Inquiry hears plea for a level playing field for independent publishers

As the Department for Culture, Media and Sports inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism visited Cardiff, a lively debate was held around whether consolidation of the industry in the hands of a few corporate publishers was having a negative impact on public interest journalism.

David Higgerson, Reach plc, and Paul Hutchinson, Beford Independent at the DCMS inquiry

Public interest news, reporter salaries, clickbait and pageview targets were just some of the topics discussed at the latest session of the Government-led inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism.

The hearing, which this week was based at Cardiff University, kicked off with some uncomfortable questions for David Higgerson, Chief Audience Officer at Reach, based on a letter supplied to MPs by the National Union of Journalists.

In it they referenced the high profits and remuneration received by Reach plc’s Chief Executive Officer Jim Mullen, against what they claimed was a trivialisation of news reporting in Wales and lack of interest in public interest journalism on their titles.

Kevin Brennan MP, reeled off a number of issues raised by the NUJ, which included:

  • Reduction in space in Welsh titles for Welsh news
  • Redundancies for story editors
  • Cover price increases and lack of value for money
  • Trivial nature of stories of no direct relevance to Wales

David countered the claims citing the rocketing cost of newsprint that is affecting all publishers having a negative impact on paginations and cover prices.

But he rejected any claims that the publisher had “inched away” from public interest journalism.

He said the Wales Online team regularly won awards for their public interest journalism, their websites and news titles were the most widely read and held institutions to account and had a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

“What sometimes gets passed off as trivial in the correspondence you have is actually seen as important to our readers,” he said.

In a session just short of three hours, the panel which also consisted of Paul Hutchinson, co-founder of the Bedford Independent, and Professor Natalie Fenton, founder of the Media Reform Commission, discussed the threat to sustainability of local journalism and whether the big corporate publishers were pursuing a model for profit at the expense of community impact journalism.

Professor Natalie Fenton, founder of the Media Reform Commission, at the DCMS inquiry

Paul made an impassioned plea for what he called Government subsidies to be more fairly distributed to independent publishers, instead of the money through advertising such as public notices, planning applications and Covid public health warnings going to print-based titles.

This view was shared by Professor Fenton who also cited the amount of money going to the larger publishers from the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service.

Paul called for a change in the rules that meant that unless a title had a printed distribution it was ineligible to receive public advertising that he said would help him to support a journalist on his title.

The debate also focused on whether the consolidation of the industry by publishers which Professor Fenton described as publsihing for profit, was strangling the viability of independent publishers who she said were more focused on serving their local communities.

However, there was a clear lack of understanding about how modern publishers actually work.

Professor Fenton referenced the fact the likes of Reach had 150 titles and only 15 offices which she claimed meant that they were not present in their local communities.

This view was shared by Paul who said that as independents they had reporters who went to the same schools as their readers, drank in the same pubs: “We understand our patches better,” he said.

Later in the hearing, Prof Fenton referred to the fact that because there were no printed daily titles in some areas, they were effectively news deserts.

David made it clear to the inquiry, that as a result of the pandemic, they had found that physical offices were not always necessary and that online brands were where readers chose to read their news — a view shared by Paul from the Bedford Independent — an independent online brand.

As with earlier sessions, the duopoly of Facebook and Google and their stranglehold on revenues that were not flowing back to publishers to the level they said were merited, was debated.

Paul said that the independents could not get a seat at the table with the big platforms to make their case for a revenue share. And David said that the existential threat to the sustainability of local journalism was with the likes of Facebook who did not provide a fair value exchange for the content it distributes without bearing the cost of creating it.

All three panel members agreed the sustainability of local journalism needs to be addressed.

David made the case that he believed a model where publishers make a profit provides the best opportunity to sustain the 1500 journalists they employ, with people returning to websites time and time again.

Paul and Professor Fenton on the other hand believed that a fairer distribution of revenue from sources such as the Government, the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Scheme and the tech platforms to independents who are struggling to pay themselves sustainable salaires is essential for the viability of a different publishing model.

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