More support is needed to ensure the sustainability of the UK’s local news, MPs say in a parliamentary committee report.
A number of co-ops and community businesses gave evidence to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) ‘Sustainability of local journalism’ inquiry in May 2022, including the member-owned Bristol Cable and the Independent Media Association.
The decline in traditional print advertising over recent decades has led to the closure of more than 320 local titles between 2009 and 2019, and cutbacks for those that have survived.
The DCMS report concludes that some of the larger publishers’ approaches to local news in the face of these challenges “appear to be compromising the quality [of] the local journalism produced by their titles.”
The report highlights the highly concentrated ownership of the local news sector, with the three largest publishers – Newsquest Media Group Limited, Reach Plc, and National World – owning more than two thirds of all UK local newspaper titles between them.
The committee also found that existing support for local journalism tends to go to the largest, multi-title news publishers.
The report calls on the government to provide longer-term funding for public interest news in the local sector, look at ways to make it easier for local public interest news to access charitable donations, and take steps to ensure that support that is made available to publishers is fairly distributed. It also recommends that the government ensures a level playing field between local news organisations and large digital platforms such as Google and Meta through its Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill.
Despite a challenging environment, the report says it “has encountered many new local news publishers with a variety of innovative business models, demonstrating that the sector has a sustainable future if it is properly supported to adapt to the new market.”
One example shared in the report is the Bristol Cable, a community benefit society owned and part-funded by its 2,800 members. Members pay a minimum of £1 per month and are able to steer the co-op forward through members’ meetings and online participation.
Despite its success, and reputation as a frontrunner when it comes to innovation in local news, the Cable highlighted its vulnerable position in its evidence to the inquiry.
“While the Cable is noted as a success story, we face major challenges to achieve financial sustainability and the model, like all others, is far from proven,” it said. “But, as is sometimes said in this industry, the very act of survival is success in itself. This is particularly the case in local journalism, where limitations on scale due to potential audience or supporter markets are more pertinent.”
Following the release of the report, the Cable’s Eliz Mizon said: “This is an urgent situation, and it’s crucial that the government now takes seriously the committee’s several recommendations, prioritising financial and structural support for local journalism in the next few years to avoid a worsening of the crisis of democracy.
“We know that our journalism has a positive impact, but we’re a small organisation with limited resources. If there was a public interest news fund to support organisations like the Bristol Cable, we could do so much more for the people of Bristol and beyond.”
The Independent Media Association (IMA), a co-operative representing more that 50 titles including the Bristol Cable, also contributed evidence to the inquiry. Through a survey of its members, the IMA found that 90% had an annual turnover of less than £80,000.
The IMA welcomed the report’s recommendation that government support for news be distributed more fairly across publications, saying:
“The government must listen to this important report, and ensure that future funding support for the industry is targeted at independent and regulated news titles which have high standards and produce quality, credible journalism.”