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The Power of Working Together

Sarah Cheverton describes how the PINF Leadership Programme rekindled her determination to build a new kind of local news media.

I’ve been running a local independent news site since 2015, Star & Crescent, in Portsmouth. We were motivated by the decline of interrogative or investigative journalism at a local level, and the increase in publishing cut-and-pasted press releases, or clickbait articles designed to pull in a national audience, that had little relevance to local readers.

We knew the problem, but we had no idea how to solve it. We gathered a small group of writers and began to publish and were amazed at the reception. We broke our first national story, supported a campaign to protect local services that made national headlines, and we were even hacked by someone claiming to be part of Islamic State. Most notably though, we realised the appetite in the local community for a different type of media, one that centred voices that were often not being heard. Since 2015, we have worked with local residents to investigate the stories that matter to them, and to help them tell their own stories when it matters most.

We did all of this on a total budget of about £25,000, working mostly as unpaid volunteers. We love what we do, but this is a difficult time for independent local publishers. Most of us do not receive the subsidies given to the corporately-owned local press, in the form of tax relief, statutory notices, pay-outs from Facebook and Google, or reporters whose salaries are paid for by the BBC or Facebook.

So, when I saw PINF was running a leadership programme, I didn’t hesitate to apply.

My expectations, looking back, were highly unrealistic. In my imagination, I wanted to be paired with a mentor who knew all the answers to how to make Star & Crescent a sustainable not-for-profit news publisher that specialised in working directly with local communities. A sort of Daddy Warbucks of the news world, if you will, who would swoop in with all the answers.

I realised in the first session this wasn’t going to happen, and although my heart sank a little, it didn’t take long to realise that what the programme had to offer was something even better.

Each week, a leading expert in their field allowed us to pick their brains and mine their experiences – my personal highlight was Dick Tofel, formerly of ProPublica in the United States, who shared his experiences in one of the world’s most successful not-for-profit investigative news outlets.

But the experts were only half the story.

The other half was the group itself – who had signed up, perhaps like me, hoping for a fairy news mother to rebalance the broken economy of news. Each person was driven by passion for building a different type of media – some national publishers, some local, and some who focus on one particular area, like the economy, politics, or human rights.

We were quickly introduced as peer mentors, which meant that the programme gave us opportunities each week to share our knowledge and experience with each other. This saved many of us the need to reinvent the wheel – and even better, we now all have a network to come back to with new challenges in the future.

But I can’t make out it was all wonderful, all the time.

There was one session that filled me with a mixture of fury and despair, and made me question whether I wanted to be in the news media at all. Yes, it was social media marketing. I spent the whole session filled with resentment at learning the amount of work news publishers ‘should’ be doing to please various algorithms beyond our control, when we are struggling to find the resources and capacity to report the news. I came out of the session somewhat broken …

… and woke the next day filled with determination.

Why should independent publishers essentially become volunteers to keep people on Facebook for longer? There must be a way to make these platforms work to our advantage instead. After a quick Duck Duck Go search, I realised others were asking the same question, and the fire was back in my belly.

And that has probably been the best outcome from the programme of all – putting the fire in our bellies. Independent news publishers are a modern David in a larger struggle against the Goliath of huge, corporately-owned businesses, a bit like our high streets and Amazon. We don’t have centralised legal teams, marketing departments, or business development officers; we aren’t owned by hedge fund managers; and we don’t have the ear of government and big tech to bail us out when our shareholders get twitchy about our profit margin.

But then, we don’t answer to shareholders; we answer to the communities we serve. We don’t cut and paste press releases for clicks; we’re working every day to report something new. And we’re not trying to prop up a collapsing advertising business; we’re trying to build a new landscape of news publishing that our readers can trust at the exact time they need it most.

The PINF programme has helped me remember why we started Star & Crescent, and it’s helped me better understand the challenge facing small, independent publishers like us – and the opportunity. Combined, independent publishers have one of the largest audiences for local news in the UK, and we’ve got here with a fraction of the resources available to the mainstream press. Most of all, PINF helped us all to see the power of working together.

And I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Sarah Cheverton is Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Star and Crescent Community Media CIC. Sarah took part in PINF’s Leadership Development Programme in Autumn 2021.

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