How to keep going with an argument
I don’t agree with everything that Alastair Campbell says, but a piece of advice he once gave has always stuck in my mind:
One of my rules of political communications is that just as the politicians are getting tired of saying something, and the media are getting bored of hearing them say it, is the point at which you have to keep going with an argument.’
I think he’s right. We live in a noisy world, where everyone is trying to tell us something. Most of it goes in one ear and out the other. It’s only when people are bored of your message that you know they’ve really heard it.
But it’s not always the politicians who are saying something and the media who are forced to listen. Sometimes, it’s the other way around.
The Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport is currently running an inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism. At PINF, we submitted detailed evidence to the Committee, and we worked with a range of independent news providers to make sure that their voices were heard.
And so, on Tuesday, I sat down in front of twelve MPs to talk about the challenges facing the local media. The other witnesses were Adam Cantwell-Corn of the Bristol Cable, Michelle Stanistreet of the National Union of Journalists, Owen Meredith of the News Media Association, Martin Steers of the UK Community Radio Network, and David Powell of the Local TV Network.
For the duration of the evidence session, we were the media, and we had the opportunity to say something to the politicians until they got bored of hearing it.
We were all, in different ways, saying the same thing: local news doesn’t pay. At PINF, we know this from our research into the independent news publishing sector, where national news providers typically generate four times more revenue than local providers. We also know from our international colleagues that these problems are not confined to the UK: the collapse of local news is endemic.
For almost three hours, MPs fired questions at us, and we responded with variations on a simple theme:
• Local news, whether print, digital, TV or radio, is vital for democratic engagement and community cohesion.
• The digital media economy does not like local news. To make money in this economy, you need to reach a lot of people with cheap content (the clickbait model) or a few people with niche content (the premium model).
• Local news is neither clickbait nor premium. Local news covers a wide range of topics that are only relevant to people who live in that area. Truly local news is not interesting to a mass audience, but it’s incredibly interesting to the people who live there. No one cares about bin collections in the Wealden district – expect everyone who lives in Wealden district!
• You can make money from the news if you produce a homogenous kind of content that is interesting to lots of people (but not particularly relevant to anyone), but news providers who are trying to meet the true information needs of their communities are struggling.
Finally, when they’d heard enough about the problems, the MPs asked us about solutions.
And so, we told them about the need to help news providers diversify their revenue streams away from the digital advertising model. We also talked about the importance of leveling the playing field between publishers and tech platforms, through the work of the new Digital Markets Unit.
But mostly we talked about the need for funding. Not huge amounts of funding, but targeted funding that is geared towards positive outcomes. Owen Meredith mentioned that the commercial news industry receives £250m per year from central and local government for public notices.
Imagine if this subsidy could be allocated in the form of capacity-building grants to publishers that are committed to providing public interest news to local communities.
Imagine if we could learn from our counterparts in the United States, like the American Journalism Project, who have invested $90m to help independent news organisations develop reader revenue models – with net growth among their beneficiaries of 67% after only one year of funding.
By the end of the session, I felt that the politicians were starting to hear our argument. And that’s how I know that we need to keep going, until they’re sick of hearing from us. Then, maybe, they will do something to secure the sustainability of local journalism. If they don’t, of course, there’ll be no-one left to report the things that they want to say to us.