which comprised over
50 stories, the town’s MP and chief executive were brought down, and a police investigation resulted. Files on 30 suspects are currently with the Crown Prosecution Service on charges of bribery and misconduct in public office.1
While traditional media continues to produce some good content, it’s clear that serious innovation will be required to engineer the next generation of local public-interest news - not just technological innovation, but also editorial, creative and social innovation.
Across Europe and globally, brilliant projects are emerging all over — from Pro Publicas Local Reporting Network to brilliant one-off start-ups from Greece to India. There are too many to list, but local news is seeing a host of imaginative models emerging, and the collaborative spirit of this new ecosystem means that people are willing to share resources, technology and success stories, superpowering this movement. Forums such as Gather and databases such as the Engaged Journalism Database are great places to find examples, as are media news and collaboration hubs such as Nieman Lab in the United States and Splice Media in Asia.
There is also a great deal of experimentation with engagement techniques and storytelling going on. These range from the (on the surface) simple, such as Medor in Belgium’s yellow posters, which they put up over town to let people know about the latest stories affecting their neighbourhoods, to Journal Media in Ireland, which funds investigations by letting users “pitch and pay” for stories they want published.
Pay, you say? There is no doubt that there are stories to cover and information to provide, journalists passionate about doing this and people who want this knowledge. The billion-dollar question, though, is where does the money come from to make this happen? Right now, there is no solid model for local news journalism, let alone local investigative journalism, which is even more expensive.
There have been inroads — some publications have been steadily building paid memberships to ensure a baseline income and cashflow. Others have been successful in repeatedly raising philanthropic funding for their work, or in crowdfunding. Some money still conies in from advertising and sponsorship. Some syndicate their work or operate side businesses. Most of the projects already mentioned work on a shoestring and operate a mixed revenue model, as no one financial stream is enough to guarantee their futures.
This looks unsustainable. There has, therefore, been a recent groundswell to show that journalism and information is a public good. Knowledge, like the air we breathe, the water we drink and the parks we walk and play in, should belong to all of us - and is a necessity' for being an active citizen. Without accurate and timely' local information, how can a person participate meaningfully in their local civic life? We all need to know which of our services are failing, which of our communities are ailing.
Campaigns such as the NUJ’s Local News Matters, the Bureau’s #LoveLo-calNews and others are designed to show the public the benefit of good local news. The coronavirus breakout, forcing us all much closer to home, has also acted as an illustration of why we all need the right facts and the best scrutiny in a crisis.
So what next? There is widespread support for a tax on the tech giants that disrupted the advertising market that previously enabled the local news industry. They have sometimes pre-empted this — for example, Google has been a key and enthusiastic funder of local news and has recently pledged more to help struggling newsrooms.
However, media correspondent Jane Martinson argues: “Given the scale of the crisis, which comes after years in which Google itself has been the cause of so much disruption, this is like throwing a few planks of wood to those in the middle of a tsunami”.
The Cairncross Review, the NUJ and others have called for a government-funded journalism foundation “to invest in local news and innovative national public interest journalistic projects, with particular encouragement for new models and startups across all platforms”. This would certainly help establish an economic foundation for local and community' news organisations.
There are some precedents — in New Jersey, the Civic Information Bill was drafted by free press and then passed.2 Based on the foundation of solid months of work talking to communities and evaluating their news needs, as well as looking at which areas lacked local media coverage, the bill was proposed and included money to fund public-interest news, training and media literacy.
In Wales, the Welsh government recently' created a small pot of money for hyperlocals, based on the findings of the National Assembly’s Inquiry into news journalism. The sum itself was a drop in the ocean, but the implication — that this kind of journalism is deserving of public funding — is a breakthrough.
Projects such as info districts in the United States are working to understand how media, technology and events/public conversation can intersect to make something new. It’s all a brave new world for investigative journalism, even for local journalism, with more to think about than ever. The rewards, though, are phenomenal — the building of deep connection and trust with communities could allow for journalists to build stories with those communities that are more powerful than ever.
- 1 BBC East, 24/07/18, Northampton Town and the missing millions: A timeline of events
- 2 Gabbatt, A, 06/07/18, New Jersey pledges $5m for local journalism to boost states ‘civic health’
Cairncross, F. (2019). The Cairncross Review: A sustainable future for journalism.
DCMS. 12 February, www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-cairncross-review-a-sustainable-future-for-journalism
Ferguson, S. (2020). UK councils’benefits pages push credit card adverts. BBC. 5 February.
Gouk, A. (2020). Sexual offences in the armed forces. Manchester Evening News. 8 April.
Hall, T. (2019). Non-profit local news body could bring about ‘sea change* in public interest journalism. Press Gazette. 4 November.
Hamada, R. (2020). Taking a story full circle: Reporting with people, not on them. Journalism.co.uk. 10 March.
Homer, A. (2019). Half of disability benefits appeals won in tribunal court. BBC. 14 November.
Howells, R. (2015). Journey to the centre of a news black hole: examining the democratic deficit in a town with no newspaper. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
Mayhew, F. (2020). News publishers hit new online records with coronavirus coverage. Press Gazette. 7 April.
McClenaghan, M. (2019). Homelessness kills: Study finds third ofhomeless people die from treatable conditions. Thebureauinvestigates.com. 11 March.
Médiatique. (2018) Overview of recent dynamics in the UK press market. DCMS. April 2018.
Osuh, C. (2017). The making of a monster: How Manchester boy Salman Abedi became a mass murderer. Manchester Evening News. 19 September.
Topping, A. (2018). Homeless man dies on ‘doorstep* of Houses of Parliament. The Guardian. 14 February.