Imagine having no local news. There's little need to try. Hundreds of local newspaper titles have disappeared over the past decade, BBC local radio has gone into free fall and local TV has disappeared from sight. In the UK, more than four million people live in news deserts without adequate local journalism, and millions more live in news drylands where local news is on the verge of collapse.
But this isn't the whole story. While traditional publishers and broadcasters are braving economic headwinds and blaming social media platforms, a new generation of independent news providers is emerging. Unknown, underfunded and often underpaid, these indies are reshaping local news in communities from Shetland to the Isle of Wight, Caerphilly to Newry.
In Manchester, Mill has attracted thousands of paying subscribers to her in-depth local journalism through her Substack newsletter. Bristol Cable produces investigative journalism on a collaborative basis, with local people setting the agenda. In Glasgow, two not-for-profit media outlets, Greater Govanhill and Ferret, have come together to open the UK's first community newsroom. In this newsroom, local residents are invited to talk about their interests and participate in editorial meetings.
Not all of these indie publishers are limited to a single location. The Bylines Network has 10 stores from Sussex to Scotland. Social Spider operates five newspapers across various boroughs in north London. And The Mill has launched spin-offs in Birmingham, Liverpool and Sheffield, with more to come.
In some ways, these initiatives are part of a long tradition of local journalism in the UK. In other ways, it's subtly radical. They not only treat the public as a source or consumer of journalism, but also co-produce news with them. They don't provide journalism to make money, they make money to provide journalism.
You might think the government would want to support these news entrepreneurs who are increasing the level of information provision in communities across the UK. but. In fact, successive governments have awarded various subsidies to corporate publishers who own surviving existing local newspapers, while indies have received almost nothing.
Instead of benefiting from subsidies, indie publishers pay for the information needs of their communities, providing public interest journalism at a fraction of the cost of producing it simply because they care. This is unsustainable. Already, we're seeing indie news providers filled with passion for their work, but frustrated by the lack of recognition they deserve. When we asked indie publishers what their biggest challenge was, many said it was simply surviving.
This sector is not perfect. There are concerns that the focus on digital news will exclude people who are not online, and that small, independent publishers will not be able to keep up with everything that's happening in their communities. Indie publishers are aware of these limitations and want to do more to serve their communities with cutting-edge news in a variety of formats. But with an average turnover of only 35,000, there is only so much they can do.
We can change this situation. The government could rewrite the rules around public notices to ensure local councils can advertise through any medium that reaches their most engaged local audiences, whether in print or online. Central government could also allocate a significant portion of its multi-million pound advertising budget to independent publications. Tech giants can reward indie publishers for the traffic and engagement they generate on their platforms. Philanthropists can recognize the enormous social value of independent local news and donate money to the Local News Fund to boost grassroots media across the UK.
Plans to boost local news are also underway in other parts of the world. American philanthropists have pledged $500 million to rebuild local news and are aiming to raise $1 billion over the next 10 years. The governments of Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand provide subsidies to local news through indefinite mechanisms to protect press independence. New York City invests more than 80% of its advertising budget in community media. Canada has tax breaks for journalism.
The UK is an unusual country in terms of lack of support for independent local news. Despite the recommendations of the 2019 Cairncross review, and at least four other inquiries since then, the government has left our local news industry more concentrated and more vulnerable.
When we could be in a cycle of renewal, we are stuck in a downward spiral. Rather than unlocking the potential of indies, the government continues to pour money into newspapers that do the bare minimum to solve their problems.
This is not an either/or situation. We don't need to throw away heritage documents that have been part of British life for hundreds of years. We could put this in community ownership, as the National Trust for Local News is doing in some parts of the country, or at least make grants conditional on investment in journalism, as the National Union of Journalists recommends. You can have it paid. At the very least, it is urgent to create a level playing field where new entrants can compete on equal terms.
Audiences will pay for quality local news. But building a sustainable local news economy will require concerted action. Indie news entrepreneurs are the key to a better future. They are giving so much to society. Now it's time for them to get something in return.
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