How community-run newspapers could provide a future for local journalism

Since 2009, more than 100 local titles have closed. Many more have survived only by merging, which makes them more distant from their readers.

Of course many papers find it hard to survive in the 21st century with a more rootless population, the rise of the internet and the collapse of traditional advertising.

Or sometimes – just as some pubs close when the owner would rather make a quick buck selling to developers – owners take a paper down the slippery slope of deskilling, merging and closing.

Yet we need our local press.

Some towns do not have a specific professional journalist to hold public bodies to account. As Co-operatives UK describe, these journalists are “a critical part of the architecture of accountable democracy”.

Without journalists paid to attend meetings of public bodies making decisions about our lives, democracy is weakened. Papers, just like pubs or football clubs, are more than just businesses in a community. Indeed, they help define community.

So local media is both a natural monopoly and a model in trouble.

The National Union of Journalists argues that “the model is not bust: local papers need to rediscover their local roots, so that local advertisers know they are reaching their market and readers can see that reporters are working on their patch as a watchdog and friend”.

There is something worth fighting for here but we need to bring the interests of owners and community together.

What if the community were the owners? Papers can be community owned, employee-owned or held in trust for community benefit. These models can offer potential which is unimaginable when papers are controlled by just a handful of private interests.

For a start, the bar of viability under community ownership is set at a different height. Community owners may be content with more modest returns – they do not have to service debts or pay dividends to venture capitalists. They can have a longer, more rounded sense of value than the narrow short-term bottom line. 

Second, as we have seen with the experience of community-owned pubs and shops – with failure rates startlingly low – community ownership can create a virtuous circle which drives financial success. It is amazing how viable something can be when it is run by people who care most about it.

This is the paradox – these fluffy, social, co-operative, community businesses often do a better job of making money than those red in tooth and claw.

We can better align the interests of owners, readers and reporters through not-for-profit, community-owned models, built to be responsive and accountable.

People can get behind media which speaks for them and sustainable publications can emerge.

The West Highland Free Press is owned by its 13 members of staff and has a patch of 200,000 square miles. These staff all have an equal share, take an equal cut of the profits and are paid a decent wage. This is a local paper to take pride in and which serves the community. 

Meanwhile, Ethical Consumer raised £200,000 from a community share issue from readers in 2008.

In 2014, The Bristol Cable was launched, supported by the local community.

Worker co-operative Marlborough News Online is now three years old and paying journalists a decent living.

The Social Economy Alliance is made up of social enterprises, co-operatives, crowd-funders, think tanks, charities and hundreds of individual supporters. We want every group of journalists and every community to have the right to do what the West Highland Free Press did.

Recently, we published The Right to Invest report. It proposed a Right to Invest for communities across a range of themes, starting with renewable energy and football – where politicians already get it – and went on to housing, the railways and the press.

This idea is a hybrid of left and right. It echoes Margaret Thatcher’s iconic Right to Buy as much as it does Marx’s aspirations of putting the means of production in the hands of the workers. It also resonates today with the rise of UKIP, SNP and the Greens who say that many of the things we care about are beyond our control.

Sometimes all we need is a little time to bring the community together.

Under the Localism Act, people already have the right to flag up buildings in their area as ‘Assets of Community Value’. This status means that when the asset comes up for sale, they are given time to lodge a bid.

Yet this law is limited to physical assets.

The NUJ has proposed the Government give local papers protected status as community assets. If a paper is offered for sale, then communities would have a period of time to organise, raise finance and prepare a bid.

Not every community will want to exercise this right. But this idea of a more social media can help stop our valuable local newspapers from disappearing forever.

Dan Gregory is director of the Social Economy Alliance

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