Jean Seaton and Steven Barnett attend roundtable on sustainable solutions to the local reporting deficit

19th December 2018

On Wednesday 7th Novemeber The Guardian Foundation, Media Trust and The Orwell Foundation held a roundtable on the Crisis in Local Journalism and the need for expert voices in the policy process. The event, which was attended by Jean Seaton and Steven Barnett called for a new definition of local journalism to reflect the conditions in which the sector operates today and to tackle the country’s growing democracy deficit. This would enable it to be backed by charitable donations and allow the new era of local reporting to have access to the traditional privileges of journalism, and would encourage experiments to create new forms of local, participatory and community reporting and create a fit-for- purpose status for public-value local reporting in the digital age.

The event concluded that radical steps are necessary because of the catastrophic failure of the old local newspaper business model in the digital age, with estimates that the number of local journalists in the UK has halved to between 5,000 and 6,000 over the last 10 years. The number of local newspapers serving the UK has also fallen to between 1,000 and 1,100, down from 1,600-1,800 in the latter part of the 20th century. New forms of local reporting are taking root, from sole-trader citizen journalism to digital-only operations run by large corporations and community TV and radio stations. But the sector is hamstrung by statutory definitions and legislation which are outdated bygones from a pre-digital age.

Fresh forms of funding, enabled by a new concept of local journalism that allows it to be backed by charitable donations, is required if this new era of grassroots reporting is to thrive. Already some hard-pressed local media start-ups have looked to set themselves up as a charity or not-for-profit vehicle, but journalism is not recognised by the Charities Act in the way that it views issues such as homelessness, poverty or community benefit. Setting up a journalism charity is against the law, quite literally, and that is a big problem.s. The Charity Commission has to take an entirely fresh look at the way it views the status of journalism.

The situation we are facing demands more than tweaks and refinements. The UK, like many other parts of the world across Europe and the US, faces a crisis in local media and a burgeoning democracy deficit. What is required is some sort of national, statutory recognition for the how local journalism operates today with proper structural and funding support. Clearly there is a great hunger for information that can be reliably produced and distributed at a regional and local level and there is also a great need for a system of organised funding to enable this to happen. A new categorisation of both journalism and the publications in which this journalism appears – enshrined in law – would help with charitable status and many other issues faced by the sector.

The session concluded though that this will be no easy task, raising questions of how we define journalism and how do we define the basis on which any subsidies, including taxes on the big technology companies, are redistributed.  There is no way the government can justify giving money in large quantities to newspapers without some sort of control on how it is spent. But we need to explore the definition of public value journalism from participatory voices to creating greater national policy impact.

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