Manifesto for a People's Media
Over the last decade, a group of radical thinkers have been developing a powerful vision for the future of the UK media. Jonathan Heawood asks how their plans could support public interest news.
Back in 2010, long before the crisis in journalism was widely acknowledged, the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre published a report for the Media Trust on ‘Meeting the news needs of local communities’.
The report was one of the first to sound alarm bells over the decline of traditional local newspapers. It pointed out that ‘commercial news monopolies owned by a few national conglomerates may provide economies of scale but do not fulfil the news needs of local communities and do little to enhance local democracy.’
The report looked at the hyperlocal news sites and investigative non-profits that were just beginning to emerge, but concluded that their ‘ad hoc’, ‘intermittent’ and ‘unpredictable’ content ‘cannot be a substitute for regular, sustainable, independent journalism.’
Instead, the report called for ‘local news hubs’ to be established in all parts of the UK. These would be places where ‘local people could meet local paid-for journalists’ for regular ‘news surgeries’. The hubs would be funded by charitable grants and local government advertising, and there would be tax incentives for commercial news providers to support them.
At the same time, we have witnessed the rapid development of the alternative news outlets that were seen as ‘ad hoc’, ‘intermittent’ and ‘unpredictable’ back in 2010. The independent news sector now includes up to 400 increasingly professional news organisations, which are providing regular doses of public interest news to communities across the UK.
We know from the PINF Index 2021 that the independent news sector is reaching millions of people every month. (We are now working on the PINF Index 2022, so if you are an independent news provider, please complete this year’s survey and help us make sure that your contribution to society is recognised.)
Our public polling has shown that audiences are much more likely to trust news that is genuinely homegrown than so-called ‘local’ news that is actually parachuted into the area by a national or international company.
So, in some ways, the news needs of local communities are increasingly being met by the independent sector, even whilst the commercial sector has continued to cut and consolidate. However, the PINF Index also showed us that the typical independent news provider is operating on a shoestring, with turnover of only about £40,000.
Independent news providers have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to meet the needs of their communities, but they are not sustainable. Our work with independent news leaders has shown us that, for all their passion and hard work, they risk exhaustion and even burnout. Without a viable economic model for public interest news, their valuable initiatives may not survive.
So, the publication of a new ‘Manifesto for a People’s Media’ by the Media Reform Coalition (MRC) is timely.
The MRC grew out of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, which published the original report on community news in 2010. Over the years since then, the MRC have published a steady stream of important research and recommendations. But they haven’t just sat in their ivory towers. They’ve been out on the road, talking to ordinary people about their views on the media.
Last year, they held conversations with organisations and individuals around the UK and hosted nine ‘town hall’ events, reaching up to 30,000 people, face-to-face and online.
In November, they published the fruits of all this dialogue: a ‘Manifesto for a People’s Media’, with bold proposals for the future of print, digital and broadcast news media, including a ‘People’s BBC and Channel 4’ and an ‘Independent Media Commons’.
When it comes to the future of local news, the Manifesto makes a number of interesting recommendations:
Provide support for community buyouts of local commercial newspapers which are under threat of closure.
Establish National and Regional Media Councils to distribute new and substantial funds to non-profit independent media organisations, using participatory methods of decision-making.
Create a new legal structure for public interest news organisations that has some of the tax benefits of charities, on condition that they are regulated by IMPRESS.
Support the creation of new partnerships between local authorities, universities and independent content producers to facilitate a network of media hubs around the UK, which can work with local communities, train content producers and share locally produced news and cultural content.
You can see the traces of the 2010 report in these recommendations (‘local news hubs’ have become ‘media hubs’). But you can also see some big new ideas, and you can see how much these ideas share with the recommendations that are coming out of other parts of the media. For example, the recent Scottish Government Public Interest Journalism Working Group also recommended support for community buy-outs for legacy local papers and a new legal structure for public interest news. And the MRC’s vision of a National Media Council sounds very similar to the Working Group’s vision of a Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute, and the Cairncross Review’s call for an Institute for Public Interest News.
So, the need for media reform has become more urgent over the twelve years since the first report on community media, and there is a growing consensus around the shape of the most urgent reforms. Stakeholders across the media are calling for a blend of direct and indirect subsidy, and building models of public interest news that are genuinely rooted in local communities.
The big question is whether policymakers will take any of these ideas forward. There is a huge amount of work going on in the media, among academics and philanthropists, and here at the Public Interest News Foundation. We are all doing what we can, but there are some things that only politicians can do. Only they can change the law and unlock public funding. Do they share our belief in a new ecosystem for public interest news, in which the needs of communities are put first? If so, they know what they need to do.
Jonathan Heawood is the Executive Director of the Public Interest News Foundation.