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Local News Matters - Supporting high-quality independent journalism

13 March 2020

Jonathan Heawood

Journalism is changing. The twentieth-century business model for newspapers was based on advertising and subscriptions. Now, tech companies are taking the lion’s share of media advertising revenue, and audiences are getting their news for free online. Many newspaper companies have collapsed or consolidated, newspapers have closed, journalists have lost their jobs and some communities have become 'news deserts'.

At the same time, independent newspapers, magazines and websites are starting to make a big impact in their communities and around the world. They are driving civic engagement and accountability and giving a voice to people who were previously voiceless. 

Led by experienced journalists or community activists, these organisations are dedicated to public interest journalism in various forms. Most are set up as non-profit companies or social enterprises. Some operate at a local level. Some serve communities of interest and minority groups, whilst others focus on issues such as climate change or Brexit and some are committed exclusively to investigative journalism. Mostly they publish online via their websites and social media channels. Some publish in print. They use a combination of text-based journalism and audio-visual content to tell their stories.

These independent news providers are taking on the functions that were once provided by the traditional press. But they are doing things differently. They are innovators and entrepreneurs, telling stories that no one else is covering and building unique bonds with their audiences – some of which have been badly served by the mainstream media. They are the true antidote to fake news.

The benefits that these organisations provide to the public are far greater than the small revenues they generate, and they are fighting to survive in a turbulent digital economy. They have huge potential, but they are over-stretched and under-resourced. They need urgent support so that they can continue to drive forward the positive change in journalism, enhancing citizenship and community cohesion.

In April 2019, a group of independent publishers formed a taskforce to explore the challenges and opportunities facing journalists and their audiences. Through a series of workshops and conversations with experts and stakeholders, we discussed how to support high-quality independent journalism in the digital age.

Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT), and hosted by IMPRESS, the taskforce shed light on the key issues facing independent providers of high-quality, public interest news. Some news providers are struggling with a lack of business experience: they know all about journalism, but they don’t know how to turn their audiences into revenue. Other providers are trying to distribute their content via social media platforms, where their voices are easily lost. How can they persuade platforms to take them seriously? Some are facing legal threats that can silence their investigative reporting.

The taskforce members agreed that independent news providers need urgent support to unlock their potential. They need access to funding and advice, and they need to share experiences and expertise. They don’t believe that governments or tech corporations should be directly responsible for supporting independent news providers. Instead, they recommended that a new charity should be set up, to raise funding and provide additional support through coaching, mentoring and networking, allowing news providers to focus on what they do best – serving the public with great journalism.

Following the recommendations of the Independent Publishers Taskforce, we launched the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) in November 2019.

The trustees of PINF have got experience in different aspects of the media and civil society. They are supported by a small start-up team, which will grow as PINF raises the funds it needs. IMPRESS is hosting PINF in this start-up period, but the two organisations are constitutionally separate. I have stepped aside from IMPRESS in order to take responsibility for developing PINF over the year ahead.

We are now working in partnership with colleagues in the UK and around the world to understand the unique contribution that independent news providers make to society. We will use this research to design and deliver programmes that build the capacity of independent news providers and improve public understanding of their work.

There are big challenges ahead. We believe that an exciting part of the future of public interest journalism lies in the independent sector. Now, we need to build support for that vision, so that, in turn, we can support independent publishers and their audiences.

Jonathan Heawood is executive director of the Public Interest News Foundation

Tags: , local new matters, local news matters week