Local newspapers: social enterprises fostering community

Local newspapers are seemingly in terminal decline. But they're essential to enable communities to remain politically engaged and be involved in decisions that will affect them, argues Anna Merryfield of Social Spider CIC.

Many homes will have a scrapbook, tucked away on a dusty shelf, containing local newspaper cuttings of family members shining in school concerts or playing for their local football team. Local newspapers have traditionally been the champions of a community, documenting its events and successes, big and small, obscure and momentous.

However, local newspapers have a more serious function: they have the ability to hold local decision makers to account and to report on the news that matters most to communities.

This function is essential for a healthy local democracy; one in which people are well informed about decisions that affect them and where people have a platform from which to voice their opinions and be heard.

Local newspapers not only encourage civic engagement, they also promote political engagement - they can inform communities of decisions and policies that will affect them and open a platform for debate.

But all over the UK, local newspapers are shutting down. The Press Gazette recently reported that 198 publications have closed since 2005. Beyond this, a recent report from the Media Reform Coalition found that 80% of local newspaper titles were accountable to only five companies.

This trajectory can only lead towards a democratic deficit in our local communities. It will leave us with a situation where, more often than not, the news will come from journalists not living and working in the area, or there will be no news at all.


The future of local newspapers?

Thankfully, this is not the end of the story. A new, grassroots, publishing phenomena is emerging to fill the gap left by the decline in local newspapers. Independent community media outlets are popping up, revolutionising the way they report by offering a positive and community-focused angle on local news.

These community, or hyperlocal, outlets range from traditional print newspapers, to online news sites and forums to community radio stations. They are rapidly gaining in popularity and are restoring the trust of their local readership by putting the community’s concerns first.

Some are run as social enterprises and there are even publications, such as the Bristol Cable, which have adopted a cooperative model.

These community media outlets are known for providing an opportunity to put forward a positive representation of a community, by championing the social sector and by giving a voice to diverse groups. In this sense, they encourage both integration and can foster a crucial sense of civic pride, connecting local people around local issues.

Social Spider CIC currently run two community newspapers in north London: Waltham Forest Echo and Tottenham Community Press. Both are run as social enterprises with a small staff team working with volunteers from the community.  

The papers are written by and for local people, with an average of 15 contributors per issue. This model bridges the gap between professional journalism and citizen journalism, ensuring the credibility of the articles by making sure they are well researched and balanced.

However, the funding climate for these community media outlets remains challenging. Many rely upon selling advertising space for their income, and are often struggling to find customers.

Most larger companies are either unwilling or unable to deal with small, independent media outlets and smaller local businesses often struggle to pull together enough money to justify advertising.

On the 30th of June, we will be co-organising the first ever London Community Media Summit with support from Eastside Primetimers and the Centre for Community Journalism. This event will bring together those working for, or interested in, community media to discuss how we can ensure this important phenomenon has longevity.  

We have found there to be more than 40 organisations operating in London which fit our community media criteria, and interest in the movement is ever growing.

The main aspiration for our event is to begin a conversation around the importance of community media, and to forge a network through which these independent organisations can support each other, share skills, collaborate and face challenges together.

We hope that in doing so the future of community media, and all of its social and political benefits, can be stronger and brighter.

To find out more about the Tottenham Community Press and get behind its crowdfunding campaign, click here.

Photo credit: Pixabay/Kaboompics