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Hackney Citizen celebrates ten years in print despite never turning profit as editor says free paper started out as ‘funny little experiment’

Independent newspaper the Hackney Citizen is celebrating its tenth year in print despite starting out as a “funny little experiment” that has yet to turn a profit, according to editor Keith Magnum.

“Obviously we’re glad to still be going,” Magnum told Press Gazette as the paper turns a decade old this year.

“We’re not a paper of record, we’re interested in stories that we hope resonate and have relevance. The focus has always been on readers.”

The free monthly title has a print run of about 10,000 copies (own figures) and is distributed at local businesses and shops throughout the London Borough of Hackney.

Magnum and business partner Sarah Birch didn’t have any journalism experience when they decided to launch the paper in 2008.

He said: “We saw that Hackney was undergoing a bit of a renaissance, some would call it gentrification, but we thought there was space for something that provided more informed debate and in depth analysis.”

Magnum had previously been campaigns officer for human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and admits he “fell into journalism quite late”.

“When we started we didn’t have any business or journalism experience so our focus was very much on the stories and what was happening,” he said.

“We struggled a bit with the commercial side, as many local papers do, and we had a particularly difficult time at the beginning because we had no sales experience at all.”

Over its ten years the Citizen has had several run-ins with Hackney Council.

The Citizen competes for advertisers with the council-run Hackney Today, which is distributed to nearly 96,000 homes every fortnight against Government guidelines.

Magnum previously claimed the council was “using public resources to compete unfairly with local news publishers and starve independent local journalism of the revenue it needs to survive”.

He told Press Gazette: “In terms of the market, we have much stiffer competition than most other papers in the capital.

“We explained that to the council and they have agreed not to tout for business and will only take advertising if people come to them.

“It’s not entirely satisfactory from our point of view but we’ve never said we want the freesheet to close we just don’t think it should be taking advertising.”

Despite a legal challenge from the council in 2010 over a local election story, Magnum said the paper’s relationship with the council “is probably as good now as it has ever been”, although it “got off to a difficult start”.

On the decision to make the Citizen a free newspaper from launch, Magnum said: “We saw that the Metro and Evening Standard went free and there’s been a change in perception on the value of a free paper.

“It’s no longer seen as something to be thrown away and disposable.

“We’ve done our best to reinvigorate the local newspaper format and try to change people’s expectations of what you get in a local newspaper and I think we’ve had some success with that.”

The paper began as a quarterly before turning monthly in July 2010.

It has followed a similar model to the Guardian by introducing a supporter’s page on its website that allows readers to donate from £2 to £9 a month in an attempt to shore up falling ad revenues – its only other source of income.

Although they currently have around 50 subscribers, that number is growing and Magnum is optimistic.

“Obviously we’re not going to be able to fund the paper entirely through that but any additional revenue stream is welcome,” he said.

“We are not in profit and we have never made a profit, the best we hope for is to pay all the bills and the staff.

“But it was never set up as a profit making venture it was more of a project, for want of a better word.”

At the ten year mark the Citizen is currently aiming for survival in a “challenging environment” and it would be a “major achievement” for Magnum if the paper continues to stay in print.

The paper has a small editorial team comprising one editor, a reporter and a BBC-funded local democracy reporter, all of whom work full time.

The borough is also served by the Archant-owned weekly the Hackney Gazette, which Magnum says the Citizen “co-exists with”.

Despite the challenges, Magnum stressed the importance of local journalism as the “foundation of all journalism and holding local power to account”, adding: “Without it there isn’t any democracy.”

Although he regards the Citizen as an editorial success, Magnum admits that “commercially it’s probably not”.

“You need deep pockets to run a paper of any kind with any kind of decent editorial. I think public subsidy is probably the way forward and we are going to see more not-for-profits spring up.

“The Welsh Assembly has just pledged £200,000 to hyper-local news outfits in Wales, the BBC has started the local democracy reporter scheme and I think we’re going to see more things like that to step in and fill the breach.

“Businesses are set up to make money and if you can’t make money out of local news, businesses will pull out of it – so the gap needs to be filled with something else.”

The Hackney Citizen launched sister paper, the East End Citizen in 2016, covering the neighbouring London Borough of Tower Hamlets,  but due to financial difficulties it ceased printing after seven months.

“We were a tiny team so the distribution of 10,000 papers in a neighbouring borough was financially difficult,” said Magnum. “Launching a paper in the most deprived borough in London was always going to be a tricky one.”

Although Magnum has spent ten years as editor of the Hackney Citizen he won’t be at the helm for its 11th.

Magnum will be replaced by a managing editor while he  studies at Cardiff University for his PHD, the working title of which is: “Holding local power to account, the impact of the BBC local democracy reporter scheme.”

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