PINF Impact Fund: Initial findings suggest local journalism boosts local democratic engagement
Edit: This post relied on a figure of turnout for Newington ward in Southwark that we now think was likely incorrect, thus producing a less conclusive result than we had hoped. Please see the forthcoming full report for what we believe to be the correct data.
Last year, with the help of the Neal and Dominique Gandhi Foundation, PINF launched the Impact Fund – an attempt to show the impact of local journalism on local democratic engagement.
Yesterday, at the Oxford Media Convention, PINF launched its interim findings.
The Impact Fund represents the first attempt at experimental research into the impact of journalism on democratic engagement (or, as far as we know, any other area of social impact) in the UK.
Independent news publishers in London and Birmingham were invited to apply for an £8,000 grant to boost election coverage in a single ward in a local authority with elections in May 2022. PINF then ‘matched’ each of those five ‘project wards’ with a quasi-control ward with a similar demographic and political makeup.
The publishers selected were Central Bylines (Birmingham), Enfield Dispatch, Newham Voices, Southwark News and Switch Radio (Birmingham). Their five projects included a range of interventions, including increased print newspaper distribution, live events, additional local news coverage, and even a Gogglebox-style treatment of interviews with local candidates where local voters’ reactions to hustings events were filmed and broadcast.
We found evidence of improved turnout among the project wards vs the average across the corresponding local authority. In four out of five projects, the turnout change was better (i.e., a higher rise, or more commonly, a lesser fall) than the average change across the local authority. In the final stage of this project, we are working to identify the extent to which this can be attributed to the projects.
We also found evidence of positive effects on publishers. Post-election discussion has presented anecdotal evidence of positive results in terms of better connections, awareness and trust with residents and councillors in the project wards.
We found no clear pattern of improved turnout among the project wards vs the control wards. In three projects, the turnout change in the project ward was better (i.e., a higher rise or a lesser fall) than the control ward; in two projects it was worse. We may be able to explain this further following analysis of the surveys and interviews.
A) There appears to be significant value in local presence – or ‘boots on the ground’ – and in face-to-face events. Publishers who had existing local links and networks found it easier to connect with candidates and local stakeholders and to find local venues for events. In turn, hosting local events helped cement their presence and grow trust.
B) Independent news publishers could not work miracles in the face of an electoral system with significant challenges. Publishers faced difficulties even getting candidates to engage with news media, especially in ‘safe seats’ where no real efforts were made by opposition candidates to win the seat.
C) There is room for innovation in election coverage. The public are often poorly served by local election coverage, but the Impact Fund proved that the appetite and ideas exist for innovation. This can only happen with new support to cover costs, given that the average small indie publisher makes just £3,000 surplus a year, as shown in PINF’s 2022 Index of Independent News Publishing. The project ward with the highest positive change in turnout, Newington, in Southwark, was where the most innovative project took place.
D) Print’s not dead! Print newspapers provide a valuable, tangible point of connection. Some publishers reported that where they had a print newspaper to distribute, this served as a useful talking point to generate conversations on the doorstep or in the street. This helped build trust and, they suggested, was a way to cut through the digital noise of social media with locally generated content.
We continue to need better evidence of the impact of journalism. It’s widely believed that journalism is important – but can we prove exactly how or exactly what difference it makes, and why the public should support it? In running this first Impact Fund, PINF has learned a great deal about the challenges and opportunities in running complex real-world experiments – and there are other research methods that could be used to build our collective understanding of impact.
The ‘impact fund’ approach could be extended into other fields, such as in the environment or public health. We would love to apply the lessons learned from this research project into another field, or to iterate and improve the research into journalism’s impact on democratic engagement.
Our analysis of the data collected is ongoing – a full report follows later this year. We have surveyed local residents in both project and control wards, which may show changes in trust or knowledge that could be attributed to the project. We have also conducted in-depth interviews with residents that could provide stories of how local journalism changed the way they thought or acted in the elections.
We welcome questions, comments or suggestions about the Impact Fund. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org