The Centre for Investigative Journalism is a charity offering training, talks and courses to improve the quality of investigative journalism in the UK. We fund the Centre to support young journalists to carry out high quality investigations at independent news outlets in some of the most deprived boroughs in the city. Here, Tom Sanderson, Deputy Director at The Centre for Investigative Journalism, sets out the need for robust local accountability, amid a climate of declining local journalism.
As we head into yet another cost of living crisis, which will impact the poorest the hardest, we need to know the impact of energy bills rising dramatically, mortgage interest payments increasing, and food banks struggling to keep up with demand. We need to know what dodgy contracts are being signed and who is benefiting from economic decline. This is the heart of public interest journalism – as a fictional character once said ‘The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’
Yet as communities across the UK can attest, there has been a huge decline in local news. Gone are the days of dedicated newsrooms staffed by local journalists who know every inch of their patch and who have the skills and tenacity to hold the powerful to account.
This decline has multiple causes. The ownership of local news outlets has been monopolised to the point that 83 per cent of local news lies in the hands of just six companies. This has repeatedly resulted in newsrooms being shrunk, staff made redundant, those remaining being hugely overworked and even the closure of many papers entirely - thirty-three UK local newspapers have closed since September 2020.
While some of these papers have been replaced by websites in the hunt for advertising revenue, the flow of ad money is not equal. Of around £14bn spent on digital advertising in the UK in 2019, 80% was earned by two companies. The diversion of advertising revenue by ‘digital intermediaries’ has hit local papers harder than any other sector, removing the previously reliable income stream from paid-for classified ads.
The lure of the digital world has not just entranced providers. In a recent survey, almost half of UK adults (49 per cent) said they use social media for news, with 12% of those turning to TikTok for updates. In a UK-wide study earlier this year, researchers from the Charitable Journalism Project documented these changes and noted the dangers of misinformation spreading through sites like Facebook – from vaccine myths to made-up electoral stories. Interestingly, they also found a significant desire from UK communities for a trusted source of local news, suggesting that better trained and better funded local journalists, would be a more effective counter to misinformation than the many technology focused fact-checking solutions currently being discussed.
In addition to ‘fake news’ spreading like wildfire, the other side of this shift from traditional journalism to social media is the exclusion of people and communities who lack either access to digital devices like phones or laptops or the understanding of how to use them.
The decline of local news has made information less accessible, but it has also reduced the community voices that make it into the news. When local journalists have insufficient time to rewrite enough council press releases, let alone get out into their community and talk to people, serious and sometimes urgent stories are missed. The community blog that warned of the Grenfell Tower fire before the tragedy happened is the most striking example, but there are many others.
Local newspapers have historically provided easily accessible, accurate reporting that has allowed people to be both informed and heard. Whilst it would be impossible for local news journalists to be 100 per cent accurate at all times, accuracy and public service are at least enshrined principles and when things do go wrong there is accountability. To serve a local community is to be beholden to their expectations for fairness and balanced reporting.
As the financial crisis bites, we do not want a country where under resourced local papers feel they have no time to scrutinise council decision making meetings, or to fact check the press releases of local MP’s or to delve into the accounts of local developers and property companies. As we enter yet more uncomfortable times, the UK sorely needs to be rich in objective, accountable public interest local news.
That’s why, here at the Centre for Investigative Journalism, we are working with Trust for London to support investigative public interest journalism with community outlets. Our project seeks to support young journalists from some of the most deprived boroughs of London to work with independent community journalism organisations already embedded in their communities. We support those journalists with our practical training in investigative skills alongside mentoring and paid research time.
In collaboration with grassroots campaign groups working on pressing issues in each locality, the journalists and their editors are publishing stories that matter to the readers in their local communities. Stories that would otherwise often go unreported.
So far, our project partners have delved into:
- The impact of knife crime in Waltham Forest
- Enfield’s housing crisis and the residents forced to live in temporary accommodation for long periods
- Social care cuts in Greenwich leaving vulnerable people to struggle
- An analysis of the Olympic legacy promises made to the community of Newham, and what has actually been delivered
The organisations giving hope to local journalism
As part of his guest blog, Tom wanted to share with us a selection of organisations working to support and develop a stronger independent local news ecosystem. Explore the organisations below:
- The Centre for Community Journalism, based at Cardiff University, does huge amounts of important work helping the hyperlocal and independent local news sector to thrive. Their Independent Community News Network is a membership network that provides support, advice and resources for outlets in this space.
- Bureau Local, part of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is a people-powered collaborative network setting the news agenda and sparking change, from the ground up.
- A new coalition that has been incubated by the Bureau Local Team and recently transferred to Opus Independents is the People's Newsroom Coalition, building and sharing infrastructure to help communities everywhere set up and run new journalism projects and produce media that builds community power.
- Public Interest New Foundation a charitable foundation set up to build the capacity of independent news providers and improve public understanding of their work.
- The Independent Media Association exists to bring together and champion independent media outlets from across the UK, including a wide range of outlets from the local news sector.
- Research and advocacy group The Charitable Journalism Project is made up of journalists, lawyers, funders, academics and experts working together to protect and develop public interest journalism.