Credit: Photo by Kai Bossom on Unsplash

The UK news industry has no shortage of headaches, including the challenges of growing revenue, strengthening reader trust and retaining talent. These issues are felt much more keenly on the local level, where news outlets operate on tighter budgets and in smaller teams.

Exactly what issues need to be solved and where does it go from here?

News deserts and relevance of local media

A recent report by the Charitable Journalism Project looked at local news deserts in the UK and what impact the decline of news outlets is having on readers. It conducted eight focus groups within seven communities in the UK, where the provision of local news has declined. Additionally, 72 key informant interviews were conducted between October 2021 and May 2022. Participants had experience of community issues and have been reported in the local press.

It finds increasing tensions between community readers and news outlets, as newspapers become less relevant in the social media age. If local news outlets want to regain their relevance, it first needs to heal distrust by focusing on quality reporting and closer engagement techniques.

Social media rules the roost

Respondents said that Facebook community groups especially have proven more useful at keeping local citizens informed on local current affairs.

The British town of Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, has a population of 45,822. There is a popular Facebook group called Spotted in Trowbridge which has around 31,000 'followers' and serves as a major source of news and updates, like local job listings, crime alerts and links to news websites.

For comparison, that is less than the estimated 137k online audience of the major local news provider, Newsquest's The Wiltshire Times. Though, it is likely that much of this audience is coming through to the site for general and national news stories. The Facebook group is however higher than its local newspaper circulation, standing at 4,354 (in December 2020, most recently available data) falling from 17k in the late 90s.

As a result, journalists tend to try to syphon off leads and comments from community groups rather than their own value. A key tension has formed when journalists lift quotes unattributed from groups.

While local campaigns may have historically tried to gain publicity through local news coverage, Twitter especially has become a more effective option. Even Nextdoor, a neighbourhood networking app, is being used by local councillors around campaigns. By concentrating campaigning efforts onto social media, local newspapers are being overlooked.

Local news publishers must think more strategically about how to work with these highly engaged groups, rather that trying to use them for their own ends.

Media illiteracy is real

Social media and its communities are hotspots for local news and information, but the absence of trusted and qualified news coverage is felt. People fear that community groups allow rumours and misinformation to go unverified and unchallenged, and business owners worry about the impact of misinformation on their reputations.

People who get the majority of their news from social media also demonstrate alarming amounts of digital media illiteracy and are unable to question what they see online. That is where journalists must be more visible and present within community groups to help dispel any false information.

As if there are not enough plates spinning, forgetting about the offline world would also be a mistake. Local news publishers need to continue to think about readers who either do not have access to an internet connection or lack digital skills.

Clickbait is a pain point

Far from serving their community readers, people complained that local news publishers were provocative, divisive and negative in their reporting. Clickbait headlines came up as a sore subject, designed to create a stir online. If the story centres around marginalised groups, like ethnic minorities or LGBTQ people, the comments on online articles can turn vicious quickly.

Meanwhile, major local issues are overlooked. Worryingly, people said that growing issues around mental health and suicide in local communities are not given the depth of reporting they require. Newspapers have also dropped reporting births and deaths as a priority, and people have felt the absence of that coverage.

In two communities there was virtually no awareness of imminent local government reorganisation and this unfamiliarity appears to be driving distrust.

Local news publishers must make sure that important local stories are not ignored or misrepresented, and must heal the impression that they are attempting to polarise readers for traffic.

Loss of talent results in lazy journalism

A UK select committee was told this month that "journalists' low salaries and demands for high productivity were affecting the editorial direction of local news outlets".

The same committee heard that Reach plc reporters on regional newspapers earned £21,000 a year, with the potential for senior staff to get £25,000. That is the same as a BBC Local Democracy Reporter (LDR) working for Newsquest, according to statistics from JournoResources. The median annual pay for full-time employees in the UK was £31,285 for the tax year ending 5 April 2021.

It is little wonder why journalists on these salaries are tempted away to like-minded fields with the higher potential salaries, like the worlds of PR and communication. The report states that low pay and the rarity of the skillset required has left an LDR position vacant for over a year (at the time of writing), and in other instances, LDR's have left to join the local authority in communications.

The very real consequence is that newspapers still have columns to fill and articles to write. Local news audiences are not clued up on local government or local institutions, and so too are environmental and education stories perceived as under-reported. What is noticeable is a reliance on press releases that feel inauthentic, perhaps owing to ex-colleagues who now work in the PR sector.

Local news publishers must think about offering competitive salaries to attract and maintain journalistic talent.

Readers need a reason to trust you

All of this is to say that local news audiences do want an effective local news offering that holds local officials to account. It is just that the current offering is either not meeting that demand, or there are trust issues at play - something we know is a wider issue. The recent Reuters Digital News Report 2022 put trust in the UK news industry at 34 per cent.

Local readers want to see local causes championed and a greater focus on positive stories. Hyperlocal news outlets have noticeably stepped into that void.

Larger local news publishers need to report in a way that unites communities, rather than seeks to divide them. When historical news outlets fold, which has been the case repeatedly, new players need to come in and earn the trust of local readers.

[Read more: What support do independent news services need to stay afloat?]

Sustainability and revenue models

Having an engaged and connected readership is in many ways no good if the business model does not support it. A recent report by the Public Independent News Foundation looks closely at the revenue models within the UK local news sector and the potential areas for growth, surveying 72 UK-based news publishers with turnovers of less than £2m to an online survey open between January and March 2022.

Make allowances within shoestring budgets

While salaries are being scrutinised, the reality is that local news publishers spend most of their income on staff (45 per cent), while technology (28 per cent), general admin (14 per cent) and rent (12 per cent) make up the rest.

That is considering that of the 72 publishers in the survey, the typical total annual revenue is around £31k. On average, publishers have the equivalent of two or three full-time team members, and so these are modest salaries at best.

More than half (52 per cent) of for-profits saw increased revenues last year (versus 26 per cent of non-profits). Non-profits had a tougher year as 40 per cent had lower revenues (compared with 31 per cent of for-profits).

On average, local news publishers made a profit of £8k. The report finds, interestingly, that micropayments (despite being a fraction of how people pay for news), are being used within profitable organisations. Even though local news publishers face many operating costs against a very slim budget, they should still find space to innovate how readers can support their journalism.

The journalism impacts the business model

Independent news publishers are still reliant on advertising (43 per cent) as their primary source of funding, before philanthropic grants (24 per cent), and then reader revenues (22 per cent).

Moving away from advertising is a key priority moving forward, as 45 per cent of current affairs news is still funded this way.

The US local news sector is seen as a model of success for altenative funding sources, a main one being philanthropic funding. In the UK, individual donors make up the greatest proportion of this funding (38 per cent). Google/Alphabet contribute a fraction of philanthropic funding towards the independent local news sector in the UK (three per cent), and Meta/Facebook provides none.

The type of journalism on offer matters greatly. Investigative journalism is especially good at encouraging reader donations, and explanatory content and analysis is mostly funded by philanthropic grants. There is a world of possibilities around solutions journalism, as "other" sources of funding represent 52 per cent of the income.

Local news publishers should think about how new types of coverage could open up new revenue streams.

Bet on newsletters

The 72 publishers achieved a total reach of 39.2m website visitors, and the most popular publisher received 6.1m unique users over the year.

It is clear with these numbers that Independent news websites are a valuable player in the local news ecosystem.

Newsletters have proved a good way to develop loyal followings, with the median average publisher having 1,200 newsletter subscribers. News publishers should think about maximising utility and value with this format of news.

More narrow geographical focus = less revenue

Four in five independent local news publishers focus mostly on 'sub-national’ news stories. Those that expand their focus greatly increase their revenue, but take their readers away from their local patch.

The two independent publishers with a global focus bring in six times more revenue than those three publishers with a national focus, who in turn bring in more revenue than the nine publishers with a county focus or the 37 publishers with a local focus.

There is not much bandwidth left to cover beats outside of general news; only six per cent of publishers focus on a single topic such as the environment, education or criminal justice. There is plenty of room to expand coverage, but not enough time and resources.

Video and audio are rarely in the offering amongst local news publications, but when it comes to social media, YouTube is actually the most widely used social media platform, with 63 per cent publishers producing content on there.

Local news publications need to think about appealing to a wider audience without alienating their most loyal and immediate group of readers and viewers.

There is still a diversity issue that needs fixing

One silver lining is that are there is more content being produced in other languages, such as Kurdish, Polish, Scots, Bangla/Sylheti, Romanian, Czech, Slovak, Latvian, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic and Welsh.

But that should not detract from the worrying statistic that an average of 29 per cent of staff working fr independent publishers identify as women and four per cent identify as ethnic minority. That is 28 per cent and 3 per cent amongst senior leadership, respectively.

Local news publishers need to resolve this, and not just for the type and quality of stories being reported. The data shows that the greater the percentage of ethnic minority staff, the greater the revenue, especially amongst for-profits.

Community reporting is too valuable to lose

Community journalism has a tangible impact in the real world, as 21 per cent of publishers have seen their reporting result in increased civic engagement and 18 per cent inspired audiences to get involved with public affairs.

Testimonies report saying that reporting has provided crucial information throughout the pandemic, others manage to force the publication of plans to sell publically owned assets, reporting on feminism has resulted in divisions amongst their readers to be overcome.

Local news publishers are vital in these deeply polarised times. Reporting exactly on tensions or issues happening in the community translates to real-world impact.

The odds are stacked against them

Local news publishers are spinning too many plates to capitalise on their hard-hitting journalism. They lack the resources and expertise in marketing, sales and business development to move editorial impact into membership sign-ups.

They also find it hard to compete online with larger publishers, because they feel platforms and government favour the larger legacy corporate media. Local news publishers need to make sure their voices are heard and accounted for as organisations like PINF seek to level this playing field.

The time is right to build trust strategies

On an optimistic note, there is hope on the horizon as the pandemic has heightened local readers' interest, valuation and respect for the news.

If local news publishers can then find time and space to experiment with engagement strategies, mediums and formats, revenue options, then they are well-placed to find readers who are struggling to put their trust in other institutions.

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