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Plurality begins at home

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Posted by Steve Barnett

While much of the headline debate on plurality tends to revolve around undue concentration at the national level – how to define it, how to measure it, how to prevent it – a growing local problem risks being ignored.

Local newspapers struggle with a failing business model, local radio stations centralise their newsroom operations, and fledgling local television stations are yet to demonstrate any appetite for original journalism, so members of the public are increasingly starved of vital civic information. According to Press Gazette, more than 240 local newspapers closed in the seven years from 2004 to 2011 and some areas of the UK “are no longer covered by professional journalists".

In the struggle to promote more editorial diversity and a more informed local citizenry there is, however, some room for optimism from the burgeoning number of new hyperlocal initiatives. Estimates suggest that around 500 are active in the UK.

As part of our Media Power and Plurality project at Westminster, we collaborated with Cardiff and Birmingham City universities in the UK's first comprehensive survey of hyperlocals, with responses from around 180. While many of these are shoestring operations, more akin to a parish newsletter than hard-nosed journalism, our preliminary analysis shows that many are still capable of professional, independent local reporting. We found impressive evidence not only of important informational work but of investigative and campaigning journalism normally associated with mainstream news publishers: crusades over road safety and declining council standards, investigations into breaches of national emission limits and illicit council use of a greenfield site, and campaigns on over-spending on a local rail station development, cuts to the local youth service and plans to turn primary schools into academies.

Given the potential role of these sites in reinvigorating editorial diversity and local democracy, we should be asking serious questions about the kinds of policy interventions that would support them. Here are three, all of which have so far had little traction in the policy arena.

1. Charitable status
There is currently very limited scope for allowing journalism enterprises to secure the reputational and financial benefits that go with charitable status. According to the 2011 Charities Act, a charity must have a public purpose and be run for the public benefit. It lists 13 such purposes, two of which are potentially appropriate for local journalism: the advancement of education; and the advancement of citizenship or community development.

In its 2012 report on Investigative Journalism, the House of Lords Communications committee recommended that the Charity Commission “provide greater clarity and guidelines on which activities related to the media, and in particular investigative journalism, are charitable in the current state of the law", particularly in light of the financial pressures and journalism's democratic significance. The Charity Commission has yet to respond, but there is scope for a more relaxed approach, both in terms of its interpretation of the current legislation and – conceivably – through amendments to the Act aimed specifically at promoting local journalism.

2. Subsidies
There are already explicit and implicit subsidies for local media, a legacy of traditional print and broadcast regimes. The Community Radio Order of 2004 enables Ofcom to license not-for-profit community radio stations according to strictly defined criteria relating to “social gain". These stations (231 by the end of 2011) receive small grants of around £15,000 out of a Community Radio Fund administered by Ofcom, which in turn comes from DCMS. That fund was worth £321,500 in 2010/11.

Given the rationale for that investment – in particular, to facilitate discussion and a better understanding of the local community – there is little sense in confining such direct subsidies to the medium of radio. It should be possible to expand both the technology scope and the pot: these are tiny amounts of money, but with potentially massive benefits for resourcing local journalism.

Similarly, there are hidden subsidies for the national and local press both through VAT exemptions and through the regime on statutory notices. Figures from a Reuters Institute report put the value of VAT exemptions at £594m per annum in 2008 (though it's difficult to know what proportion of that benefits the local press). In addition, the statutory duty on local councils to place notices in the local paper on planning, licensing and traffic orders is likely to be worth around £45m per year. It is surely an absurd anachronism that in the 21st century online world councils and other public bodies are obliged to use tax-payers' money solely to advertise in local hard copy newspapers which in some geographical areas no longer exist.

3. The BBC
Finally, BBC Director General Tony Hall has indicated that partnerships – where the BBC acts as enabler rather than “senior" partner – will play an integral part of its future as the UK's leading cultural institution. This is very different from top-slicing, which takes money away from the BBC and therefore weakens its effectiveness. At the local level, such partnership could enable those running hyperlocal sites to take advantage of BBC expertise in editorial, web design, legal advice, promotion and marketing. As with the redirection of subsidies, any such initiative would inevitably attract hostility from the major newspapers groups, and would require both central and local government support.

In fact, each of these initiatives will require serious investment of time and energy by those who are concerned about the inexorable decline in local media plurality. Policy thinking in this area – whether on Community Radio, newspaper subsidies or the role of the BBC – has always been predicated on the democratic and citizenship value of local media to their respective communities. That thinking now lags well behind real-world media activity, and takes little account of emerging forms of local and community online initiatives. It is time that changed.

The hyperlocal research described here is part of an AHRC funded project on media plurality  and can be found also on the project website. Steve Barnett can be followed on Twitter at @stevenjbarnett.

This post originally appeared on the LSE Media Policy Project blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks


DATELINE: 14 March, 2014

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