How to rebuild local news: a spaghetti-throwing competition!

The dolorous laments over the ruin of journalism have many variations. Many grieve for what they see as the collapse of “accountability” journalism or investigative reporting. Given the quantities of attention and philanthropic money boosting the revival of difficult, long form investigations (at least in the US), I think it hard to argue that this is the worst problem journalism faces*.

By contrast, little attention or commentary is devoted to the slide in the coverage of arts, culture and rigorous longform argument. Arts sections and their critics (at least in the UK) are being cut and squeezed; few people seem to notice.

But the collapse which make all these issues look minor is the hollowing out and implosion of local reporting, a disaster only fitfully noticed by metropolitan media persons. In the UK, between 2005 and 2010 the revenue of the four leading local newspaper companies  fell between 23% and 53%. The Media Reform Coalition calculates that out of 406 local government areas in Britain, 100 have no local daily newspaper at all and 143 have a single title with a monopoly.

I’ve taken these figures from a new report by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust with the clunking title “Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality”. Moore manages the difficult trick of laying out the crisis and proposing help which does not involve public subsidy for journalism – a solution with obvious disadvantages. (Shorter version of his argument here).

He acknowledges that local and “hyperlocal” online have grown up to replace, or to compete with, the embattled papers. But their resources are slender and success is patchy. Can the grassroots of journalism be fertilised so they grow quicker and stronger?

Moore thinks they can and in laying out his case takes a swipe at the (present coalition) government’s plan for local TV channels as the answer to the problem. There are better, richer opportunities for online local news services using cheap and increasingly powerful software, particularly for crunching data which is starting to emerge from public authorities. Moore cites American examples of sites and applications which help people with everything from neighbourhood safety to data-driven accountability. (I particularly like philosopher-wisdom ring of the pro-transparency site called Socrata).

The difference between the US and the UK is the relative weakness of British philanthropic foundations (and perhaps their lack of interest in this issue) and the fact that the Charity Commission in the UK does not consider support for journalism a charitable purpose. Small community news startups cannot constitute themselves as charities and enjoy the financial advantages of the status. Moore concludes that the best way of kickstarting more vigorous innovation would be a funding contest on the lines of the Knight News Challenge in America. In short, it’s a call to foundations to spend a little money buying people spaghetti to throw at the wall and see what sticks.

Communities are made, when they succeed, from many different kinds and bits of glue. Anette Novak of the Sweden’s Interactive Institute wants journalists to see themselves as “society builders” – which I fear encourages journalists to distract themselves by becoming politicians. The building today’s journalists need to do is the building of new tools and new skills to provide value to their fellow citizens in a radically-changed information world. Useful facts discovered and distilled by journalists and others which fuels debate and accountability is one kind of glue which holds a community together. And it requires more attention than it’s getting.

*Update 22/10/14: here is Sheila Coronel of Columbia asking if this might be investigative journalism’s golden age.


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