The future of local news

IS THE FUTURE OF LOCAL NEWS HYPERLOCAL?

Local newspapers are really important, but in an age of increasing overheads, digital platforms and instant access to information are we in danger of losing them forever?

There is no denying that the print industry is struggling and every week another media company reports changes to its organisation. Some are making redundancies, restructuring or closing altogether, others are moving online and some are reducing their frequency. However you look at it, the landscape of local journalism and access to local news is changing-fast.

So how is it then that the Community Media Group in Oxford is not only surviving this downturn, but is actually growing, and printing more papers than ever before? The answer is in the word hyperlocal. Specific news services for specific communities.

Four years ago one community newspaper existed in Oxford, and it was and still is called Leys News. It was published once every two months. It remains the flagship title but is now produced every month.

From these humble but brilliant and inspired beginnings, 12 community newspapers have now emerged. Each one is professionally written, edited, designed and printed and each one has a very specific readership. The newspapers are part of a social enterprise that also provides free training for volunteers and some opportunities for paid employment. The newspapers survive financially through a mix of business activities, just like any other media enterprise and are produced to the same standards as any local newspaper.

Low cost advertising is sold both in individual newspapers and across the entire group which spans Oxford and Reading, and local organisations support the venture by sponsoring pages or sections of the papers. Cash is also raised by selling the business model to other communities who want to start their own newspaper, and funding from colleges, universities and local authorities helps to pay for training.

The newspapers exist in challenging and often historically troubled areas, and areas that are undergoing major regeneration projects. They promote community cohesion and help build relationships across communities by engaging with diverse populations. The newspapers provide hyperlocal news and information services and opportunities for local people to have a say in how they are run and the content that is included. The success of the papers has proved just how well this works.

The enterprise has developed from relying heavily on grants to apportioning just 30 per cent of its revenue to that now. Instead, other business activities have taken over to provide much needed financial stability and more importantly sustainability for the communities that receive the newspapers. This is also attractive to potential funders, whose support is still gladly received, as there is a clear business development pathway laid down by the management team. This demonstrates a strong commitment to the communities that the newspapers serve, and a genuine drive to grow the business further.

Over the last four years, the Community Media Group has trained 200 volunteers and is now working with the National Council for the Training of Journalists to offer the first training step towards a professional qualification in journalism.

Of course, the major financial difference between the group and a large media organisation is the size and scale of operations. With only three part time paid members of staff and a peppercorn rent , the overheads are minimal, and the newspapers are monthly, bi monthly or quarterly. Not daily or weekly.

The pressure that is encountered in mainstream local newspapers has no place in this environment as news is being handled for very different reasons and, indeed, it is fair to say that little hard news is featured in the newspapers. There is strong emphasis on celebrating success and featuring inspiring and aspirational stories to encourage readers to improve their lives.

Of course across the country there are countless local websites that offer everything from a detailed what’s on diary of events to hard hitting citizen journalism that tackles gritty, local issues by giving those most affected a voice and a platform. This is yet another example of how communities have taken the business of disseminating news into their own hands, primarily because of a lack of or change to, traditional local news outlets.

I have worked for many local newspapers during my career, and there is not a single colleague that I can think of who would have ever wanted their newspaper to close down. I trained as a journalist at a time when local news reporters had passion, energy and enthusiasm for the job and I have worked with some of the best. I am quite sure that editors today do not want their newspapers to close either, but unlike the Community Media Group, they have a lot of financial issues to contend with while still embracing the digital age. If the future of local journalism lies in third sector organisations producing community newspapers then so be it.

These are newspapers that have a very different place in our communities but with the demise of so many mainstream publications, you could well find that your community soon has a need for a hyperlocal news outlet too.

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