If we believe journalism is important how are we going to pay for it?

Can social enterprise models fill the revenue gap? Our response to the Cairncross Review, from Social Spider CIC’s Managing Director, David Floyd.

Enfield Dispatch; Social Spider’s latest social enterprise community newspaper

The report of the Cairncross Review into the future of the UK news industry was published this week. The report is the output from an independent review set by the government to look into the sustainability of ‘high quality journalism’.

With falling print sales and advertising revenue siphoned off by social media platforms, the plight of local papers is a long-running saga rather than the kind of breaking news the UK’s late, lamented publications would have splashed on their front pages had they not closed.

But with concern about ‘fake news’, wider distrust of the media along with growing inequalities in who gets to read the news at all, there’s now a growing feeling — from government to the media industry to the wider population — that action is need to insure we continue to have the journalism we need to be a functional democratic society.

The Cairncross report’s sensible recommendations provide some initial suggestions towards answering the big underlying question: if we believe journalism is important how are we are going to pay for it?

Even to be asking this question is to flip the model that has been in place for many years, particularly in local news. Up until recently, the question for conglomerate publishers of local media has been: how can we use journalism as a vehicle to extract the biggest possible profit from communities on behalf of our shareholders?

“Up until recently, the question for conglomerate publishers of local media has been: how can we use journalism as a vehicle to extract the biggest possible profit from communities on behalf of our shareholders?”

It’s essential and vitally important that we have a free press that operates within markets rather than being controlled by the state but for this to continue it’s clear that the shareholder value model is inadequate.

Independent, high quality news, telling us about what’s going on in our communities and holding local decision-makers to account, is a public good that should not be restricted to people who can afford to pay and/or local areas where investors can expect a good return on investment.

As the publisher of three successful community newspapers, Social Spider CIC believes that social enterprise models can play a big role in building a sustainable future for local news.

To do that we have to develop a mix of revenues from different groups within society who believe in local news and want to see it continue to exist. For us that includes local advertisers — both in print and online — who want to advertise their products and services but are also keen to engage with and support their local community.

Social Spider’s income and expenditure for 2018–2019

It includes other organisations and individuals in the local community who are willing and able to contribute a small amount each month as members to support their local paper.

It also includes grant funders who are keen to fund the creation of journalism on particular social issues — using newspaper as a cheap and cost effective method of raising awareness of groups and perspectives who might otherwise be ignored.

As a social enterprise publisher of community newspapers, we are developing a model that doesn’t target huge profits and cost cutting but is about developing good jobs and building stable, relatively frugal, businesses from the ground up — while also getting support from and providing opportunities to local volunteers.

We are keen to expand our model to offer to develop community newspapers with local people in other local areas that want one but we also recognise that corporate local media, however flawed in terms of its business model, continues to employ 1000s of journalists doing brilliant work in challenging conditions.

“We are developing a model that doesn’t target huge profits and cost cutting but is about developing good jobs and building stable, relatively frugal, businesses from the ground up”

Hopefully most of the recommendations of the Cairncross Review will be implemented — and will be implemented in a way that rewards the best of corporate behaviour and avoids propping up existing failing approaches.

The challenges are huge but there’s a great opportunity to develop and back models of local news that support high quality journalism and create sustainable publications that are responsive to and reflective of the communities they serve.