How to save local journalism
THE BIG corporate media groups are neglecting or even abandoning local news. But could we as journalists start local news media enterprises of our own? The London Freelance Branch conference on New Ways to Make Journalism Pay in January heard inspiring examples of journalists who had done just that. (There's a full report on the entire conference here.)
Eric Gordon, in his own words an "old leftie," together with colleagues founded the Camden New Journal (CNJ) free newspaper after a two-year strike at the commercially-owned North London News Group title Camden Journal in 1982, and he is still its managing editor. (The Journalist has covered the at story of CNJ's start up in detail.) CNJ's turnover is now "a couple of million a year," and Eric attributes this to "no shareholders" and a "fairly egalitarian pay structure" - there's "no managing director with his crippling salary." Journalists are, he feels, "absolutely innocent about the dirty bits of business that go on in the industry... there's no such thing as not for profit." Eric is now in negotiations for the formation of a "new kind of ownership" for CNJ. Options include a partly employee-owned organisation or a registered charity.
Starting with a bank loan guarantee under a 1980s Thatcherite small businesses scheme and - reluctantly - a loan from the Greater London Council, CNJ was in the black by the mid-eighties, then paid off its loans, bought its own office and other properties, and launched the sister paper Islington Tribune. Eric, in common with several other speakers at the conference, said that once a media start-up's survival is assured, it's "expand or die."
Look at the market before you launch, advises Eric. Islington Gazette, the paid-for competition, is still running "screaming tabloid" headlines in what's become a gentrified area. It has dwindled from a circulation of 28,000 in the 1970s to well under 10,000 today.
Angie Sammons got into local web journalism "by accident". Soon after being made redundant from the Liverpool Echo, she came across the "racy, edgy Manchester Confidential website... Private Eye with restaurant reviews," and contacted its "maverick editor," who immediately responded to say he was interested in taking on Angie to set up Liverpool Confidential (LC). "I thought I'd do it for a few months," said Angie, whose managed the launch of LC, which was all "viral, no advertising". The website doesn't sell banner ads but packages of advertising - "wacky competitions", reader offers an advertorials. An email goes out to registered users weekly. The reviews and editorial were "incidental" at first, and Angie was the "first proper journalist" on the website.
There are now 120,000 readers who get the weekly email, but it's hard to tell whether they actually read these. Angie announced that, with effect from the day of the conference, Liverpool Confidential and Manchester Confidential were starting a five-year trial in which they would make readers pay for content, because "we can't be independent with advertising." There's a core of 22,000 readers prepared to pay for content.
Most of LC's profits are "ploughed back into freelances with stories which local newspapers have forgotten about," says Angie, who added that local media wouldn't be in the mess it is now if its journalists "weren't kept indoors, with no mentors" anymore.
And there was plenty of expertise in "going local" from among the audience. South-Wales based NUJ freelances Ken Smith and Michael Burrows reported that they and other freelances had just established the Local News South Wales (LNSW) cooperative as a legal entity. Their business plan is to launch in the Port Talbot area and then expand.
They aim to provide "quality journalism to engage the community, and thereby offer local businesses a better platform for advertising" as well as providing "work for journalists at quality rates of pay." Ken and Michael describe the current status of their enterprise as "taxi-ing for take-off". The Freelance hopes to have a further report on LNSW soon.
David Boyle of Cooperatives UK gave examples of communities starting local enterprises outside the media, under "community ownership", like the Old Crown Pub and brewery in Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria, and FC Manchester football club, in which 2000 local people each bought one share. David had a suggestion: "We should say to our potential readership, will you lend us or stump up the starting capital?" See here for more on the potential for a cooperative model in media enterprises.