The Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ) at Cardiff University has set up an official network to represent independent community publishers.
Independent news outlets will be able to join the network for free in the New Year, once C4CJ has conducted a second consultation with local and hyperlocal publishers in Birmingham and the north-east of the UK.
Emma Meese, C4CJ centre manager, said the network is the first step towards setting up a formal representative body for community publishers in the next six to 12 months. Members will decide what services it could offer, with the centre acting as an administrator of the network.
C4CJ's "overarching aim is to create more jobs for journalists at the local level", she added, and the centre has spent the last few years helping set up individual community news sites – but the team believes its resources would be better allocated by serving a UK-wide network.
"'Independent' is the key word here because we will have some members that cover cities or counties, but they are still one or two people in the organisation, so they wouldn't have support from anywhere else.
"What can we do to help ensure the quality of news and information at the local level is as high as it can be? Do publishers have access to support, training, advice, resources?
"It's really time for the sector to have some sort of representation, to have one voice and it feels now like the time has come to stop talking about it and start doing something."
The network would "formalise" the current work C4CJ does, including helping local news outlets find sustainable business models.
An online forum will be launched at the beginning of 2017, a part of which will be public and available for any publisher to join and participate. Members of the network will have access to a smaller, "behind closed doors", part of the forum where they can discuss sensitive business information.
C4CJ held an open consultation earlier in July with representatives from community outlets in London, Wrexham and Edinburgh, and it also conducted a survey in June with publishers across the UK, in which respondents were supportive of a network of this kind being launched.
Meese said publishers have expressed a desire for the network to provide, in the future, shared legal and tech support, collecting ad selling and the possibility of setting up a newswire that all members can contribute to and access.
In May, the BBC announced that it was going to fund 150 local journalists from 2017, following talks between its Local Journalism Working Group and the News Media Association. They would be employed by local news organisations to cover local authorities and public services.
Currently, Meese is part of the Local Journalism Working Group, which includes representatives from the BBC, regional newspapers, academics, and hyperlocal outlets, but only in the capacity of centre manager of C4CJ.
"Moving forward I would sit [in the group] as a representative of the network. It means that as a sector we have a lot more strength in what we say if we say it with a unified voice."
"It's a really exciting prospect for this sector to finally be able to come together and for people to really understand the valuable work it provides.
"It's also important that we can lobby on behalf of independent community publishers, which has been difficult since it's such a diverse sector," Meese said.
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