Charitable model could save local news

Photo by Howard Lake (Flickr)

Guest blog by David Ainsworth.

Recently a group of my colleagues and I became interested in the idea of creating a charitable local newspaper.

The reason for this was simple. Local newspapers are important, but they are also in trouble. It’s time to try out a new model.

Those of us who’ve worked in local news can see it’s dying by inches. Papers are losing the trust of their readership base and many of their traditional sources of revenue. Reporters are becoming increasingly isolated from the communities they write about, paid terrible wages, and reduced to writing up press releases on industrial estates far from the centres of the towns they cover.

However, these papers are an important community resource. They provide information about local people. They provide a conduit between the authorities and those they serve. And they keep those same authorities honest.

So why might a charitable newspaper fare better than the traditional ones?
One advantage is obviously financial. Charities don’t pay most taxes, and they don’t have to pay dividends to shareholders. If they do produce a surplus, this can be reinvested in improving the business or on improving the community they serve.

Not only that, but charities can access for free many services that others have to pay for. One obvious example is that a local news provider is likely, in the long term, to live or die on the strength of its website, and a charity is likely to be able to leverage in some top quality IT support to build a really good one.

A charitable newspaper could also access start-up funding from grant-giving trusts and foundations, although in the long term, it would need to be self-financing.

There are other benefits too. A charitable provider, if it is doing its job of serving its community, should also benefit from the goodwill of that community, and should be able to draw on its resources.

Perhaps the most important of those resources is volunteer workers. While I envisage that trained, professional journalists would remain at the core of a local news service, there is plenty of scope for drawing on local people’s skills, both as contributors and members of the board.

The question of whether being a local newspaper is a charitable purpose has yet to be tested with the Charity Commission, who will only make a decision on a particular application. But the initial response to some concentrated lobbying from charity lawyers, published in Third Sector magazine, appears to be a cautious yes:

‘While the provision of news is not a charitable purpose in itself, in principle a community newspaper could further a charitable purpose through the advancement of citizenship, arts and culture, and recreational facilities.
Any application would need to be considered on its own merits against the existing legal framework.’

Certainly, any local newspaper which became a charity would have to have stringent safeguards in place to guarantee its political neutrality, and would have to be more careful than a normal newspaper about how it went about campaigning.

It seems likely that there would have to be some method of holding the editorial team to account, similar to that governing the BBC Trust. However, given that it’s the nature of good journalism to be complete, accurate and impartial, I think this is something that a paper should welcome, so long as day-to-day editorial control remains absolutely with the staff, and there is no outside interference.

The theory, now, has advanced far enough that it’s possible to think about giving it a practical try, but it’s still at an early stage.

One encouraging sign is that there appears to be plenty of interest in the model, including from journalists happy to volunteer their services, and from charitable funders who would like to put cash into a start-up.

The main thing now needed is a location.

Earlier this year, it appeared there was an opportunity to start something up when Lambeth Council announced it would outsource all of their statutory advertising to a single paper. They offered a single tender for £200,000 a year, which would have covered many of the costs of a small and growing organisation. The council encouraged a tender from a not-for-profit source, but the tender process was not designed to allow a small start-up a fair chance. In the end, they went with a local commercial provider.

So we’re still looking for the right place to try this out. It would need to be somewhere which is not well-served by its existing newspaper, because the purpose of something like this should not be to displace existing providers who are doing a good job, and it would ideally be somewhere with a strong community spirit.

We’re currently very interested in launching a charitable paper in partnership with existing community groups, not something that is top-down, imported from outside, but one that emerges from within the community, and has its blessing from the start.

On that basis, we’re really keen to hear from other people who want to get involved. The more support a project like this has, the sooner we can get the first example up and running.

David Ainsworth is Financial Reporter at Third Sector magazine. He can be contacted at:

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