Mapping the evolution of local news

Posted by: Sara Moseley

In every part of public service in Wales the winds of change are blowing. More than ever, the focus is local and the implications many and varied for communities everywhere.  The need to do things differently, to innovate and collaborate and to make choices, is acute. And to do this well, those who use services, who care and know about them, need to be abreast of what is going on.

Local people need local news.

They need a platform where the implications of choices and decisions are made real, where there is debate and information. Also where they can be inspired, excited, moved and amused, encouraged to join in or to invite others to join them.

For over a century a vibrant local press has acted as the ‘fourth estate’, a term first used in this context by Edmund Burke when Parliament was opened up for press reporting. But of late there has been much hand wringing about the parlous state of local papers – much of it justified. The Newspaper Society estimates that about 200 local titles have closed in the past decade – including the Liverpool Daily Post read by many in North East Wales. ABC figures (Audience Bureau Circulation) showed sales of regional daily and Sunday titles down 13.5% in the first half of 2014 with many iconic Welsh titles leading the charge downwards.

Some of this decline is a sure sign that consumption of news is shifting online and that the pace of change is being accelerated by rapid uptake of mobile devices. So, for instance, whilst Western Mail circulation figures continue to go south, Wales Online now has 1.2 million monthly unique visitors. Despite this, online is still not as profitable as the old models (or, indeed, profitable at all). Access to news sites is free and Google, Amazon, Yahoo and their like are soaking up an ever greater proportion of advertising spend. There is less money to pay journalists to cover local issues and less invested in creating original content.

The real opportunity for keeping – and boosting – the number of journalists working on the ground in localities lies partly through the emergence of a new form of community journalism.

Enabled by low cost digital publishing and distribution, these news services are largely created by local people for local people. The Centre for Community Journalism combines the research and teaching power of one of the UK’s top journalism schools with a passion for making a difference – the driver behind our being found to be ‘outstanding’ in terms of impact in the recent Research Excellence Framework assessment.

Using a combination of research findings, training expertise and knowledge sharing we aim to support this emerging sector. Ofcom’s 2014 market report, News Consumption In The UK, showed 10% of the population are now accessing community news online at least once a week, 15% at least once a month. The evidence of demand is clear.

There is a growing sector meeting the need too. Some, like the Caerphilly Observer and are thriving businesses with an entrepreneurial approach. Others are run by volunteers working in English, such as Roath Cardiff , and Welsh, such as Pobl Caerdydd.

These and many more are mapped onto our network at the Centre and we are currently working to create a directory that will enable anyone to see what is being published in their area in Wales and to work with them.

But as with many new sectors, there is fragility.

The Media Standards Trust argue strongly for small scale support in their report Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News Through Positive Plurality. They cite the example of the Knight Foundation in the US (strapline – Informed and Engaged Communities) which has provided seed-corn funding for a number of projects to help get them to a position of sustainability. The Carnegie Trust also called for partnerships and support in their report The Future Is Bright, The Future Is Local.

In Wales, where London-based media predominates and where there is a dearth of coverage of national devolved matters – let alone a more local view – nurturing this plurality is an important element of building communities that are knowledgeable and empowered. Which, in turn, will affect outcomes as we change.