In My Opinion: Lauren Pennycook: Six lessons for Neighbourhood News

FIVE years ago, it was predicted that half of the UK’s 1,300 local and regional newspapers would close between 2009 and 2014. While obtaining exact figures for the number of local newspaper closures since the start of the recession is difficult, recent analysis indicates that just over 100 titles have closed.

In fact, there appears to be cause for cautious optimism in the future of local news.

Just the other week, in his half-yearly statement, chair and founder of Tindle Newspapers, Sir Ray Tindle, said: “We are now totally convinced of the almost complete return of the local Press to full viability and to its vital role in the many communities it serves.”

And a new report mapping the activities of hyperlocal news providers in the UK appears to show just that. In the most comprehensive analysis of the UK community news sector to date, the report shows that hyperlocal news providers are covering traditional local news and campaigns, and a significant minority are even carrying out local investigative journalism, unaided by institutional or professional support.

But how can policymakers and funders capitalise on this new-found optimism and help address the democratic deficits which still exist alongside news gaps across the UK? What is the best strategy for supporting new and existing local news start-ups in the 21st century marketplace? And just which organisations should be providing support, to whom and at what level?

The Carnegie UK Trust has sought to kick-start this debate on the future provision and sustainability of local news through our project, Neighbourhood News, a £50,000 competition to deliver community news in new and interesting ways.

The successful Carnegie partners – Brixton Blog, Cybermoor, WHALE Arts, Your Harlow and Port Talbot MagNet – are delivering their local news projects in 2013-14 with £10,000 support. We had just one ask in return – that projects take part in an external evaluation by Talk About Local, so that their experiences could be captured and passed on to policymakers, practitioners and funders interested in the future of local news.

Although at an early stage of their projects, the Carnegie Partners have already provided six lessons into the importance of local news organisations to their communities and how local news might be delivered in the future.

1. Local, grassroots news organisations can deliver a significant range of community news and information, in return for quite a low level of investment. For example, in just four months Your Harlow alone published 850 stories and 90 videos. This suggests that the local community news sector has the capacity to deliver projects that can deliver a high level of output in a short period of time, and can provide good value for money for both citizens and funders.

2. Local news organisations are often successful at attracting volunteer time and pro bono input from professional journalists to supplement paid wages. Brixton Blog, for instance, has levered 112 volunteer hours (£1,557 at national average hourly rate) with £1,400 of paid labour.

3. Local news can be used as a tool for community engagement, action and cohesion. To date, the partners have featured stories that matter to their communities. For example, the Digital Sentinel held a chat with local police and fire services on Twitter, asking a range of questions on topics from knife crime to noisy neighbours to the number of police officers on their streets.

4. Grassroots community news organisations made up of freelancing and volunteer contributors are subject to competing demands on their time, such as employment, family and pre-existing commitments. These real-life time pressures can cause disruption in delivering consistent output, but they are pressures which funders must respect in order to improve long-term local news provision and deliver community benefits.

5. Recruiting individuals with skills which supplement core journalism skills, such as advertising sales and IT know-how, which help to sustain local news projects can be a challenge. These issues can impact on news production, and again, it is important for funders to take a long-term perspective and show understanding and tolerance to any delays incurred.

6. Taking the time to ensure that the correct structure is in place is important for the success of local new organisations. This will allow local news organisations to balance competing demands and volume and quality of output on schedule, but can be an ongoing challenge. Our Carnegie partners have employed several models, from a co-operative structure to a private limited company, from 20 members to 11 freelancers. Getting this balance right is not always straightforward, and needs careful consideration.

By capturing what has proven to work well, and the challenges faced, we hope that these six lessons can help steer policymakers and funders on how they can support local news providers across all platforms, because the importance of good quality local news to our individual and community wellbeing cannot be disputed.

Because local journalism, when done well, is about democracy, transparency and accountability. And it is about what our communities value. As Sir Ray observed: “Little that has happened has changed what our readers want – news of their own immediate locality, their own town, their own village, their own street.”

Whether on printed newspaper or online, policymakers and funders must put citizens at the centre of the support available, and help our local news providers to deliver good quality neighbourhood news.

Lauren Pennycook is a policy officer at the Carnegie UK Trust.