Many people do not have access to reliable and useful local information because local newsrooms have been closed
It’s no longer news that journalism is in crisis across the world: legacy business models may no longer be fit for purpose, while traditional news media continue to face challenges from various directions. Along with a redefinition of what counts as information, in recent years there has been a transformation in the way it is produced, received, understood and put into practice. If the public was previously largely considered a collective of “citizens”, the trend is now to see them more and more as “consumers”, which fundamentally changes the role of journalism in society.
The transformation and proliferation of news sources has been such that journalism itself has become an important “beat” for journalists to cover; there are also several campaign groups advocating for various causes related to journalism – contributing to a growing focus on the flawed craft (or craft or profession).
One aspect that has not received adequate attention, but which has suffered the brunt of the headwinds, is local journalism and local news: titles published away from national or regional capitals, focusing primarily on local issues in small towns, cities, communities and villages. In Britain, there has been a collapse of local reporting over the years, seen as a “slow-burning crisis”, creating what are known as several “information deserts” across the country.
Many people do not have access to reliable and useful local information because local newsrooms have been closed or because publishers are making drastic cuts as the legacy business model makes publishing less viable. In empty newsrooms, content is increasingly reduced to recycling press releases or information from elsewhere – better known as ‘churnalism’. A recent study by Cardiff University found that 80% of articles published in quality British press were not original; only 12 percent were generated by journalists.
There is now growing interest in research in this area of journalism and media studies, particularly by campaign groups such as the Charitable Journalism Project (CJP), which are pushing for easier access to charitable funding in order to that the landscape of local journalism can be saved. In less than three decades, the UK local news world has gone from a vibrant space to a shell, largely thanks to the internet and social media. Industry figures show that the average daily circulation of local and regional press in 2019 was around 31%, and the average weekly circulation around 39%, figures from 2007, which have moved further south during the Covid-19 pandemic. Compared to 23,000 journalists at this level in 2007, they were nearly 17,000 in 2018, and up to 80% of local titles belong to five publishers, while many independent titles have disappeared.
What has been the effect of this slowdown? A new CJP study published last week highlights the existence of “information deserts” and the impact of the shrinking information space on local communities. Its key findings are: Social media now dominates local news and information systems; the use and interactions of social media are seen as causes of local social division and sources of misinformation; local newspapers are no longer perceived as the “community cement”, taking
community identity and collective emotion; local government is seen as poorly reviewed by journalists; national institutions and local public services – including the NHS, police, education and environment – would be both underreported and misrepresented; local news providers are seen as repeating institutional lines by issuing uncritical press releases instead of reporting independently; there is a significant lack of knowledge about local politics and current events; respondents reported difficulty accessing basic local information; low new media skills and lack of access to digital media due to poverty prevent many people from accessing local news and information online; Respondents want a trusted, local, professional and accessible source of local news that reports and investigates local issues and institutions, and publishes positive stories that help bind the community together.
To overcome the challenges, there has been a growing demand for local not-for-profit journalism titles and projects to be funded by charities by changing the rules, as registering as a charity brings a range of benefits. ‘advantages. Charities are eligible for various forms of tax relief, including on bequests and on business rates for their premises, as well as through Gift Aid. They pay no corporate income tax and can compete for grants from funding bodies that only support registered charities. A House of Lords report notes that the advancement of journalism is not listed as a charitable purpose under current law and called for a “wider approach to charitable status for public service news organizations “. The new approach would require charitable news outlets to comply with the Charity Act’s restrictions on campaigning and could not use their resources for non-charitable purposes.
The BBC has a local democracy reporting service as a public service news agency funded at a cost of £8 million a year. Its aim is to provide unbiased coverage of the current affairs and workings of the country’s local authorities and other relevant democratic institutions such as town halls, combined authority areas, police and crime commissioners and quangos. Journalists may provide other stories that focus on local democracy and are in the public interest, including the work of MPs, as long as this does not undermine the primary purpose of the service.
Unlike in the US, the charity funding model for news organizations is rare in Britain, where recent research estimates that UK journalism has been supported by at least £55m in philanthropic funding since 2019 (the income British media advertising costs in 2020 were estimated at £2.3 billion). The Guardian attracts millions of pounds in donations. But charitable funding is just one of many well-intentioned models that, in theory, could meet the challenges, but in practice it will take some time before it can be widely adopted and institutionalized.
The author is a seasoned journalist based in the UK.