Charity funding could save local news media in Britain

Many people have no access to reliable and useful local news because local newsrooms have been shut down

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Mon 20 Jun 2022, 11:07 PM

It is no longer news to say that journalism is in a crisis across the globe: legacy business models may no longer be fit for purpose, while legacy news media continue to face challenges from various directions. Besides a redefinition of what counts as news, there has been a transformation in recent years in terms of how it is produced, received, understood and acted upon. If the audience earlier was largely seen as a collective of ‘citizens’, the trend is now to increasingly view them as ‘consumers’, which alters in fundamental ways the role of journalism in society.

The transformation and proliferation of news sources has been such that journalism itself has become a significant ‘beat’ to be covered by journalists; there are also several campaign groups pushing for various journalism-related causes – all of which helps to put the imperfect trade (or craft or profession) under increasing focus.

One aspect that has not received adequate attention, but has faced the brunt of the headwinds, is local journalism and local news: titles published away from national or regional capitals, focussing mainly on local issues in small towns, cities, communities and villages. In Britain, there has been a collapse of local reporting over the years, seen as a ‘slow-burning crisis’, creating what is called several ‘news deserts’ across the country.

Many people have no access to reliable and useful local news because local newsrooms have been shut down or because publishers make deep cuts as the legacy business model makes it less viable to publish. In hollowed out newsrooms, content is increasingly reduced to recycling press releases or information from elsewhere – better known as ‘churnalism’. A recent study by Cardiff University found that 80 per cent of the stories in Britain’s quality press were not original; only 12 per cent were generated by reporters.

There is now growing research focus in this area of journalism-media studies, particularly by campaign groups such as the Charitable Journalism Project (CJP), which pushes for easier access charity funding so that the landscape of local journalism could be rescued. In less than three decades, Britain’s world of local news has turned from a vibrant space to a shell, mainly due to the Internet and social media. Industry figures show that the average daily print circulation for the local and regional press in 2019 was around 31 per cent, and the average weekly circulation around 39 per cent, of 2007 figures, which moved further south during the Covid-19 pandemic. Compared to 23,000 journalists at that level in 2007, they were nearly 17,000 in 2018, and as many as 80 per cent of local titles are owned by five publishers, while many independent titles have vanished.

What has been the effect of this downturn? New CJP research released last week highlights the existence of ‘news deserts’ and how the shrinking news-space has impacted local communities. Its key findings are: Social media are now dominant in local news and information systems; social media use and interactions are seen as causes of local social division and sources of misinformation; local newspapers are no longer perceived as ‘community glue’, holding

community identity and collective emotion; local government is considered to be poorly scrutinised by journalists; national institutions and local public services – including the NHS, police, education and the environment – are thought to be both under-reported and misrepresented; local news providers are seen as repeating institutional lines by publishing press releases uncritically instead of reporting independently; there is a significant lack of knowledge about local politics and current affairs; respondents reported struggling to access basic local information; poor new-media literacy skills and lack of access to digital media due to poverty prevent many from accessing local news and information online; respondents want a trusted, locally based, professional and accessible source of local news, that reports and investigates local issues and institutions, and publishes positive stories that help bind the community together.

To overcome the challenges, there has been a growing demand that local not-for-profit journalism titles and projects be funded by charity by changing rules, since registration as a charity brings a range of benefits. Charities are eligible for various forms of tax relief, including on legacies and on business rates for their premises, as well as through Gift Aid. They do not pay corporation tax on profits and they are able to compete for grants from funding organisations that support only registered charities. A House of Lords report notes that the advancement of journalism is not listed as a charitable purpose under current law and called for a ‘more expansive approach to charitable status for public interest news organisations’. The new approach would make it mandatory for charitable news organisations to comply with charity law restrictions on campaigning and may not use their resources for non-charitable purposes.

The BBC has a Local Democracy Reporting Service as a public service news agency funded at a cost of £8 million a year. Its purpose is to provide impartial coverage of regular business and workings of local authorities in the country, and other relevant democratic institutions such as mayoralties, combined authority areas, police and crime commissioners, and quangos. Reporters may provide other stories focused on local democracy and which are in the public interest, including on the work of MPs, so long as that does not detract from the core purpose of the service.

Unlike in the United States, the model of charity funding news organisations is uncommon in Britain, where recent research estimates that UK journalism has been supported by at least £55 million of philanthropy funding since 2019 (UK media ad revenue in 2020 was estimated to be £2.3 billion). The Guardian attracts millions of pounds in donation. But charity funding is just one of the many well-meaning models that, in theory, could deal with the challenges, but in practice it will be a while before it could be adopted on a mass scale and institutionalised.

The author is a senior journalist based in the UK.

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