Five ways local media can help itself #localjournalism

Tuesday 8 July 2014, 11:22

Damian Radcliffe is a journalist and researcher. Twitter: @damianradcliffe

 It’s great that the BBC is willing to help the wider local media sector, but the industry needs to help itself too, argues Damian Radcliffe: 

BBC offices in Salford - where the Revival of Local Journalism conference was held

BBC offices in Salford – where the Revival of Local Journalism conference was held

James Harding’s announcement at The Revival of Local Journalism conference that the BBC is “open and willing” to explore partnership opportunities with other local media operators has understandably attracted a lot of attention.

But Harding’s well-intended words should not be interpreted as meaning that the BBC is the panacea for the plethora of issues local journalism faces.

As we adjust to a world where our regional and local media has fewer titles, fewer journalists, smaller profit margins and a reduced frequency of publishing, we need new models for local journalism to emerge.

The BBC absolutely needs to be at the heart of this. But the commercial and community sectors shouldn’t just look to the BBC (and the licence fee) to help them solve their problems. They need to engage more creatively with structural challenges affecting the sector.

While recognising this is a competitive landscape, there are a number of ways in which the sector could work together to address common concerns.

Here are five ways in which the commercial and community sectors can solidify their position without the need for support from the BBC:

1. Cross-platform content sharing

It is not just the BBC that should be encouraged to offer to share its content in return for appropriate attribution. More local newspapers could, for example, share their content with commercial and community radio stations.

Many independent local radio stations once had large newsgathering operations, but increasingly these have been scaled down, with local news content often only featuring on ‘breakfast’ and ‘drive’. And, as with some newspapers, this content is not always produced within the area where it is consumed.

Partnerships between newspapers and radio would ensure that local news reaches the widest possible audience and is not confined to peak times.

As journalists, we want we want our work to be read/heard. I don’t believe anyone would stop buying their local newspaper because they’ve heard the headlines on their local radio station; but they may be encouraged to buy the paper to explore these stories in more depth.

This dynamic could be replicated online, with radio station websites providing the headlines and linking out to newspaper websites where audiences could consume the stories in more detail.

2. Don’t forget the little guys

Both the radio and print sectors should consider how they can partner with hyperlocal operators. These are increasingly important players in the local media ecosystem.

Although there are already examples of partnerships – the Hull Daily Mail uses content from the Hedon Blog while the blog’s founder, Ray Duffill, also acts as Hedon correspondent for the weekly Holderness Gazette – hyperlocal players can help to plug content gaps on larger publications.

In particular, many community publishers are reporting on traditional beats – such as council and planning meetings – which increasingly go unreported by legacy outlets.

Publishing, attributing – and, better still, paying for – this level of ultralocal reporting will help reinforce local media’s fourth estate credentials. Moreover, elevating this reporting to the largest possible audience will help to address valid concerns about democratic deficits.

And within the non-profit sector itself, content sharing should be given serious consideration. Community radio stations, for example, could benefit from featuring content on their (often rather static) websites from their more dynamic online-only peers.

3. Campaigns and awareness raising

Local media has a long history of campaigning. From hospital closures to raising funds for local charities, it’s an area where local media has had a discernible impact on its communities.

This is another way in which cross-sector partnerships could make a real difference at a local level. I’m always surprised that in vibrant media-rich cities such as Leeds, Manchester or Edinburgh we don’t see more examples of collaborative journalism.

Campaigning for the collective common good is surely an area where commercial considerations can be put to one side?

Perhaps it may take policy – and funding – interventions like J-Lab’s Networked Journalism initiative to facilitate this. (Nesta, the Carnegie Trust et al take note.) This US-based scheme paid for a full-time partnership manager to facilitate relationships between a legacy newsroom and local news start-ups, which resulted in efforts such as the Seattle Times’s collaborative project on graffiti and the Pittsburgh-based fracking website Pipeline.

By bringing together established players and new entrants, this kind of initiative offers a potential means to deliver collaborative journalism with real impact at a local level.

4. Plugging the content gaps: Local news hubs

Alongside this we have to recognise that some areas are commercially unviable; yet it remains a democratic imperative to ensure they are still served by good journalism.

Perhaps more than anywhere, this is where the sector needs to work collaboratively, potentially pooling content into a collective entity which is driven more by public service than commercial sensibilities.

The content in this pool would come from a variety of sources none of which are commercially viable on their own. Combined into one single multiplatform editorial proposition, however, such an entity might – just might – be sustainable.

Such a model would require a new way of cross-sector working; perhaps a reversioning of the “teaching hospital” concept proposed by the New America Foundation which suggested that “anchor institutions” could ensure journalism and health communities continued to flourish as the “informational ecosystem” continues to evolve.

Of course commercial entities will argue that it’s not their role to provide content solely for the common good. They have shareholders to placate and balance sheets to, well, balance. But with more public money for journalism unlikely to be forthcoming, policy makers and publishers need to think innovatively.

5. New ways of making it pay

Finally there is the thorny issue of sustainability. Publishers continue to explore a range of different routes in a bid to stem their financial haemorrhaging. From paywalls to directories, through to daily deals and membership schemes, local media continue to be creative in their efforts to bring in new revenues.

Here the example of Blendle in the Netherlands suggests a different approach. The newly launched start-up convinced the country’s major publishers to come together so that anyone could access their content via a single web app, with users only paying for the articles they read. Writing in the Guardian, Natalie Gil, noted that “the price of each article is set by the publishers who will receive 70% of the revenue, with Blendle taking the remaining 30%.”

Although its “money back guarantee” has been the source of a lot of column inches (users pay a price per article – set by the publisher – but can get their money refunded “if they don’t deem the article worthy after reading it”) for me the most interesting element of this initiative is the fact that the founders were able to bring “all newspapers and all important magazines” behind a single paywall (or paydike as they like to call it).

Blendle co-founder Alexander Klöpping argued on Medium: “Journalism needs an iTunes.” But in the absence of an Apple or an Amazon to create new rules of engagement for news publishers, can the UK media sector come together on a regional or national scale to develop new ways of working and reaching audiences around local content? Sadly, I suspect not, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

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