New Model Journalism

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Archive for the ‘Local/hyperlocal’ Category

Inspired union: strategies for journalism to flourish

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Fiona Cullinan, Christian Payne and Lucia Adams

Conference report by Tim Dawson

NUJ freelances displayed an innovative range of strategies to survive and prosper at a one-day conference.  A capacity audience packed the event to hear from more than twenty speakers describing initiatives including: instant-video documentary making, selling into new foreign markets, self-publishing via Kindle, and creating iPad app publications.

Other novel funding sources and work models included crowd-funding foreign photographic assignments, working as a journalist on behalf of brands, cross-funding journalism with authoring corporate ‘white papers’ and, a number of successful co-operatively produced publications.

The event, organised by the London Freelance Branch, aided by the NUJ’s Freelance Office, was held at the London Welsh Centre on 17 November 2012.  Open to all, in excess of 200 people attended, more than half of them women, many of whom contributed to the lively event with their own questions and experiences.

Among the highlights was photographer, Guy Smallman, who has undertaken numerous assignments in Afghanistan, most self-funded.  By entering the country as a non-embedded journalist he has been able to cover stories that were not accessible to colleagues who worked more closely with the military.  The reputation that he has built as a result has more recently enabled him to source crowd-funding larger projects.

Christian Payne (documentally.com) describes himself as a social technologist, multi-tasking communicator or blogger.  After a career as a staff and freelance photographer, he now blogs and makes video documentaries, some following his own interests, others as commercial assignments.

Payne’s total engagement with Twitter started when, after a car crash, he used the micro-blogging service to ask, ‘what do I do now?’  “It was the first point of using social channels when I wasn’t bragging about myself.  I showed some humility, made myself look an arse and loads of people came to my aid.  At that point I decided to embrace the networks and be a storymaker”, he said.

He subsequently made a video from photographs he had taken in Iraq.  When he realised that more people saw his pictures on YouTube than had seen the same photographs when they were published in national newspapers, he decided that he was on to something.  “Although I wasn’t being paid for my pictures, I was building this huge audience of people who were interested in me, and some of them started to offer me work”, he said.

Fiona Cullinan’s (fionacullinan.com) entré to blogging came during a slow spell while she had been booked to work for a contract publisher.  “I would suggest to every journalist that they blog – not necessarily to monetise what they are doing but as a digital playground and as a place to experiment and to show potential clients what you can do”, she said.  Using her blog as a hub, Cullinan started writing about how her working life was developing – particularly as subbing opportunities shrank.  Subsequently, six months emailing a digital agency where she wanted to work eventually bore fruit.

“Freelancing has been a rollercoaster – but it suits me”, said Hina Pandya (@hinapublish).  After a varied career, five years ago she decided to freelance full-time.  Since then, relentless networking and going with the flow of work have been her watchwords.  After becoming frustrated with commissioning editors who would not pay, she published her own travel guide as an eBook and said that sales, to date, have exceeded her expectations.  Commissioned by the Syfy tv channel to blog about a television program ‘Continum’, Pandya found that her related Tweets about the program gained a significant following.  The broadcaster subsequently agreed to pay her to publish in this way.  Her tips for aspirant freelances are to make pitches short and sharp, try to negotiate your fee upwards every time, and invest in your own training.

Huma Yusuf spoke about ‘Breaking the BRICs’ or the media markets in such emerging countries as Brazil, India, Russia and China.  “Media is booming in these countries”, she said.  “In India, newspaper sales are growing at a rate of 1.5% a year and the Times of India has a circulation of 4.3m”.  Much of the media is trying to operate 24/7 so there is a desperate thirst for content – particularly news about how their country is viewed abroad, how their countrymen conduct themselves or are perceived abroad or more general diaspora news.

To break into these markets, Yusuf suggested initially offering material to smaller titles – for example in India the magazines Caravan, the Far East Economic Review or Outlook.  With your reputation established in ‘the only market that matters – their own’, approaches can then be credibly made to larger titles such as The Times of India.  Happily, at least in the case of South Asia, editors tend to display their email addresses on their paper’s websites, and most are ‘addicted’ to social media.  Pay rates vary between $50 and $1,000 for 600 words.  The best way to up these rates, Yusuf suggested, is to offer ‘multi-media’ packages, as many Indian papers have very ‘snazzy websites’ that are perilously thin on content.

The issue of credibility in foreign markets was also addressed by Max Glaskin (@cyclingscience1).  Specialising in engineering and technology, 20 years ago he faxed his details to 150 US magazines.  The replies were few, but made clear that a ‘as a Limey he was unlikely to be able to understand the complexities of American culture’.  Six months later, however, he received a fax from ‘Biophotonics International’ seeking a European contributor.  With credibility established at one journal he picked up work from publications in the same stable – and was then able to use those contacts to leverage work on other US titles.

Work in south east Asia came via a friend who moved there, that Glaskin nagged for work.  When his pal moved on, Glaskin stuck with the title and then made himself known to his friend’s new publication.  “I never pitch stories”, he said.  “I simply let publications know that I am here and that I can supply them whatever they want, so long as it interests me.”  Once his reputation was made with one or two ex-pat journalists, word of his competence was passed around.

Examples discussed at the event varied between techniques that have allowed jobbing freelances to reach new clients and extend their workbase, and more substantial business ventures.  The magazine that Una Murphy edits in Belfast certainly falls into the latter category.  View is a free-to-download digital magazine serving Northern Ireland’s voluntary and community sector.  Set up with Brian Pelan, like Murphy, a 20-year media veteran, the monthly magazine received modest grant support to get it established, but now survives on advertising from suppliers to voluntary organisations.  It is now generating more than £2,000 a month in revenue and is well-established in its target market.

Mark Watts, editor-in-chief of subscription investigative news service, Exaro (exaronews.com) said that although the traditional media model is breaking down, opportunities are also being thrown up.  “The real enemy of journalism is not Leveson, but accountants”, he said.  “Accountants told us that churning copy was more profitable than real journalism, and they were behind the budget cuts at the BBC.  But all over the place real journalism enterprises are springing up to meet real-news needs – so freelances should keep their eyes open, and if you can’t see what you are looking for, maybe do it yourself”.  Watts did warn, however, that freelance looking for work at Exaro should obey the old rule – check out the product first – and make sure that they have the right range of skills, experience and contacts for investigative journalism.

David Boyle the author of The Case For Media Co-ops described several publications that have enjoyed success anew, having adopted a co-operative model. The West Highland Free Press, for example, was bought by its 13 employees in 2009.  Today, they pay themselves well and, after servicing debt, make a return of two per cent on capital.

Marlborough News Online, in Wiltshire, was established as a workers’ co-operative by four journalists.   Providing news for a town without a newspaper, it already generates sufficient revenue to employ all four members for one day a week each and is ‘on track’ to increase this to full times jobs within five years, said Boyle.

At Ethical Consumer magazine, declining advertising revenue threatened the business’ survival.  An appeal to readers, however, raised an investment of £200,000.  The readers are now the magazine’s owners and receive a four percent return on their outlay.  “In the conventional media, the number of titles and reporters is down and so are circulations – but there are outliers where they are proving that local readers do want local content”, said Boyle.  “The great benefit of co-ops is that young talent is in the boardroom from the start, because all staff are involved”.

Alex Klaushofer, co-author of Help Yourself: New ways to make copyright pay, and joint editor of this site, (@alexklaushofer) highlighted a number of trends.  There is life yet in print, she suggested, citing The Blizzard, a quarterly journal of long-form writing about football.  The jury is out on advertising, with profitable hyperlocal news publications such as the Filton Voice (filtonvoice.co.uk) confounding predictions that the advertising model is definitively broken. Meanwhile, foundation and grant funding is supporting a range of new media from investigative heavy hitters ProPublica in the United States to village newsletter The Ambler, in Northumberland. But the States are considerably ahead of the UK in funding quality journalism, innovative practice and research into the changing media landscape, she observed.

Other initiatives mentioned at the event included Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s Downfall, the story of Glasgow Rangers’ recent travails that was spawned from a blog and has now sold more than 10,000 copies, the Berlin Newspaper Die Tageszeitung, which is owned by its 30,000 subscribers and The Bicycle Reader, a Kindle-only magazine whose first edition was produced with no capital and has already sold 1,000 copies.

Closing the conference, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stansistreet committed the NUJ to extending its services for freelance members.  “It is really clear to me that that this has been a fantastically useful day and as our industry is increasingly freelance, I know how important it is for you all to keep your skills up to date – but it is also good for me to hear from you what you need from the union”.  Stanistreet promised that contributions made during the day would inform the union’s work in the months to come.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 22nd, 2012 at 3:44 pm

UK hyperlocals suffer from grantfunders’ fixation on innovation

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UK hyperlocals suffer from grantfunders' fixation on innovation

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

Earlier this month, the lottery-funded charity Nesta announced the successful bidders for its new grant programme Destination Local. Ten winners emerged out of the 165 hyperlocal projects who applied for funds, including Welsh language paper Papur Dre and The Kentishtowner, an online north London magazine. Each project will receive up to £50,000 to develop and test prototypes for new technology platforms, especially mobile devices, thus contributing to the new generation of hyperlocal media services.

This is undeniably good news. The burgeoning of the hyperlocal sector in recent years clearly demonstrates the appetite of both its readers and new breed of publisher-editors for in-depth, engaged news and information for local communities. But the sector has been stymied by the lack of a revenue model, with profitable operations such as the Filton Voice very much the exception, while others, such as the Saddleworth News, simply die of starvation. Meanwhile, with the Guardian giving up on its own hyperlocal experiment, big media organisations are faring no better.

In the middle are the majority of hyperlocals – community projects often very successful in editorial terms and much-loved by their readers, but sustained largely by the goodwill and passion of those who run them. For now. Consequently, most face a very uncertain future.

The UK is behind the States in this respect. With leading funders such as the Knight Foundation, the US not-for-profit sector has invested over a billion dollars in quality journalism over the past decade.

But with its marked focus on innovation, the Nesta grant programme follows in the footsteps of the well-established UK lottery tradition of supporting the new at the expense of the simply good. I know this, because for years I covered the lottery and funding worlds, often speaking to grant applicants and the frustrated heads of small charities and community groups. A clear pattern emerged from their attempts to secure funding: with continual pressure to show that projects were ‘innovative’, a few skewed their work towards the obviously ‘new’. But the overall result was that services of proven benefit to the community – even those that had been ‘new’ five years ago – often fell by the wayside, as the funding machine rolled on to support the next shiny new idea.

This potted history of the British grant-funding scene may hold a lesson for community-focused media start-ups. For, out of the YouTube pitches thoughtfully collated by Nesta to add to the growing body of emerging practice, it is clear that some deserving projects never stood a chance of funding because of the programme’s focus on technological innovation. Take the case of the award-winning Ventnor Blog, for example. Despite establishing itself at the heart of the community, the six-year-old site still does not provide its mid-career husband-and-wife team with a viable living.

Or take Port Talbot Magnet – not, as far as I know, an applicant for Nesta funding – effectively surviving off the PhD funding of one of the cooperative’s members. In an interview with the Online Journalism Blog, Rachel Howells cites the biggest challenge to date as the lack of funding; not one of the seven directors are in a position to give the website the time it needs to develop and become sustainable.

Perhaps we should admit that, for once, our American cousins have the longer view.

Written by Alex

July 16th, 2012 at 7:24 am

Status politics: could local newspapers be allowed to become charities?

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Report by Tim Dawson

With a UK Communications Bill White Paper expected in early 2013, there is a growing hope that one of its provisions might be to make it easier for local newspapers to operate as charities.  A consortium of charities and trusts has already made a submission to this effect to the Department for Culture Media and Sport to this effect.

The Charities Act of 2006 requires that, to obtain the benefits of charitable status, an organisation must comply with one of charitable purposes mentioned in the Act, none of which provide an obvious way in which a publisher might comply.  Wikimedia UK, the UK arm of Wikipedia did obtain charitable status in 2011, after a long and complex negotiation with the Charity Commissioners, which it likened itself to the nineteenth century reading rooms that provided a ‘public resource’.  Derived from a statute of 1601, however, this route is thought to be off-puttingly complex for more mainstream publications.

It is not hard, however, to find evidence of the benefit to communities that newspapers can provide when they are produced by charities.  In Northumberland, for example, the Ambler is a bi-monthly newspaper, produced for the former mining village of Amble, by the Amble Development Trust.

Edited by Anna Williams, who is employed by the Trust, the paper is largely produced by volunteers and is distributed free to Ambles 6,500 residents.  An allied website is updated daily.

‘Our mission is to promote community cohesion’, says Williams.  ‘We were fortunate that, from the beginning, people took the paper to their heart and thought of it as their own.  And we are lucky to be in a village that is small enough for people to know who you are talking about but big enough for there to be something going on’.

The Development Trust obtains its funding from a range of statutory and other agencies often having to trim what it does to fit with the funding available.  The Trust provides the paper with a comfortable home and the computers that are required for production.  Williams’ salary is also met by the Trust – for whom she undertakes other work as well as editing the paper.

Under the current legislation there is nothing to stop other community charities from establishing newspapers, as they have in Amble.  For a charity to take over an existing newspaper, or for a charity to be established whose main purpose was to publish a newspaper, however, would almost certainly require a change in the law.  The main benefits that charitable status provides is that it provides access to some funding streams.  Slightly more nebulously, it could also provide newspapers with a badge to demonstrate their community worth.

Given the tumult of the Leveson enquiry and the potentially far-reaching consequences of the Hargreaves Review, it remains to be seen whether such a measure appears to be sufficiently attractive to the Government for it to appear in a Bill.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

July 9th, 2012 at 5:02 am

OUT NOW: Free ebooklet for writers from New Model Journalism

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By Alex Klaushofer.

Against the background of change and struggle that has afflicted the media and publishing in recent years, one strand of good news has consistently emerged. This good news story of the crisis in journalism tells of innovation and experimentation, of pioneering practices and the opening up of new frontiers, as writers of all kinds develop cutting-edge models to sustain quality work.

So we’re pleased to have the opportunity to gather together some of the best, and most distinctive, examples of this pioneering trend. Some of the case studies, such as Disability News Service and iPad magazine Sail Racing, are updates on initiatives we’ve been tracking for a while. It’s been great to see them going from strength to strength, refining their models as they do so.

Other experiments, such as community newspaper The Ambler or author Simon Winchester’s enhanced app Skulls, are new to us or have received little coverage in the British media press. Most are working as individuals or in small groups, and all are entrepreneurial – but not relentlessly so. Some are combining their new projects with other ambitions or commitments, fitting them into their own temperaments and particular circumstances. In every case, the innovators share the lessons learnt (so far), details of the nuts and bolts of their models, and offer ideas on how their models might be replicated by others.

The forthcoming e-pamphlet has been generously sponsored by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society and supported by the NUJ. Freely available to members of both organisations, it is effectively a gift to the writing community. The hope is that readers will draw both inspiration and practical advice from its contents.

‘Help yourself: New ways to make copyright pay’, is available here.

Written by Alex

July 2nd, 2012 at 6:13 am

Clutch of hyperlocal newspapers launch in south London

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Friday saw a strange phenonmenon in Media Land: the launch of seven hyperlocal newspapers across south London. The weekly newspaper South London Press, now nearly a hundred and fifty years old, is printing seven editions specific to particular areas. Streatham, Brixton, Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Dulwich, Deptford & New Cross and Forest Hill & Sydenham are to get their own papers, while a stand-alone edition will continue to be sold in areas without hyperlocal editions. All have a cover price of 50p.

Given that local papers have long been at the sharp end of the crisis in journalism, can such a move be successful? Proprietor Sir Ray Tindle, the eighty-something owner of over 200 local papers, is well-known for his upbeat attitude to the difficulties of local journalism. His papers have continued to thrive during the downturn, and in June 2011 he launched fortnightly hyperlocal The Chingford Times, which is reportedly doing well.

The key to success is, apparently, lies in a hyperlocal approach to news that is rooted in old-fashioned journalistic values rather than a trend emerging out of the digital revolution. When taking over the failing Tenby Observer, Sir Ray’s first move was to reverse a decision to extend coverage to several towns. Every line of every story must relate to Tenby, he instructed: ‘A cat must not have kittens in Tenby unless it’s covered in the Observer’.

Yet coverage at this level of detail is labour-intensive and so costly. It is not clear whether any more staff have been taken on at the South London Press, but Sir Ray’s comments, quoted by the Press Gazette, will speak volumes to anyone who has worked in a newsroom during these difficult times: ‘I stood up last Friday afternoon and asked if they could do it in 14 days. Somebody whispered to me, ‘you’re asking them to do six new paid-for papers in six working days’, and I said, “these people can do it”.’

At the same time, in the responses posted to news of the launch, experts including James Hatts, veteran hyperlocal editor of SE1, observe that the main edition of South London Press has been thin on content for some time.

A new crop of print hyperlocals launched by lone operators suggest that the South London Press may be missing another key ingredient to success. In founding the filtonvoice, a monthly newsy magazine serving an area of Bristol, Richard Coulter says that rootedness in the community is essential: ‘You have to live in the neighbourhood to do this properly. I don’t think you could do it remotely,’ he says. The magazine has been an immediate success with readers, both in terms of editorial and advertising, and was profitable from Issue One.

Between Sydenham and Streatham, two of the areas served by the new South London Press hyperlocals, lies Crystal Palace, also with its monthly lifestyle magazine The Transmitter. Printed on high-quality paper, full of photos with local people and places and contributions by residents, the publication oozes the kind of celebratory granularity that digital hyperlocals have developed so well.

Publisher-editor Andy Pontin admits that the magazine makes a small loss, but adds that this situation could be quite easily changed: ‘My personal issue is that I have a full time job and four kids, so how I manage my time is to jettison any attempt to get advertising in order to focus what little time I have on the magazine editorial and photography, which is my hobby,’ he says. ‘If I, or someone on a commission basis, spent more time trying to get ads, then I am 99% positive it would be in profit.’

Time will tell whether the new generation of South London Press hyperlocals can combine the virtues of old-fashioned journalism with the allure of organically-grown publications.

Written by Alex

June 11th, 2012 at 4:51 am

New, print and profitable – a new model for hyperlocals

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Print is dying, and hyperlocal websites notoriously difficult to make pay. But one recently-established community magazine is challenging these orthodoxies of the digital age.

Monthly magazine The filtonvoice is the brainchild of Richard Coulter, a former staffer on The Bristol Evening Post. Having taken redundancy from the struggling newspaper, Coulter looked around and noticed that Filton, a well-defined part of Bristol with a population of around 12,000, had local publications aplenty. And they were full of adverts. Yet the editorial material was poor or non-existent.

‘I thought, if I can tap into the commercial success but bring some of the skills that I have in terms of the content, there might be a model here”,’ he told NMJ.

Coulter persuaded the former ad manager of The Evening Post to sell ads on a commission-only basis. Local businesses immediately took space, and Issue One of filtonvoice, published in October 2011 with 16 pages, went immediately into profit.

The page length soon went up to 32, and eight editions later, the magazine hovers between 40-48 pages, depending on how many ads have been sold; since he is not charging for the publication, Coulter feels no obligation to commit to a certain length.

Around 5000 magazines are printed each month and delivered door-to-door by a small team, or left at pick-up points in local shops and community centres.

‘The feedback has been very positive,’ says Coulter. ‘People say it’s just what was needed. They are surprised how much goes on in the community.’

Meanwhile, the advertising revenue the magazine generates pays him a decent wage for the two-and-half-day week he spends on producing it – around 40% of what he was earning as a staff journalist.

In Coulter’s view, the experiment demonstrates that there is an enduring appetite for print publications serving local communities, as well as a market for the advertising to sustain them. He has no plans to go digital-only.

‘I’m not going to get to the point where we don’t need the magazine anymore,’ he says. ‘My view is that I simply do not see where there’s any revenue for news websites digitally.’

He prioritises print, publishing material online only after it has appeared in the magazine. No web-only advertising rates are offered, and so far only one client has requested an online advert.

The keys to success, Coulter thinks, lie in having a well-defined niche with the means to advertise, something that can be replicated by other entrepreneurial journalists in many areas and sectors.

‘Just plunge in and have a go,’ he advises. ‘There is a way of setting this up and being profitable from Day One.’

A fuller version of this case study will appear in ‘New Ways to Make Copyright Pay’, an ebook of pioneering practice that New Model Journalism is producing for the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society

Written by Alex

May 28th, 2012 at 4:29 am

The places that the tablets can’t reach

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Rupert Murdoch’s reputation as a media visionary might have taken a battering in recent months.  His famed enthusiasm for iPads as a news deliver device, however, is beginning to look as if it might yet prove to be as shrewd as his gamble as the one that he made on subscription tv two decades ago.

Research by Forrester, the US based consultancy and research firm, shows how profoundly the acquisition of an iPad changes users behaviour.  Around a third of those answering the company’s questionnaire said that they read fewer books and used their personal computers less frequently after buying an iPad.  One in four say that the number of newspapers and magazines they read fell, and 20% found themselves using their MP3 players less.

Part of the reason for this appears to be that iPad users have different attitudes and expectations compared to other device users – one survey in the US found that among all computer users just 5% were willing to pay for news, rising to 12% among iPad users.  Murdoch’s The Daily, which is not available in the UK, might not have been a runaway success, but the 120,000 subscribers that they reported last October is a respectable and growing base. And surprisingly, most opt to subscribe for a year at a time, rather than on a rolling daily basis.

In 2011, 56 million people found themselves owners of a new tablet computer.  Forrester predicts that global sales will rise to 375 million by 2016.  Taking into account those that are discarded, broken or lost, this suggests 760 million tablets in use around the world by 2016, a third of them by business and 40% of them in emerging markets.

As Ken Doctor, author of Newsenomics has noted, “surveys show that people seem to like reading news on tablets, with many saying they prefer the tablet experience to that of the newspaper. As tablets become cheaper to buy, it’s merely a matter of time before newspapers flip the switch and stop printing altogether in favour of digital editions”.

At one level I suspect that he is right – not least as I am among those iPad newspaper subscribers.  However, I have been exercising my political-activist muscles this past few weeks by indulging in that bedrock of electioneering – delivering leaflets.  It is a miserable and thankless job.  Apart from the chance to examine unfamiliar neighbourhoods at walking speed, delivering to letterboxes is without relief.

With time on my hands for thinking, though, I could not help but wonder whether there was not a better way to get messages to householders?  Surely email, Facebook and Twitter could replace shoe leather when it comes to identifying potential voters?  Could my leaflets not be simply ‘pushed’ to the putative voter iPads.

I discussed the idea with my local party organiser – a talented electioneer of long experience, who travelled to the US to work on Obama’s first election campaign.  He did not give me much hope that my days of expressing my commitment in shoe leather were coming to a close.  “Social media has some uses among activists, it is good for getting messages out quickly and I have even managed to recruit on Twitter.  For communicating with the electorate itself, however, it is all but useless.  However high the take up, we are nowhere near the point where half the electorate can be reached by electronic means (apart from the telephone).  For so long as that is the case, electoral politics will always start with leaflets and printed election addresses”.

These twin truths appear to place us in a strange an paradoxical position.  On the one hand the rush to new media will quite properly be the main concern for most media companies.  In this respect, tablet formats that retain clear editions and create a clear revenue stream, will be the rightful preoccupation of many.

However, there will be a mass analogue market for many years to come.  Eric Gordon’s optimism about genuinely local papers – expressed here – might sound backward looking.  But I suspect that even now there are a few journalists entering the trade even now, who could see out their careers committing their words to ink –  albeit they are likely to be at the resolutely local end of the game.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

May 8th, 2012 at 4:20 am

From cooperation to crowd-funding: The case of Port Talbot

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Its bleak industrial landscape was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its population of diverse life-forms evolving new ways of being in the struggle for survival. And now, Port Talbot’s bleak media landscape is … You get the idea. While on the one hand, Port Talbot is the perfect illustration of the crisis in local journalism, on the other, it’s the scene of an experiment which combines the cooperative model with crowd-funding.

The origins of Port Talbot MagNet go back to January 2010 when a group of local journalists, having lost their jobs to the crisis hitting the industry, decided to do something about the news vacuum in the area. The local paper, the Port Talbot Guardian, had closed down, leaving the town without any local news provider, and has since been followed by the council newspaper and the community radio station.

The group of local journalists formed a coop and were initially optimistic about the prospects of funding it through both grants and commercial activity. But a year of funding-seeking generated nothing, while plans to set up a news agency ran aground as the recession bit into budgets for local stories. The team decided to go ahead anyway and launched last June, having entered into a partnership with the National Theatre Wales to cover the Passion, an interactive theatre production set in the streets of Port Talbot.

In the event, the project did secure a form of funding when founding member Rachel Howells won an award to do a PhD examining the effects of the lack of news on the area run by the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. The award, which provides £50K for a three-year case study of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Port Talbot, effectively means that Howells is paid to work on the site.

‘It works very well, because the project feeds into the PhD, and the PhD research feeds into the project,’ she says.

The research, which will result in one of the first in-depth studies of the effects of the disappearance of traditional local news providers, will compare an historical analysis of the town’s local news sources with the ways in which the local population now get their information about what is going on.

‘My suspicion is that a lot of people are finding out about news by rumour and word-of-mouth,’ says Howells. ‘Really, what are the people of Port Talbot getting? National news, a bit of regional news, and not much else.’

Taking weekly turns as editors, the eight-strong team also draws on help from volunteers to write and source stories, and recently launched a crowd-funding initiave based on Spot.us adapted for the local community. The Pitch-in! scheme has so far brought them a free office in Port Talbot, plus some cash donations to to revive the traditional reporting of magistrates’ courts and council meetings. ‘You can’t have volunteers doing that; you must have a professional journalist,’ says Howells.

Driven primarily by a desire to provide the local area with news, the Port Talbot MagNet approach is certainly not a well-worked out, sharply-defined commercial model. Pragmatic and experimental, the model is likely to end up hybrid, involving a mixture of advertising, grant funding and commercially-generated revenue. But Howells is clear about one thing: ‘We would love it to be profitable. We think of ourselves as a social enterprise,’ she says. ‘People talk about not-for-profit, but you’ve still got to make an operating profit to pay the journalists and the running costs.’

She adds sagely: ‘Although we know that the traditional print model is showing signs of wear and tear, we have to be careful we don’t throw away all the things that have made businesses, particularly media businesses, work in the past.’

And although she doesn’t say so, it also seems likely that the success of the project will depend as much on the hard work and tenacity of one individual as the collective efforts of the cooperative.

Written by Alex

January 18th, 2012 at 9:51 am

Local press: adrift without a compass and in danger of disappearing

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I met the editor of one of Britain’s oldest regional dailies at a social event recently.  We chatted about the worrying state of the media and with a resigned sigh he said:  “I am hoping that the paper will see me out”.  He is in his mid-50s and the title he edits has been published since the early days of Victoria’s reign.

It was not a carefully considered opinion, nor an official announcement – but I suspect that it tells you something of how adrift the management of Britain’s regional press has become.  Few seem to see any real future for their titles beyond getting out with their own nest suitably feathered.  Indeed, as I write dark rumours are abroad that one of the regional press ‘big three’ (Trinity Mirror, Johnson Press and Newsquest/Garnett) is about to announce the complete closure of some of its best known, and biggest selling daily titles.

Of course the nation’s attention is currently concentrated on the national media – although if you ask most MPs they will tell you that they are more concerned about the demise of their local papers than with the misdeeds of some of the nationals.   But in a few dark corners, some thought is being given to whether anything can save local media from their seemingly inevitable slide.

Neil Fowler, for example, the Guardian research fellow at Nuffield College, came up with a 10 point plan to save local newspapers – Jon Slattery republished it here.  It is not altogether without merit – although the idea of a debt write-off is a bit rich for companies that have treated their employees abominably while extracting returns on capital of as much at 30%.

More worrying, though, nothing that Fowler suggests would cure regional newspapers of the mixture of arrogance and flat footedness that they have made their trademark in recent years.  The most perfect example of this is in the success of thebusinesspages.com.  Johnston Press can’t really be blamed for allowing the The Yorkshire Post’s business editor to waltz out of the door and snatch a decent chunk of their market from under their noses – after all, it was a new and original idea that he had.

What is astonishing is that the publishers of the Manchester Evening News and the Birmingham Post sat back and let him do the same again, after his already well-publicised success in Leeds.

The ‘Confidential’ group of websites is another example of the kind of venture that newspapers themselves could be spearheading.   Regional newspapers used to have their commercial departments strangle at birth, any who had the audacity to try publishing under their noses.  Today they appear to adopt the attitude of a pensioner watching the local children steal all the apples from their garden with a shrug that says – ‘oh well, at least they are being eaten’.

There have been local news triumphs.  During the recent riots, Wolverhampton’s Express and Star saw daily visits to it website swell to 835,000 – which is pretty good for a town whose population is 240,000.  Archant’s Ipswich newspapers reporting of the Steve Wright/Ipswich murders trail saw teams of reporters covering the court case in short shifts so that the website could be updated hourly as the case proceeded.  But heartening as these examples are, they are both responses to a news challenge, rather than innovation in the business of journalism.

Declining sales and a tight advertising market make this a desperately difficult market in which to innovate.   But unless local papers do start thinking anew, they are on a certain course for catastrophe.  In 2009, Enders Analysis predicted that half of all local newspapers would shut within five years.  Sadly, not much has happened in the intervening period to contradict this view.  What a shame that in all the earnest attention that is being focused on the media as a result of the Leveson inquiry, almost none will consider local newspapers.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 21st, 2011 at 5:02 am

Charitable model could save local news

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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: daveainsworth@yahoo.com

Written by Alex

October 3rd, 2011 at 3:34 am