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Journalists who cover essential topics like local authorities or public spending often feel disheartened at the state of the media. Public interest news is vital for functioning democracy yet who wants to pay for updates about how their local council manages rubbish collection?

The answer is - it is rarely the reader, and this is even more true with the looming recession. In the year ahead, local news publishers especially need to get creative about sustainable revenue sources beyond advertising. Our three experts say that whether the money comes from the government, Big Tech or the audience, there will be important downsides.

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Recession will thwart subscription growth: Jonathan Heawood, executive director of the Public Interest News Foundation

It is a strange thing about public interest news: everyone needs it but almost no one wants to pay for it. At least, that is how it can seem during these dark days of winter. In fact, there is huge long-term potential for reader revenue, as publishers build more attractive offers and audiences see the value of high-quality, engaging journalism. But we should not expect to see much growth in subscriptions during a recession.

That is why we will hear renewed calls for public intervention over the next twelve months. We should expect major political developments in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff, as policymakers continue to grapple with the challenges facing the news industry.

The Digital Competition Bill will go through the UK Parliament in the first half of the year, empowering the Digital Markets Unit to regulate the tech giants. It has the potential to bring new money into the news industry, but there are big questions about how it will work. Will any tech money get hoovered up by the biggest publishers – like in Australia – or will it support the full range of providers, including indies and start-ups?

The Scottish Government, meanwhile, has welcomed the launch of a new Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute (SPIJI), based on the recommendations of a working group of which I was a member. Right now, SPIJI is little more than an enthusiastic group of people, but it could become a hub for research, innovation and funding – if the Scottish Government can be persuaded to put some cash into the initiative.

And in Wales, a Public Interest News Working Party is also looking at the scope for public subsidies, to be administered by an independent foundation. The Welsh Government already provides grants to some news publishers through the Books Council of Wales. With some extra funding and a renewed sense of purpose, this scheme might just provide a model for the rest of the UK.

We are at a tipping point: Shirish Kulkarni, journalist, researcher and community organiser

Whether you are talking about storytelling, inclusion, or better meeting user needs, ultimately everything comes down to the business model of journalism, and there I think we are at a tipping point.

At some point very soon, we are going to have to decide what we think journalism is for, and pay for it appropriately. We know the digital advertising model is broken, and subscription revenue is clearly going to be squeezed in a cost of living crisis. There is a clear market failure, particularly in local news, where the people who need good information the most are generally the people least able to access it.

We often hear people talking about journalism as a "public good", but if that is what we want it to be then there is a whole range of questions we need to start addressing.

Firstly, we need to think about what journalism as a public good actually looks like, because not all of what journalists do actually fits that bill. Are public goods generally paid for by the state? If we want market failures to be addressed by public funding, how do we maintain editorial independence?

There is little political will in having these discussions at a UK level, but the Scottish and Welsh governments are at least acknowledging the importance of public interest journalism and its potential importance in driving civic engagement and democratic participation.

I say "potential" because legacy journalism also has to acknowledge its own role in creating this problem. When just 34 per cent of users in the UK say they trust news, and only 43 trust even the news they use, it is very hard for politicians to make the case for public money to be spent on journalism when there are so many competing claims on that money.

I hope in 2023 we can start to address some of those big questions by looking beyond vested interests and political ideology, and instead taking a long-term view of what a healthy media and a healthy society could look like.

There is a will to 'save journalism': Sameer Padania, strategic consultant, Macroscope

That clinking sound is pennies dropping across society about the wider value of journalism, especially at the local level. This coming year we will see a range of new supporters of and investors in public interest journalism, as they begin to realise that helping to sustain it is a collective responsibility and brings both a social and financial ROI to society.

In recent years, we have seen flickers of this: a church seeking a community journalist, a supermarket supporting research on women in journalism, and a Cumbrian businessman in the nuclear industry saving his local paper and two more local outlets.

But efforts have mainly focused on persuading three bodies to step in to ‘save journalism’: a reluctant UK government, Big Tech, and philanthropy. Platters piled high with steaming, aromatic recommendations over a decade or more from successive committees, panels and consultations have failed to dislodge much at all.

But, in conversations happening in communities across the UK, I am struck by how acutely aware people from all walks of life are of the erosion of genuinely local journalism, and the loss it represents in their communities. Members of investment agencies, councils, business associations, churches and mosques, arts and creative industry bodies, community foundations, banks and credit unions, NHS units, community groups all depend on, and are deeply concerned about the state of local media.

No one I have met expects journalism to live on handouts - they want strong, independent outlets, with diverse revenue streams, reflecting and serving their communities. But they see the brutal economic conditions extinguishing local media of all types, they fear for their localities, economies, and democracy, and they want to help.

As those pennies start to drop in ever greater numbers, who knows what they might finally amount to?

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