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Can local journalism boost local democratic engagement? The full report from the PINF Impact Fund

In the run-up to local elections in London and Birmingham in May 2022, PINF supported five news providers to boost their journalism activities in wards, measuring differences in levels of change between those wards and similar wards without interventions. Today, we launch the final report into PINF’s Impact Fund 2021-2022. In this blogpost, Joe Mitchell summarises the findings and outlines how PINF would like to take this work forward. You can access the full report below.

Why the fund?

PINF developed the Impact Fund, with support from the Neal and Dominique Gandhi Foundation, in order to support local journalism and to test the social impact of local publishers on democratic engagement.

The fund was a response to concerns that the significant reduction in local news journalism is connected to increasingly weak levels of participation in local democracy. Through the fund, we planned a robust assessment of whether boosting local news journalism and activities could positively influence democratic engagement.

How it worked

Five news providers were selected to receive funding to deliver projects in five wards with relatively low levels of democratic engagement – as seen in the voter turnout and confirmed by the providers. Two projects were in Birmingham and three in Greater London, ahead of the scheduled local elections in May 2022. These providers were: Central Bylines and Switch Radio in Birmingham, and Enfield Dispatch, Newham Voices and Southwark News in Greater London. See the full report for full details of the project and control wards.

The projects delivered a range of activities between January and May 2022, designed to increase residents’ knowledge, understanding and engagement with local issues and the processes of the local elections. These activities included: organising hustings for local candidates and residents; publishing special issues containing ward-specific information about the local elections; and inviting residents to engage in the production of local news, among other activities.

To test the impact of these projects, five ‘control’ wards were selected as comparators to the project wards, against which any changes in voter registration and turnout between the 2018 and 2022 local elections could be interpreted.

We also collected data to help us assess the impact of the projects on residents’ and other stakeholders’ views of, and levels of knowledge on, local democratic processes, and of the value and trustworthiness of local news publishing.

What we found

The project did not generate conclusive evidence of the impact of local news publishing activities on democratic engagement in terms of increasing turnout or voter registration at local elections. Compared with the ‘control’ wards, the project wards did not show any significantly better change in our core metrics - voter turnout and registration - between 2018 and 2022.

However, other findings from the evaluation suggest there were positive changes generated in the project wards that did not occur in the ‘control’ wards. These included facilitating residents’ opportunities for engagement with local candidates and councillors; increasing knowledge of local issues; and increasing recognition of the news publications as credible and trustworthy sources of information about local elections and democratic processes. The publishers generally also reported increased engagement with their content and social media platforms and valued the experience of delivering their projects, noting improved connections with residents and local stakeholders.

What we learned for newsrooms

The experience of the five news providers who received grants for extra activities in the run up to the elections suggests a few lessons for enhancing journalism’s role in boosting local democratic engagement:

1. Considerable time is needed for developing relationships between local news publishers, residents and other stakeholders, perhaps particularly in areas with low existing levels of democratic engagement. This should be considered in planning future evaluations of the impact of local news publishing on democratic engagement.

2. Using multiple media forms for local news publishing, including print, online text, audio and/or video, appears important for increasing reach and establishing connections with residents to best facilitate democratic engagement.

3. Local news publishers can play a valuable role in facilitating face-to-face engagement between residents and local political stakeholders, such as through hustings events (where a panel of candidates take questions from residents). Face-to-face interaction between publishers and residents increases connection with communities and appears likely to increase the perceived trustworthiness of local news.

What we’d do differently in research

We were aware that boosting voter turnout was an ambitious outcome to seek. We believe that any future impact project must match the ambition for change with the level of resources sufficient to give interventions and the evaluation programme the best chance of success. Further, while we had assumed that focusing resources on the smallest unit of political geography – the local authority ward – would give us the most-intervention-per-head, and thus the best chance of a positive impact, it also made it harder to get significant survey sample sizes for evaluation. Choosing larger political geographies to work with could render it easier to gather new data – or present more opportunities to make use of existing datasets.

We have learned a great deal about conducting action research into the impact of journalism in the UK. We are keen to iterate and improve on this first Impact Fund, whether in the same area of democratic engagement or in examining the impact of journalism in other fields of public benefit, such as local economic growth, environmental protection or health outcomes. At a workshop PINF ran at the Oxford Media Convention earlier this year, participants helped generate a range of ideas of the impact of journalism, which will be written up in a forthcoming blogpost.

What’s next

Have a look at the full report here. Thanks to everyone who was involved, from the news providers to the evaluation team, and special thanks again to the Neal and Dominique Gandhi Foundation for making it possible.

Watch out for forthcoming blogposts where we outline ideas for an Impact Fund 2.

And lastly, we’re not the only people interested in better understanding and communicating the impact of journalism. At the Independent News Summit in Leeds this year, several news providers put their heads together to talk about how they could work together on impact – perhaps through shared training, workshops, crib sheets, shared metrics… You can see the notes from that conversation, and join a call about where to go next on impact, here.


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