Short article written for the Westminster Media Forum seminar on the UK local media sector
As discussions continue about a deal between news providers and the BBC to subsidise the reporting of local authorities and courts, many independent hyperlocal news operations will be left wondering what is in it for them.
More importantly perhaps, local communities which have seen a decline of coverage may well be grateful for any public sector support which keeps them informed and helps them keep local power held to account.
It was encouraging to hear the BBC’s controller of English Regions David Holdsworth say no-one would be ruled out of the scheme, which has so far been reported in the trade press as a discussion between the Corporation and regional publishers represented by the News Media Association.
Nevertheless, hyperlocal providers could be forgiven for being sceptical about such assurances, given the sentiment that “we can’t just let anyone in on this. There have to be rules.” It is of course understandable that the BBC, with its emphasis on high ethical standards and quality, will not want to forge partnerships with untrained journalists ignorant of the law.
However, it would be wrong to assume that independent news providers always fall below the quality threshold or that established regional news publications necessarily always meet it. As a tutor in media law, I know there are plenty of examples of newspapers and websites getting it wrong, and there is work being done, particularly by the Centre for Community Journalism in Cardiff, to ensure hyperlocal journalists are equipped with the tools needed to do their work to high standards.
It is difficult to argue that there shouldn’t be a quality threshold in determining which organisations should be supported by public money, but why not have a public interest or community commitment threshold as well? Many of the former regional news journalists and community activists who have shown a commitment to their communities by establishing news sites simply because they want to plug a news black hole left by newspapers closures, or coverage decline because of cuts in staff, may not take kindly to the larger publishers getting their hands on BBC resources while enjoying profits in excess of 20 per cent.
There is an argument for saying there should be no top-slicing of the licence fee at all to fund any external news provider, but if public money is to be used, is it right to direct it at companies which closed 97 titles in England between 2008 and 2015, and have, according to the National Union of Journalists, cut more than 5,000 jobs in the last decade?
If the democratic deficit is to be fully addressed perhaps consideration should also be given to directing support from public funds to areas of social deprivation that have suffered newspaper closures and have so far not had a hyperlocal site established to fill the gap.
The preliminary findings of research currently underway in Manchester and Cheshire has found some correlation between cuts in news provision by large for-profit publishers and social deprivation and raises questions about whether independent sites can fill the gap in these communities without external help.
The research appears to support findings in the USA which suggests the existence of a digital production gap based on social class (Schradie 2013) and that social deprivation is a factor in the evidence of engagement with hyperlocal news. A study of coverage of the 2015 General Election in North East Manchester, encompassing some of the most deprived areas in the UK, within the constituency of Blackley and Broughton and Wilmslow in the constituency of Tatton, containing some of the least deprived, shows a stark difference in coverage.
Hyperlocal news sites, which have already shown commitment to the areas they serve, must be allowed a fair share of whatever public money is made available to support community journalism. In addition to that, a resource stimulus is also desperately needed in areas of social deprivation to create new news enterprises, if areas like North East Manchester are to avoid being sucked permanently into news black holes.