What is the impact of public interest news?
Jonathan Heawood announces the new PINF Impact Fund
We all know that local journalism is good for democracy … don’t we? But how does this work in practice? What is the true relationship between local journalism and democratic engagement? And how can we strengthen this relationship?
Today, PINF is launching a new programme to measure the impact of local journalism on democratic engagement in two British cities. We are supporting five news providers to test old and new forms of journalism in London and Birmingham.
We want to help publishers make the most of their democratic impact, and we want to encourage donors and policymakers to support publishers who enable democratic engagement.
Other researchers have looked at the relationship between journalism and democracy at a general level. In 2020, DCMS published research by Plum Consulting showing that increased local newspaper circulation leads to increased voter turnout.
This research inspired us, but it also left us asking more questions. If there’s a correlation between local news and voter turnout, then what drives this correlation? Do some forms of local journalism have more democratic impact than others?
We talked about this with Neal Gandhi, Co-Founder and CEO of TPXImpact, one of the UK’s fastest-growing public sector focused digital and change companies. Neal believes that business should be a force for good in the world. He also believes in using data to drive innovation. And so, through the Neal & Dominique Gandhi Foundation, he has backed us to launch a new programme – the PINF Impact Fund.
With Neal and Dominique’s support, we are deepening our understanding of the democratic impact of local journalism by looking at the relationship between news and democracy in one of the smallest yet most powerful units of British politics – the ward.
There are 8,694 electoral wards in the UK, with an average population size of 5,500. Wards elect councillors, most of whom are members of political parties (unlike parish and town councillors, who aren’t usually party political). Ward elections can be the first rung on the ladder for the political leaders of the future, and local councillors are responsible for huge amounts of public spending. The City of Birmingham’s budget in 2021 was £3.2bn, for example.
Following an open call for applications and a rigorous selection process, we are delighted to announce that we are working with the following independent news providers in wards across London and Birmingham:
Colindale, London Borough of Barnet: Barnet Post
Allens Cross, City of Birmingham: Central Bylines
Canning Town South, London Borough of Newham: Newham Voices
Newington, London Borough of Southwark: Southwark News
Castle Vale, City of Birmingham: Switch Radio
Some of these providers might sometimes publish pieces with a political slant; but for the purposes of this project, we are supporting them to produce content that is politically impartial.
We have awarded each provider a grant of £8,000 to enhance their capacity to cover issues that are relevant to local democracy. We have also commissioned Dr Joanna Reynolds of Capacity Q to bring an expert eye to our evaluation of these five projects and the programme as a whole.
Each news provider is doing things differently. One is planning to hold focus groups to generate story ideas, whilst another is planning to distribute free copies of their printed paper to every household in the ward. One is actively encouraging their audience to vote and another is putting on hustings for local candidates.
By comparing these interventions against each other, we can test their relative impact on quantitative measures like voter turnout, as well as qualitative measures like public attitudes towards the local council. And we can find out whether, as a whole, this kind of engaged local journalism has a positive impact on democratic engagement.
Of course, there are contextual factors that will affect our findings. There might be a big national event that affects voter turnout right across the country. That’s why we’re going to compare each of our wards against a demographically similar ward in the same area. The comparison ward will act something like a control in a clinical trial.
If the same thing happens in both the intervention ward and the control ward – if, for example, voter turnout goes up by 3% in both wards – then that will suggest that both wards have been affected by something beyond our programme. If, on the other hand, voter turnout goes up in the intervention ward and down in the control ward, then we can be more confident that we’re seeing the impact of our activities.
Our findings might also be affected by unusual circumstances in one ward – a particularly popular local candidate, for example, or a scandal that inspires people to vote (or not to vote). We’ll be keeping track of these contextual factors, so that we can see through them to the underlying trends.
Of course, this is only a pilot programme, and there’s so much more that we’d like to do. But we hope that our findings will be valuable to anyone who wants to strengthen the relationship between local news and democracy.
This isn’t just about defending the old values of journalism; it’s also about developing new forms of journalism that are rooted in the democratic needs of communities up and down the UK.
Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of PINF.
On 30 November, Jonathan will be talking about press freedom, social media and journalism at Gladstone’s Library. In-person and online tickets are available here: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/events/events-courses-list/the-press-freedom-myth-an-evening-with-political-writer-in-residence-jonathan-heawood.