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What do people want from local news?

Jonathan Heawood and Sameer Padania discuss PINF's Local News Plans project in collaboration with NewsNow, and different ways of directing money toward journalism that truly meets the needs of its communities.


Last week, a cross-party group of senior MPs called on the Government to create a public interest news fund, as recommended by Frances Cairncross, to support innovation in local news.


At PINF, we were delighted by this recommendation, and we’re ready to help design or administer such a fund. But how should this work? How can we make sure that local news is really meeting the needs of the communities it serves? Can we have government funding for the news without government control? And is ‘innovation’ really the priority, or should we just be funding local journalists to do what they’ve always done?


Some of the answers to these questions are emerging through the Local News Plans project that we launched last year. The project was conceived in collaboration between PINF and NewsNow, the independent news discovery platform, who also generously provided the funding.


Through the project, we have spent time in six communities across the UK, talking to a wide range of people about local news. In Bangor, Bristol, Folkestone, Glasgow, Manchester and Newry, we’ve found people crying out for new forms of local news. They want journalism that gives voice to ordinary people’s experiences; that respects the diversity of their areas; that combines hard-hitting watchdog journalism with stories about solutions; and that responds directly to local people’s priorities. Most of all, they want local news that is truly local, and not ‘cookie-cutter’ media that pastes local colour onto generic stories that are the same from Belfast to Basildon.


We’ve talked to journalists and publishers, but also to people with a wide range of other perspectives, from local businesses, councils and public agencies to credit unions, faith groups and community organisations. They all have a stake in the health and success of local media, and some already support local media with money or other resources. But, for most of these stakeholders, this is the first time that anyone has brought them together to ask how they feel about the state of local journalism – and if there’s anything they can do about it.


We’ve also included local and place-based funders, who might be able to inject much-needed capital into the small, independent publications that are trying to address the information needs of their communities. There is a long way to go before we see the thriving culture of local journalism philanthropy that we find in the United States. But these conversations are an important step on the road, as funders begin to see how local news could contribute to dynamic local communities.


So, when MPs call for a national public interest news fund, we are keen to see how this could be married up with the lessons of our Local News Plans project. Having spent time in communities in all four nations of the UK, we believe that the solution to the local news crisis must be tuned into the characteristics of each place. Glasgow is a very different place from Folkestone. They both need local news, but they need local news that speaks in their accent. At the same time, we need national coordination, and national resources, to unlock the potential in each area.


What if a national public interest news fund could be used to match local funding? And what if spending decisions were made by local people? That would put local communities in the driving seat, removing the influence of politicians. This would also take the emphasis away from innovation for the sake of it and would instead prioritise forms of news – both traditional and innovative – that truly meet the needs of their communities.


This is just one idea, and we’re exploring other ways of putting local money in the hands of people who are making – and remaking – local news.


We’ll publish a final report on the project in March, so please get in touch if you would like to discuss our findings – and where we go from here.


Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of PINF and Sameer Padania is a media consultant and expert on public interest journalism funding and sustainability.

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