How can we save local journalism?

I wish I had had a pound for every time I have written, or read, that sentence. I might then have just enough to buy a single share in Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

One of the latest people to suggest a rescue mission is Neil Fowler, one of the most thoughtful analysts of Britain’s regional press. His interesting wheeze: let universities establish their own weekly newspapers.

He argues that students attending universities with journalism courses could produce papers and/or websites to cover events in their local areas. The newsprint versions could charge a cover price or be distributed free. Online platforms could offer TV or radio services.

These new newsbrands – please resist the temptation to call them unirags – would be funded by a variety of sources, such as advertising, donations and grants from foundations or, if the paper is a paid-for title, sales revenue. In other words, they would be businesses.

Inevitably, therefore, Fowler’s idea is unlikely to be greeted warmly by established newspaper owners who publish titles in similar areas. Although they might be editorially stimulated by the competition, their business model depends on ever-declining advertising revenue. Why let another outlet have a piece of that decreasing pie?

So, while I can see advantages for journalism students who do largely view their degrees in vocational terms and might enjoy the experience, I imagine there would be objections from within the industry.  

In truth, however, it is yet another marginal suggestion – no matter how well meant – that does not address the heart of the problem. Indeed, I suspect Fowler, a former editor three times over, is realistic enough to know his idea is unlikely to gain traction. With a pragmatic nod, he concluded: “It has to be better than just doing more of the same – or worse, nothing”.

I recall having said much the same in the past. But I have since become increasingly aware that the majority of publishers are not doing nothing. Nor are they doing the same.

In the face of the unprecedented disruption caused by the onward march of the digital revolution, they know they must innovate or die. Owners have supported their newsprint versions, because they remain the major profit centres, while simultaneously trying out a variety of online initiatives.

In print, they have been forced to experiment. Sanat Hazra, now production editor of the Times of India and formerly the executive director of production at the New York Times, put it well in observing that the guiding principle for papers must be “doing more or better with less”.

We have seen changes in formats, the establishment of print centres for multiple titles, the use of design templates, the employment of page-ready content, the creation of subbing hubs and several shortcuts aimed at smoothing production. These have not been without controversy, but criticism has dissipated of late.

The real inspiration has, of course, occurred online. A host of techniques to inform readers have emerged: from data journalism through animated graphics to video story-telling.

In addition, the realisation that it is possible to know who is reading content, and then divine why they are doing so, has proved hugely beneficial.

It’s also fair to say that one original criticism of newspaper websites, that they were routinely posting so-called clickbait material, has become old hat. As everyone now recognises, putting up material simply to maximise clicks has proved to be counter-productive. Anyway, in truth, the phenomenon was never quite as prevalent as first suggested.

Newspapers have not, of course, been the inventers of all that glitters online. But editors and their online staffs have helped to develop the potential of new tools and techniques in order to the improve the quality of their journalistic offering.

Community engagement, a term that once provoked veteran journalists to scoff, has become central to the relationship between newspaper and audience.

But, and this is the giant “but” that haunts all who own or work in newspapers, what is to be done about the digital behemoths and their offshoots? Google (including YouTube) and Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), plus Twitter and Snapchat have lured away audiences and advertisers. And that process is continuing day by day.

I think it fair to say that Facebook has proved to be something of a two-way street. It both publishes newspaper content and links to it while helping reporters to do their job. They can track people involved in stories faster than ever before. They get insights, quotes and leads to photographs.

As for Google, it took a big step in 2015 towards building a relationship with newspaper publishers in Europe by launching the Digital News Initiative. Sure, it made the announcement soon after the European Union served Google with an anti-trust lawsuit (which culminated two months ago in the company being fined a record-breaking £2.14 billion for abusing its dominance of the search engine market in building its online shopping service).

Let’s be charitable though and see the way in which Facebook and Google have begun to reach out to publishers in positive terms. Now, having recognised the value of journalism – real journalism rather than fake news – they need to do a great deal more.

Most importantly, they must consider devoting a proportion of their profits to the funding of local journalism, the bedrock of all national and international journalism. And that funding should come without strings.

At some stage, and it must be sooner rather than later, Silicon Valley’s titans have to recognise that they are strangling the goose (newspapers) than lays the golden egg (content) on which they depend.

Meanwhile, let me finish on a cheerful note. In May this year, an online survey of 420 journalists working on small circulation titles in the United States revealed a surprising degree of optimism about the state of their papers.

The study by two fellows at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism discovered that 61% of respondents were "very positive" or "slightly positive" about the future.

They were writing more stories than two years before and, having adapted to the information available through metrics, they happily accepted that it was influencing the way they wrote their stories.

That illustrates the wholly desirable effects of “horizontal journalism”, a transformation from the pre-digital era of vertical, top-down journalism. I’m aware that it is also happening in British local papers. And that’s a story too often untold.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*