A survey of independent local news providers has revealed that the overwhelming concern of the industry is a lack of financial support.
Independent local news publishers compete across the UK with the corporately-owned local press. Reach, Newsquest and other large publishers are vastly more wealthy, with Newsquest owned by the multi-billion $ US company Gannett.
The corporately-owned local press have been repeatedly criticised by the NUJ for cutting journalists’ jobs. They are not independently regulated. They often publish content out of regional hubs, outside the localities they cover.
In contrast, much of the independent local press is independently regulated. 94% of local titles to respond to this survey were based in the locality they serve. 88% of respondents had an annual turnover of less than £80k.
17 publishers filled out the survey in total.
Threats to local news provision
Asked about the greatest threats to the sustainability of their titles, publishers were asked to rank a list of factors from those which gave them greatest concern to those which gave them least.
Publishers cited “General financial concerns, and lack of financial support” as their number one concern.
This was closely followed were the “Behaviour of social media companies”, which have repeatedly targeted independent journalism with take-downs and suspensions, and the “Practices of the corporately-owned ‘local’ press”.
Publishers were also asked to rank “Partisan news outlets”, “Defending expensive legal actions” and “The BBC’s news provision” among their concerns, and consistently gave these factors the lowest rankings. This suggests that these are not serious concerns to independent local news providers.
Further feedback from publishers included that there is “a lack of acknowledgement from funders and government about how critical independent media is community cohesion”. Another respondent was concerned about “Social media censorship”, while another criticised the lack of support from government and other media.
Concerns were also raised that the independent press was not benefiting from requirements for councils to advertise in local papers, with contracts too often going to the corporately-owned local press.
Asked to similarly rank proposed interventions according to what would be most helpful to independent local news providers, it is no surprise that the most popular responses focused on funding.
The top response was the creation of a “dedicated funding pot for local & investigative news, accessible to all regulated local publishers.” Second priority was “A tax on the large [corporately-owned], unregulated publishers of local news… to fund quality journalism at regulated, independent local titles.”
Third in priority was for regulated local publishers to have access to Government advertising contracts. Over the course of the pandemic at least £30m was given to the largest newspapers to communicate information to the public about COVID, but this was almost exclusively given to wealthy publishers, with the independent sector excluded.
Ranked fourth and fifth were a “new framework governing the relationship between publishers and social media platforms, which privileges high quality, regulated news publisher content”, and tax reliefs for small & regulated local newspapers.
Closely ranked together in the bottom three, publishers tended to agree that action to protect local publishers from expensive legal actions, “Reductions to the BBC’s budget”, and “penalties for partisanship” for the press were not a priority, and possibly unhelpful.
Further feedback on proposed interventions included greater promotion of the work of the independent local press, removal of VAT on printing costs, changes to the rules on the placement of council notices and making the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter scheme fairer and more accessible for independent publishers.
Several publishers were keen to reiterate that, in general, funding support was vital.
As one respondent put it,
“[we want] to be treated the same as corporate media and to receive financial support to enhance democracy.”
About the respondents
What is your annual turnover?
£80k - £1m
£1m - £2m
Are you based in the locality you serve?
17 out of 17 people answered this question
Thinking about the sustainability of your title(s), order each of the following factors to describe how concerned you are about it.
General financial concerns, and lack of financial support.
#1.35 average score
Behaviour of social media companies.
#2.76 average score
Practices of the corporately-owned "local" press, including companies such as Newsquest & Reach.
#2.88 average score
Partisan news outlets.
#4.35 average score
Defending expensive legal actions.
#4.71 average score
The BBC's news provision.
#4.94 average score
Thinking again about the sustainability of your title(s), and what could be done to help, rank the following possible interventions in order of what would be most helpful.
17 out of 17 people answered this question
A fund dedicated funding pot for local & investigative news, accessible to all regulated local publishers.
A tax on the large, unregulated publishers of local news such as Reach & Newsquest, to fund quality journalism at regulated, independent local titles.
Regulated local publishers have access to Government advertising contracts, which are worth £millions to the larger publishers.
A new framework governing the relationship between publishers and social media platforms, which privileges high quality, regulated news publisher content.
Tax reliefs targeted at small & regulated local newspapers.
Regulated local news publishers are protected from high costs in media cases.
Reductions to the BBC's budget.
Local newspapers face penalties for partisanship.