Credit: Sean Dreilinger on Flickr

The Independent Community News Network (ICNN) has published an open letter yesterday (25 March 2020) calling for governmental support of its 108 members who are small and hyperlocal publishers.

The organisation is worried that unless these local newsrooms receive an emergency funding, "communities across the UK will lose their independent press at a time when they need it most," reads the letter.

"Because advertising has disappeared overnight, their main revenue has disappeared overnight," Emma Meese, director, ICNN, told Journalism.co.uk.

"If nothing happens, these independent publishers will get squeezed out first."

This represents a potential huge loss to local communities. To put it into perspective, if the ICNN was a co-operative media organisation, Meese claimed the network would be the fourth largest local news publisher in the UK.

ICNN started to survey its 108 members a few weeks ago and roughly half responded. From 52 publications, they had 3 million unique monthly website users and 11 million unique page views a month collectively.

Their combined print circulation is around 260,000 copies, mostly weeklies and fortnightlies, and some of them distribute as many as 15k -18k copies to serve relatively large communities.

As the measures to fight the spread of the coronavirus become more and more stringent, these local papers bring vital information about community volunteer groups, updates from local authorities and help prevent social isolation. They also play an important role in reaching citizens with the government’s messages.

This is especially true for housebound, older residents who often feel disconnected from society. They rely on their local papers for community updates as well as the latest government and NHS campaigns.

Meese is worried that if the government decides to financially support UK newsrooms, the bigger players may get the lion's share of the money.

The ICNN is asking for a £10,000 grant based on business rates that many of the small publishers do not qualify for because they work from home. In addition, they are seeking an equal share of public health advertising and the right for their members to roam free throughout lockdown measures.

The last point is especially tricky because most publishers do not make enough profit directly from their work to qualify for an NUJ press card.

To address this, at least for the time being, the ICNN is now printing its own membership cards so its members have some form of ID they can show to the police if they are challenged.

"One of our members was out yesterday and he was told by the police he hasn’t got the right to be outside. He didn’t argue but appealed to us for help," Meese explained.

She stressed that any financial support the ICNN is calling for will go directly to pay reporters’ salaries.

"We haven’t got any shareholders so a smaller amount of money will go much further if given to us, it will have a much bigger impact.

"We should pull together as a sector and make sure we support each other in this time of crisis. The danger is that only the loudest voices will be heard."

Several prominent figures have added their name to the call, notably Frances Cairncross, the author of the Cairncross Review. She wrote in an email for Journalism.co.uk:

"Local newspapers, especially the smaller independent ones, are suffering two body blows: advertising is crashing, and their housebound readership has difficulty in buying them. Yet for many people, and especially older people, they are an essential link with the local community. Local MPs need to press the government to take steps to protect them, or we will emerge from this crisis with very few local newsgroups still functioning."

"I just feel the weight of these 108 businesses on my shoulders,” Meese revealed.

"They don’t have the time to fight for themselves so it’s important we fight for them. It’s important that fairness prevails.

"We are not asking for handouts, just for the fair share of any support available to UK publishers. If our members close their doors, there will be more than 100 holes in the UK."

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