As UK newsrooms continue to suffer the knockdown effect of the coronavirus pandemic, the Public Interest News Foundation has published the list of the first twenty grants from its covid-19 emergency fund.
89 organisations applied for grants of £3,000 each and the successful applicants were selected by a panel of ten experts, chaired by Dame Frances Cairncross.
To understand the challenges that the local newsrooms are facing after months of lockdown, Journalism.co.uk caught up with Dame Cairncross and Jonathan Heawood, executive director, PINF. Here is the summary of our conversation with minimal edits for clarity and brevity purposes.
What led to such a drop in newsroom revenue?
FC: Small news organisations are having a terrible time. They were already struggling before the covid-19 lockdown began – competing with the local gossip on Facebook and online sites such as Nextdoor.com, neither of which employs trained reporters who cover matters such as council meetings or political debates. Their advertising vanished – partly because small businesses have been struggling to survive, and partly because they face stiff competition from Google and Facebook. And some of the shops which stock their papers have been forced to close.
What issues can the grant money help address?
FC: The competitors ranged widely in both geographic distribution and in target audience. They came from every corner of the country, and offered examples of many kinds of journalism, from the ancient rural local paper to the new digital only or format. There were uncomfortably many excellent small businesses – more than the fund could help. We asked entrants to describe their plans for the future: many aim to embed themselves more deeply in their community, by holding events, encouraging a membership model, and involving their audience in more dialogue.
What needs to be done so independent publishing can become more sustainable and resilient?
JH: Independent publishers are news entrepreneurs. Some of them have a vast amount of journalism experience. Others are technological experts. Some are amazing at community engagement. And others know how to use social media to reach big audiences. But very few publishers have got all of these skills at once. So, we are creating space for independent publishers to compare notes, build on their strengths and plug their skills gaps.
Where is the potential for innovation for independent news publishers?
JH: We have seen a lot of innovation over the last few years. Independent publishers are developing new forms of crowd-sourced reporting (Bellingcat); new partnerships between local and national organisations (Bureau Local); and changing the voices in the conversation (gal-dem). Now, we need to share these innovations across the sector.
FC: Innovation takes time and skill and it will, in time, change the structure of small publishers, and demand different ways of thinking about independent news provision. American research, which I cite in my Review of a sustainable future for journalism, published last year, reckoned that a mixture of donations and local events could help a small publisher survive if its audience was fairly prosperous. But that leaves the question of news provision for those who live in more deprived parts of the country.
Ultimately, the longterm provision of what I called “public-interest news” will require some input of government money – just as the arts do – to survive. But this poses extremely difficult problems. News organisations in the UK cannot currently be charities, eligible for the tax reliefs that charities enjoy, because they generally break the Charity Commission’s guidelines on political activity. And the government decided soon after my report was published that it did not want to endorse my suggestion of creating an organisation akin to the Arts Council, acting as a barrier between government and recipients of state-financed help and offering tax-funded help.
As the PINF competition proved, there is huge creativity in the newsrooms of small publishers. But if they are sufficiently short of cash to put effort into a prize of £3,000, it is an indicator of their struggles, and their alarmingly precarious financial position.
Click here for the full list of grantees.
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