2013 – 2015: What have we learnt about community journalism?

Posted by Sara Moseley

In 2013, when Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism was established as a focus for research, networking, training and support, we already had an inkling of the civic value that this sector could create. We had high hopes too of seeing these new entrants embedding themselves sustainably. Two years on and that evidence of value, innovation and entrepreneurship is much clearer. So too is the evidence of what needs to be done if this fledgling sector is to survive and thrive.

Cardiff University supported the Centre as one of its flagship engagement projects because we were convinced of the transformative power of vibrant local journalism which connects and champions the interests of communities. Convinced too of the need for academic institutions like ours, which have a successful track record of training journalists and of research excellence, to put our money where our mouth is.

Two years on, and Ofcom’s 2015 Communications Market Report shows that the demand for very local news, delivered digitally, continues to rise with a quarter of respondents now using online media for this kind of content. A year earlier their report on news consumption in the UK showed 15% using local community websites and apps at least every month.

During this time, we have trained tens of thousands of community journalists online through our MOOC, uncovering for the first time a vibrant and diverse community of enthusiasts across the globe – inspiring some new ventures and enhancing others through sharing skills. We have created a network of practitioners exchanging news and ideas and generously sharing experiences. We have supported a number of new ventures in Wales, in both national languages, as well as training hundreds of journalists and communicators face to face. With colleagues in Birmingham City and Westminster Universities we have complied research, which definitively evidences the value of hyperlocal journalism to communities. And we have worked with others who care passionately about good quality local journalism – Nesta, Carnegie Trust UK, talk about local, Media Standards Trust, Media Trust and many more in the UK and internationally.

With this unique fusion of research, working at grass-roots level and monitoring developments, we have a clear perspective on the current situation and on future needs. So, what have we learnt?

  • Community journalists are creating and sharing news with a great deal of civic value. We have seen ground breaking investigative journalism, innovative coverage of the general election and other opportunities for people to have a say about issues which affect them directly. This is alongside straightforward sharing of the type of news and information which lets people get to know the communities they live in and take part;
  • Many hyperlocals look and feel like traditional media, but we are also seeing innovation and some partnership working with community and public service organisations;
  • There is a growing demand for this type of very local news and information, especially when delivered digitally, and we know that the number of journalists employed on the ground by local news groups is continuing to decline leaving significant gaps;
  • It can be hard for audiences to know they have a community service, let alone find it online because of the algorithms used by the dominant search engines and because many community journalists do not have the skills to know their audience and optimise engagement with them;
  • Very few community news sites make money, or even cover costs. Despite the fact that a slight majority of practitioners have journalism or communications training, this is a labour of love for most. Our research shows that most would like, even expect, their service to grow and that most too are in it for the long haul. But sustainability – in terms of time and money – is a pressing concern;
  • There is a real thirst for networking, support and learning amongst this new and fragmented sector. We have witnessed and evidenced the public service many provide with passion, skill and a deep knowledge of their communities.

It seems to us that this is a critical time for community journalism. There is energy, promise and huge value here. But there is also a lack of infrastructure and coordinated support to unlock development evidence. How many services are there really? What is their audience size, profile and geographical coverage? What revenue streams could be created? How could partnership working – for example with local business and public service – be enabled? How can new skills and knowledge be created at low cost? How can public value be amplified and enhanced?

Two years after our launch conference we are gathering again in Cardiff on 9 September. This time, community journalists themselves will be at the forefront of sharing innovation. They will be working with policy makers, academics and funders who are passionate about this sector to find positive solutions.