The UK should create series of "local news hubs" supported by local authorities and foundations to address an unfulfilled demand for local news, according to new research from the Media Trust.

The hubs, proposed by the Dr Natalie Fenton, lead author of 'Meeting the news needs of local communities', would bring together professional journalists and local communities, alongside volunteers offering training and technical support.

Such groups could bring new opportunities for existing commercial media, suggests the report: "With appropriate financing, such hubs could act as a new and accessible source of news stories for existing local and regional media, and they could possibly act as the catalyst for a new layer of local papers - run as commercial, or not-for-profit, social enterprises. They could also drive new community online and digital initiatives, giving local communities the inspiration and drive to get online and 'digi-organise'."

In a foreword to the report, published today, Caroline Diehl, founder and chief executive of the Media Trust, says the organisation is looking at how these hubs could become part of the new local media action proposed by the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt for autumn this year. Content produced by them would be freely available to all media, she adds - a similar principle was proposed in the Press Association's plans for a "public service reporting" pilot, that is yet to emerge.

The BBC could play "a vital role" in establishing and resourcing local news hubs, Diehl adds: "The BBC and the dominant commercial newspaper groups will all benefit from, in turn, being fed new energised news stories, revitalising their content through strong local competition."

The call for news hubs responds to focus groups questioned as part of the research, who said they want want local news and newspapers "back at the heart of their communities" and to "see and know local journalists", engaging with them "face-to-face".

The role of professional, local journalists is supported by the research and presented as important to any new arrangements for local news provision. While the research suggests that a more collaborative approach to journalism, involving non-journalists and a mixture of commercial and non-profit journalism ventures is the way forward, professional journalists will remain at the heart of this, it says.

The research, conducted by Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, was commissioned by the Media Trust to look at what local communities need to feel part of the democratic process in their area. The report suggests that local communities in the UK feel disempowered, unheard and irrelevant. It states that their is a clear relationship between local journalism and local democracy "that we ignore at our peril".

"This research goes to the heart of what communities need in order to play a full part in the democratic process, in society and in their locality. It reinforces our view that communities want to engage with their local media, and are struggling to do so. And it has produced some surprising results - uncovering a latent demand for the rapidly disappearing, truly 'local' newspaper and for quality investigative journalism that can represent and reflect local concerns, underpin accountability and arguably, and be the key tool in bringing back a sense of community," says Diehl.

Hyperlocal journalism
Large media groups - "local commercial news monopolies owned by a few national conglomerates" - do not fulfil the news needs of local communities, according to the report.

But, it adds, hyperlocal media, both professionally-run or organised by volunteers, "cannot be a substitute for regular,  sustainable, independent journalism".

"There are a variety of ‘alternative’ or ‘innovative’ (hyper)local media such as local websites, social networking media surgeries, and crowdsourced investigative campaign sites that are a rich source of (hyper)local content and play a role in strengthening local democracies. But this informal, ad hoc non-journalist produced local content is only of value when people know where to find it. It is also intermittent, unpredictable and particular to the individual producing it," the report states.

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