In My Opinion: Lauren Pennycook: the future’s bright – the future’s local

THE local news landscape in the UK has changed forever. Four in ten of us are estimated to now use online sources for local news; a demand which is increasingly being met with supply, with nearly 500 hyperlocal news websites across the UK now producing 2,500 stories a week.

These sites are carrying out the core purposes of more traditional sources of local news. The most extensive study of hyperlocal news practitioners in the UK has found that hyperlocal news providers hold decision-makers to account and provide a forum for information and discussion in a way that connects us to our communities.

But coverage is patchy – the Openly Local directory shows significant differences in hyperlocal news provision between, and within, different regions of the UK. This means that as local print media continues to struggle in the 21st century media market, leading to newspaper closures, job losses and fewer editorial staff than ever before, news gaps and democratic deficits will remain across the UK. A return to the ‘golden age’ of the traditional local Press looks increasingly unlikely, but equally, without the right support, the hyperlocal news sector won’t realise its potential.

Just last month, it was reported that the National Union of Journalists was calling for an inquiry into future of local newspapers, raising concerns over their capacity to cover the upcoming General Election. Two days later (as reported here), Trinity Mirror announced plans to close seven local newspapers. Following this news, the call for an inquiry achieved cross-party political support. An analysis of the future of the industry would be welcome, particularly if it included a review of current support for local media by governments, regulators and funders far beyond Election Day next May.

So what support is currently available to local news providers in the UK? Existing support is actually wide-ranging, including funds to support community radio, fees for statutory advertising in local newspapers, and the zero-rating of VAT on newspapers, estimated (as noted here) by the Reuters Institute to be worth around £600 million per annum to newspapers in reduction of their sales price, based on 2008 prices.

All of these support structures are highly important, but are they fit for purpose in the 21st century news landscape? Do they reflect how we are consuming local news and getting all the information we need to be informed and engaged members of the electorate? And if not, how can this support be extended or amended to include new forms of media, and what new support programmes can be introduced to improve democracy, transparency and accountability?

The experimental approach taken by the Carnegie UK Trust through its Neighbourhood News project was to support local news organisations in Port Talbot, Brixton, Alston, Wester Hailes (in Edinburgh) and Harlow with £10,000 each to deliver local news in new and exciting ways. And our small investment returned remarkable results.

The independent evaluation of the Neighbourhood News programme, carried out for the Trust by Talk About Local, has found that in return for a low level of investment, community-led local news projects provide good value for money, focus on important local issues and help bring communities together. And this small-scale investment has helped the Carnegie Partners to work towards becoming sustainable.

Brixton Blog has launched a crowdfunding campaign for a new part-time news editor; the Digital Sentinel have secured more funding for a community reporter who will be key to delivering more content and encouraging the community to contribute; the Port Talbot Magnet brought in sufficient advertising revenue from their last print edition to make a small profit and have now started working with the Centre for Community Journalism as one of ten community news services in Wales which the Centre will support over the next five years.

Meanewhile, Your Thurrock has entered into a partnership with the Local World group, which will support the sustainability of both Your Thurrock and Your Harlow; and Cybermoor is continuing to develop its community reporters training programme through close ties with a successful community broadband project.

Now that our Carnegie Partners and other hyperlocals across the UK have proved that they can deliver and develop, the Carnegie UK Trust has suggested a package of measures from government and large-scale funders to support the growth of community-led local news in our new report.

Firstly, the UK Government should support the hyperlocal news sector to grow by re-working existing support which is heavily skewed to help existing news providers and, actually, can work as a barrier to upcoming hyperlocals. Local authorities should also be given permission to spend some of their statutory advertising budgets (say ten per cent) through hyperlocal providers, on the condition that they deliver at least some public interest content.

The UK Government should also take note of the outstanding news output of the Your Thurrock and Your Harlow team when considering how to deliver local TV more economically. The content may not be regulated or of BBC standard technical quality, but some local video holding decision-makers to account in our communities is far preferable to none.

Turning to large-scale funders, the Big Lottery Fund and other relevant funders should reach out to community groups and make them aware that their funding programmes, such as Awards for All can, and do, support communities who want to invest in a hyperlocal website or local paper as a community asset. Hyperlocal news projects are highly compatible with funding programmes which are designed to improve local democracy, transparency and accountability, but they must be made aware that they are eligible to apply.

The Big Lottery Fund and other funders should also consider putting together new funding programmes dedicated to the hyperlocal news sector. Funders new to supporting hyperlocal news providers can learn from Neighbourhood News, including using an advisory group with widespread experience to reduce risk to help select projects; keeping grant sizes small to avoid swamping what is largely a volunteer-led sector and focusing resources on labour and skills.

Our Neighbourhood News project and analysis of the wider hyperlocal news landscape has found that hyperlocal websites fulfil the traditional function of local news providers which governments, regulators and funders support; they just deliver it differently. With the tools necessary for the digital dissemination of news and information more accessible than ever before, the time is now for governments, regulators and funders to support neighbourhood news to develop and grow across the UK.

Lauren Pennycook is policy officer at the Carnegie UK Trust.