This piece is co-authored by Hannah Scarbrough.
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” That may be true, but in the hyper-local arena, England — and indeed the U.K. — has much more in common with the U.S. than you may realize.
If you compare recent reports such as 2015’s “Where Are We Now?” — an analysis of U.K. hyper-local media — with the lessons learned from the Local News Lab, it’s striking just how common the language is. Many of the issues being faced are very similar. This includes the same existential questions about sustainability and how to create a robust and healthy tier of local journalism. However, differences do emerge when looking at potential solutions to help facilitate this journalistic reality.
Four common characteristics
1. Sustainability is about more than money
Definitions of hyper-local success vary, but most involve either turning a profit or achieving longevity (or both). Here in the U.K., most community news services are operated on a part-time basis (Williams et al, 2014) and are therefore vulnerable to lifestyle changes – such as moving house, jobs or starting a family.
One route to sustainability involves weaving community news production into an existing day job. The Ambler, a community news website for the town of Amble in Northumberland, for example, is run by a paid employee of the Amble Development Trust.
We have also seen several community news sites successfully handed over as their founders take on new challenges. Richard Jones gave Saddleworth News a legacy by passing this on as a community asset. Tim Dickens and Zoe Jewell, co-founders of The Brixton Blog and Bugle, identified new editors to run the service after they moved on.
2. The need to develop sales skills
Many community journalists have little experience selling advertising, and, of course, this burden can eat into valuable editorial time.
The team behind The Kentishtowner in North London have described one way to avoid this: strict hours for editorial and equally strict hours for business development. Without this structure, the temptation for many editorially minded practitioners will always be to write just one more article.
Meanwhile, The Bristol Cable’s members co-operative structure has shown that alternative business models — with a focus on membership, not traditional advertising — can also help in achieving a potential equilibrium between business development and a focus on great editorial.
3. Use of crowdfunding as part of the funding mix
In writing about the Local News Lab report for a U.K. hyper-local audience, Josh Stearns underlined that crowdfunding should not be seen as a “silver bullet for hyper-local revenue.” It’s a judgement that we agree with, although, as in New Jersey, crowdfunding may prove to be part of the funding mix for many local news publishers.
Within the U.K., there has been lots of excitement about the possibility of crowdfunding – following high profile successes from A Little Bit of Stone and Brixton Blog and Bugle. However, this cash injection is typically short-lived and can also be labor-intensive to generate. Jamie Summerfield, of A Little Bit of Stone, testified to having to start work on his campaign a full three months before it went live.
4. Importance of capacity building organizations
In the Local News Lab report, Josh Stearns wrote about the importance of strengthening organizations “through hands-on support.”
This is something that Cardiff University, through its Centre for Community Journalism, has been especially active in doing in Wales, with a remit to establish or improve 10 community news hubs in the five year life of the project.
Like Local News Lab, we have found that intensive coaching and mentoring of community news organizations can promote creativity and sustainability. Stand-out examples of success include Pobl Caerdydd, a non-profit Welsh-language news service for Cardiff established in 2013, with an audience of nearly 4,500 across social media which has broken many significant news stories around Welsh education.
Our support has also helped long-standing community news group Grangetown News move to a tabloid news format, creating a savings of £2,700 a year, as well as helping them to attract a new group of 30 volunteer contributors.
Nesta’s recent Action Research in Audience Analytics program, which both provided small grants plus expert one-to-one coaching in areas such as web analytics and social media, demonstrated how combining funding with hands-on support can give community news outlets freedom to experiment and innovate. Participants in the program have reported improved social media engagement as well as increased take-up in whitelisting ad blocking services.
For all the commonality, there are clear differences between hyper-local media in the USA and the U.K.
1. Greater funding
In the U.K., investment equates to less than £5m over the last three years. By comparison, $3.25 million was spent to support local news and information in the U.S. state of New Jersey alone.
2. A true multi-stakeholder model
Meanwhile, as the Dodge Foundation’s report also highlights, the number and range of actors — from non-profits and foundations to universities — working together in this space is substantial in the U.S.
In contrast, the number of interested parties seeking to address these issues in the U.K. is much smaller. Arguably, this makes it tougher to to create and inspire long-term change.
3. Greater recognition that without help, local is dying
Part of the reason for this difference may be found in the fact that there is much less discussion in the U.K., at a policy level, on the need to intervene and support a vibrant local media sector.
Yet, as in the U.S., the robustness of this tier of media is important for the creation and maintenance of active communities, alongside the on-going need to hold authority to account. The crisis in local journalism hasn’t had the same level of discourse and hand-wringing in the U.K. as it has in the U.S.
4. Local needs new forms of journalism
Allied to this, there’s also less discussion about the need to change the dynamic between communities and journalists. The type of work being done by Hearken — and other efforts to reach under-represented groups and broaden the diversity of stories and the people telling them — don’t really enjoy British equivalents. But these issues are just as important in the U.K.
These types of strategic considerations do need to be addressed. However, they’re not getting much traction, and this, in turn, discourages the types of discussion that can help unlock more substantive policy and financial intervention.
5. The BBC
Part of the reason for this might be the continued vibrancy of the BBC.
Despite Auntie being under pressure to cut costs, jobs and to keep its tanks off the lawn of commercial local media providers, it still provides substantial amounts of local reporting. With guaranteed income allowing for long-term planning, this ensures a basic, guaranteed provision for local journalism that isn’t present in the States.
6. Different definitions of local
Given that the population of Wales is dwarfed by New Jersey’s alone, it is perhaps no surprise that size and scale of hyper-local and local news services differ dramatically across the Atlantic.
However, it is not only in geographical size and scope that U.S. and U.K. community news outlets differ; there is also a gulf between expectations of staffing and revenue.
Recent research on the hyper-local sector in the U.S. found that 42 percent of services have 20 or more full-time staff (Chadha, 2015). Meanwhile, comparative U.K. research found that only 11 percent of community news producers work full-time on their sites (Williams et al, 2014).
Despite these discernible differences, the remedies used in the U.S. often mirror similar efforts in the U.K. This has included experimentation grants from Nesta and the Carnegie Trust U.K. to pilot new ways of doing things — including seed funding for print and connectivity efforts, as well as the creation of new apps, and on — going mentoring and support.
Alongside these parallels, the News Lab report also helps to pinpoint some of the further research and policy questions that we need to address in the U.K.
This includes longitudinal research, measuring impact over time and charting progress in terms of growth — and changes — in revenues.
We also need to know more about audiences and content creators, including having more demographic information/comparative data on things like ethnicity/gender/age/education, which may help to address issues of inclusion and engagement.
Finally, perhaps the biggest question is how can we build a stronger publishers’ cohort and hyper-local community? The evidence from New Jersey reinforces our view that no single organization can — or should — go it alone.
For local media to prosper we need to see a collective of publishers, universities, non-profits, funders and policy makers working together toward a common goal.
We’re ready to continue to play our part in making that happen, and look forward to others joining us on that journey.
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University.