If you look at the headline figures, 2014 wasn’t a great year to launch a local newspaper in the UK. According to a report commissioned by DCMS, income from print advertising dropped from £4.62 Billion in 2007 to £1.43 Billion in 2017 with less than £0.5 Billion of those lost earnings being replaced by new digital revenue.
Our social enterprise, Social Spider CIC, didn’t have access to those stats at the time but we knew that local news publishers faced some big challenges as relatively predictable and highly lucrative classified advertising was lost to the internet – and fewer and fewer readers were prepared to pay for newspapers.
But we also believed that our local area in Waltham Forest was being let down by the alternatives – a corporate weekly publication with no locally-based journalists, and a newspaper published every two weeks by the local council’s communications team – and needed a local newspaper that was both locally-based and an independent voice for the community.
So we launched Waltham Forest Echo. It’s a free monthly newspaper. The editor is a trained, professional journalist who writes news stories and commissions feature articles from local residents and community groups writing on a voluntary basis. We distribute 17,500 copies via a mixture of community venues (such as libraries, cafes and community centres), on street newsstands and some door-to-door delivery. It is funded primarily by advertising alongside a membership (donation) scheme.
I read the news today, oh boy
Local news presents the classic social enterprise challenge of a clear gap in the market but no obvious market in the gap. Large numbers of people want to read local news – and the Cairncross review described it as being ‘essential in a healthy democracy’- but relatively small numbers of people want to pay for it.
The internet has created the expectation, particularly amongst younger readers, that news in particular can and should be free to read. Unfortunately, online advertising which works – at least, to some extent – for national and international publications mostly doesn’t work for local publications: even if most people in your area read your publication, the numbers will never be enough to generate meaningful income.
Corporate publishers have mostly responded to this either by producing much less local news – with few, if any, locally-based journalists in most areas – and/or by producing a type of local news that is heavily focused on generating the maximum possible number of clicks. This does not involve sending a reporter to scrutinise the local council’s health and wellbeing scrutiny meeting – however important the discussion might ultimately prove to be to local people.
Good news for a change
As a social enterprise local news publisher, we face the same market challenges as corporate publishers. Print advertising is still the biggest source of income for local news publications but selling it isn’t easy. Potential advertisers have the choice of paying less online or paying nothing at all (directly) and developing their own online promotional activities.
But as a social enterprise we have three key advantages:
- Local people are directly involved: our newspapers are edited by people who are based in the local area – and the majority of the content in each issue is written by local people, who write about the issues and activities that matter to them.
- Readers trust us: local people know that we publish our newspapers because we believe local journalism matters, not because we want to make profits for shareholders. This means they know that (even if they sometimes disagree with some articles) we won’t print misleading or sensationalised stories just to get more clicks.
- Residents and organisations care about whether we (continue to) exist: our publications are widely distributed and read in the local area. Our advertisers have the double-benefit of promoting their products and services to 10s of 1000s of readers and of supporting part of the fabric of the local community. And local people know that their contributions – either volunteering and/or membership donations – help to ensure that the area continues to have a high quality local newspaper.
As a result, even against the dismal backdrop of a global pandemic, the past two years have seen our newspapers’ income grow by nearly 150% and – while over 85% of that is from advertising – it’s supplemented by over 300 local people making regular membership donations worth a total of nearly £20,000 per year.
Early this year our £300,000 turnover social enterprise won contracts to host two local democracy reporters – funded by the BBC to report on councils and other public sector agencies. This contract was previously held by the corporate local news publisher, Newsquest, which had an annual turnover of £187million in 2019.
Black and white and read all over the UK
You might ask why – if we can make local news work in some parts of London – other people aren’t doing the same across the country. The answer is that lots of people are. The Independent Community News Network currently has 125 members signed up to a clearly defined social mission to: ”promote quality journalism, help address the democratic deficit in news poor communities and help create more jobs in journalism at the local and hyperlocal level.” While few specifically define themselves as social enterprises, most operate based on the spirit of social enterprise.
These local publishers – based from Wokingham to Wythenshawe, Caerphilly to Croydon, Edinburgh to Eastbourne and a wide range of other alliterative combinations – do amazing work with and for their local communities. But many are extremely small organisations operating on shoestring budgets or (in some cases) no budget at all.
What makes the difference is having the funding that provides the time, space and person power to develop a sustainable business model – in particular being able to employ someone to sell advertising. The fact Social Spider CIC already had other income from research and consultancy work meant that we were able to cross-subsidise the cost of that development.
With the right support, independent community news publishers could provide sustainable socially enterprising local news for any local area that wants it.
Whether as a social entrepreneur, a funder or social investor or as a reader, please do what you can to support independent news publishers in your area and beyond.
How you can help:
Contact our Head of Advertising, Klaudia Kiss, to discuss advertising your business to over 200,000 readers in north, east and central London: email@example.com / 020 8521 7956 / 07732 000430
Read more about the challenges facing local news and Social Spider CIC’s response to it.
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