Local media ownership is extremely concentrated.
Most local papers that make it through your door or gather dust at the pub are jam-packed with adverts and the odd press-release. Then there’s your lifestyle magazines, with endless cafe reviews broken up with advertorials and trendy interviews. It’s fair to say that local media isn’t exactly blossoming.
In fact, as reported by The Press Gazette, 289 local publications folded in contrast to only 109 launches since 2005. Media deserts are spreading fast. So what’s driving this apparent downward spiral? Our interpretation of this evaporation of local media outlets includes many elements. Advertising revenue is increasingly hard to secure. One particular factor, often overlooked, is the rise of web-based blogging and the function of social media as a news aggregator and distributor. However, in our analysis the real failure of local journalism is based on a crucial dynamic of the news-media industry, same as any other commercially driven industry. Namely, the commodification of news media as another product to trade, whose prime purpose is to be a vehicle for profit, not a crucial part of our communities and a public good.
Running a paper has become primarily an exercise in asset management and cost cutting. An NUJ report in 2013 estimated that in the five years before 2011, 40% of regional press staff were cut. Local World, the regional publisher of over one 100 ‘local’ titles, reported a profit of £43.6m between 2013-14. It also shed 240 staff in the same year.
A leaked document in 2013 written by David Montgomery, the former News of The World editor and now CEO of Local World stated that “a large measure of control” was to be given to public authorities and businesses to self-publish content. The local ‘journalist’ has in effect become a curator of content provided by third party contributors.
Desk-bound reporters find themselves outnumbered by teams of advertising staff. In less-affluent neighbourhoods, where advertisers have little commercial interest in marketing, news outlets fold. This phenomenon is replicated in various forms across the country as 75% of local or regional publications are owned by one of four conglomerates.
The challenge of local media
But why is quality local journalism important? Many of us simply couldn’t care less about local media in its current form. And why should we? Content has to be relevant, informed and engaging in order to be respected as a public good. In the midst of the restructuring of local media, we have to reassess the very point of journalism. Is it to expose stories in the public interest, provoke engaged debate, and hold power to account? Or is it to provide inane and unaccountable content?
Bloggers and some small publications will do their best to draw attention to particular issues. But they are often under-resourced and quality of content varies. Commentary rather than investigation and news is the norm, and for the most part, bloggers cater to small or niche audiences.
The absence of quality and accountable content on the local level is still waiting to be filled. But this is near-on-impossible to achieve when the very business model of traditional local media, namely advertising and large shareholder investment, demands content that suits narrow commercial and political interests.
A cooperative model for the media
In response, Bristol Cable members see a need to flip the pyramid of ownership, turning ordinary Bristolians into co-owners of local media. The localism and co-operative movements have made considerable gains across sectors in recent years. But this hasn’t transferred into the world of media. Acting in the Bristol Cable’s shareholder interest means prioritising quality, accountable and investigating media. Indeed, in one online poll, Cable members voted for more investigations.
The Cable is committed to presenting information in new and engaging ways, from data visualisations to podcasts, public debates and illustrations. None of us are trained or professional journalists, but we are driven to meet high journalistic standards and have created a collaborative platform for skills exchange and editorial planning.
In fact our respective backgrounds inform the subjects we cover. Our first investigation focused on working conditions in the catering sector, an industry which many of the team work in. Unsavoury experiences of letting agents have warranted our attention, highlighting the links between big finance and local rent rates. A recent investigation, with an interactive infographic, took a look at the not so ethical investment portfolio of Bristol University.
Highlighting the many links between the local and the global is also on the cards. Some examples include investigations of Bristol Council-contracted multinationals also operating in scandal-plagued Qatar, to roundtables with the local Kurdish diaspora. A foreign language section has also been unrolled, starting with Somali, a language spoken by many local residents. In short, the Cable is committed to looking beyond the news and asking challenging and informed questions on issues affecting people across the city.
Keenly aware that all media outlets need to be financially sustainable, we believe that a mass membership can sustain local media. The Bristol Cable opened its membership in October 2014 and now has over 400 members, each paying an average of £3 a month. Members are co-owners of the media co-op, enfranchised with democratic voting rights, access to free workshops and events, and discount rates at local businesses. With 1000 members, a target we aim to reach by spring 2016, we can move towards self-sustainability, covering all operational costs, including paying contributors.
It’s high-time that local media was given a breath of fresh air. We propose common ownership, multimedia and investigative journalism as the key to that. Whilst aspiring to generate a replicable model, it’s still early days for the Cable, with the inevitable twists and turns that come with that. What can be said for now is that 400 Bristolians (and counting!) are committed to taking back their information and holding power to account.
You too can become a co-owner of the Bristol Cable at: www.thebristolcable.org/membership