To understand where journalism is heading, think ecosystems. Once a concept that referred to complex communities of interdependent living organisms, the metaphor is gaining traction in sectors well beyond the natural world – particularly where the rise of digital networks has radically disrupted and reshaped old institutions. Journalism may well be at the top of that list.
The disintegration of traditional journalism’s business models, in the UK and the US, means we can no longer rely on a few institutions to gather and disseminate news. But the democratisation of tools – and access – means that acts of journalism now come from new people and places almost daily. But more needs to be done to connect those individual pieces and form new networks for civic engagement and quality journalism.
Understanding how to strengthen these networks is something with which we’ve made significant headway in the US in recent years, but today is an important day for community journalism in the UK, too. Digital analysts, academics, journalists and policy-makers will gather at Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism to see how this agenda can be driven forward in the UK.
That the Centre for Community Journalism exists in the UK is proof of a growing commitment towards the sector, but clearly the UK faces many of the same challenges as the US when it comes to its preservation and growth.
Key to today’s event will be the launch of a report – What next for UK community journalism?, which has been undertaken by the university. It highlights some hopeful trends but also makes clear how many challenges remain in strengthening the news ecosystem in the UK. According to the report’s author, Damian Radcliffe, there are more than 400 active hyperlocal websites in the UK, many of which are covering important civic debates and providing a new tier of local reporting. Yet, clearly, hyperlocal news in the UK still faces extraordinary challenges in terms of its long-term sustainability, discoverability and impact.
Those challenges are familiar, in some ways painfully, to media development around the US. But Radcliffe’s study, a collaboration with innovation charity Nesta, points out that there are also important differences in the US and UK hyperlocal landscape – not least in terms of funding.
In the report Radcliffe outlines that investment in UK hyperlocal media has beenm less than £5m over the past three years, compared with more than $400m (£260m) in the US over two years.
In the US the bulk of that funding, much of which has come from foundations, has gone to an emerging class of non-profit news organisations working at state and regional level. These projects are adding investigative muscle to public interest reporting, but they may have done too little to develop meaningful business models. And relatively little funding, beyond individual founders’ investments of time and money, has gone to support small hyperlocal entrepreneurial journalism projects.
So while $400m is notable, it only really begins to replace journalists made redundant in local newsrooms across the country. Meanwhile, the larger field of US philanthropy has been stubbornly slow to expand its support for journalism. As Radcliffe notes, however, the UK has long believed – unlike the US – in direct government support of media.
Regardless of the funding sources, the US and UK should be doing more for unsexy but vital projects that help create structural support for independent local journalism. This means not just investing in quality reporting, but also backing efforts like business model experimentation, community participation and creative collaboration.
Most organisations in hyperlocal media are hanging on by a thread financially, which makes boundless experiments in business models and revenue strategies risky. But those experiments are nonetheless essential. In the US, the Institute for Nonprofit News created a $1m business model innovation fund to help newsrooms develop new revenue strategies around events, mobile apps and sponsorships. We need more initiatives to think broadly about journalism sustainability.
Regardless of business models, local news organisations will have a better chance to thrive if they build community and engagement around the news. Digital news is inherently participatory. Funders and founders should lead the way in transforming sites into platforms for meaningful civic debate, participation and action. For example, in the US ProPublica just received $2.2m from the Knight Foundation to expand its community involvement work and to help other newsrooms do likewise.
If we are going to invest in healthier ecosystems for local journalism, it is not enough to support one-off projects that exist in silos. The strength of ecosystems comes through interdependence. We need investments that help stitch together the hyperlocal journalism landscape through creative partnerships and shared services in areas such as technology, research and legal support.
In New Jersey 120 local civic organisations and newsrooms are members of the NJ News Commons, a state-wide hub where newsrooms access training, share resources and collaborate on reporting. In the UK, Cardiff’s Centre for Community Journalism is leading the way in this space, but it can only do so much.
By funding creative collaborations and networks we can maintain the unique local character of community journalism, while still building a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. To that end, some of the most innovative hyperlocal work is coming from projects that don’t look anything like traditional newsrooms. By combining news, information and engagement, these projects are catalysts for conversation aimed at helping people connect and solve problems. And with off-the-shelf free software, useful services such as FixMyStreet from the brilliant mySociety, can be part of anyone’s offering.
The future of journalism will not look like its past, and that is a good thing. We’re optimistic and realistic. The issues we face in creating a truly diverse, sustainable ecosystem are sometimes daunting. But we should remember that in diverse ecosystems some life-forms die out as others emerge.
We’ll learn from the failures and from the projects that work. In the end, if we get this right, communities of all kinds – geography and interest – will be better served.
Dan Gillmor is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and mass communication and faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and professor of practice. Josh Stearns is director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
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