Local News Matters - Flipping the pyramid of media ownership to sustain public-interest reporting

  • 12 Mar 2020

To address the media revenue collapse requires immediate and long term measures, including a reimagining of local journalism.

by Alon Aviram, co-founder, coordinator and journalist at The Bristol Cable.

Amidst the surviving local newspapers, there are first-rate local journalists delivering quality stories despite the constraints of legacy media. These reporters have learned to negotiate the pressures of the local newsroom, salvaging what little time they have to produce some solid journalism. But imagine if these reporters could be redirected from click-driven targets and focus instead on public-interest reporting.

Such reporting does not generate the most clicks, so in order to deliver this we need to face the challenge and begin a decisive shift away from page views as the guiding metric for newsrooms. Crucially, fewer page views does not have to mean less value.

For the past 5 years we have been experimenting with this at the Bristol Cable. Over 2,100 people have become co-owners of their local media since 2014. Together, these members are flipping the pyramid of media ownership in a bid to sustain public-interest reporting and making it free at the point of access.

We print a free quarterly magazine with a print-run of 30,000, delivered to thousands of homes and hundreds of venues in Bristol. Original stories are regularly published online, digging into under-reported issues, offering fresh insights and amplifying local voices.

Underpinning this is a pioneering approach to community engagement, including online polls, forums and live events. In this way the Cable is seeking to recover and reimagine relationships with the community we serve, or "the people formerly known as the audience". At a time of growing disengagement and distrust in the media, our theory is that if we produce journalism in this way we can win back an audience, and persuade them to financially support what we do.

A central plank of winning that trust is baked into our legal structures. The Cable's co-operative company structure makes corporate take-over impossible. When our readers buy in, we can't sell out.

Members can then steer the Cable's progress. This includes voting on our latest editorial campaign, participating in the crowdsourcing of experience and expertise, prioritising strategic objectives or standing for election to our non-executive board. They also support key initiatives like our early career journalist placements, supporting aspiring reporters into the industry.

Our membership frees us from the relentless demands of an advertising based model. In this way we can focus on what Cairncross recognised as the "most worthy and most under threat" forms of journalism: investigative journalism and democracy reporting.

Although operating on a tiny budget, we have been able to persist with demanding stories. The Cable's long-running modern slavery investigation triggered prosecutions and went on to win the local journalism prize at the British Journalism Awards last year. And our organised crime investigation, The Cornerman, was also shortlisted in the Award's crime category. Similarly we have dug into local issues that have national significance, on drugs, bailiffs, immigration enforcement, air pollution and more.

But, like every other newsroom we are struggling. It's not clear how quickly or how far we can scale a diverse and sustainable membership base to replace the significant amount of grant funding we currently receive.

We do know that there is a strong appetite and need for quality local journalism on a local level. But we as an industry must face the crisis of revenue collapse with a mix of immediate and long term measures. This includes the need to rapidly innovate towards a model of audience generated revenue, and crucially for regulatory change to support this vital part of our communal and social fabric.

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