Investing in local media is money well spent

By Dr. Merja Myllylahti

Auckland University of Technology (AUT)

Auckland, New Zealand

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It is well documented that local news organisations are struggling to keep afloat. Yet at the same time, readers “desperate for information are more reliant than ever on local media,” as Fortune points out.

And let’s not forget the forthcoming elections. In the United States as well as in New Zealand, major elections loom, and the local news media has an incredibly important role to play in both democracies.

In this context, a new study by Joy Jenkins from the Reuters Institute makes intriguing reading. Her research is based on 20 interviews with local newspaper managers and editors in Finland, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It finds that the editors and managers of the local newspapers, in general, are “optimistic about the potential of payment-driven strategies for maximising resources, and many are seeing gradual increases in their digital revenues.”

People specifically seek out local news, making it a worthwhile investment for communities.
People specifically seek out local news, making it a worthwhile investment for communities.

Local news outlets included in the study say their readers are paying for the content that adds value to their lives. This means the classical news values have made a comeback, and that the content following those values is much appreciated.

The study notes that “content that reflects the classic functions of local journalism — coverage of crime, courts, and traffic” — are those that readers are willing to pay for. Paul Fisher of Iliffe Media (United Kingdom) says its readers are less interested in juicy stories about murders and crime, or they are less likely to pay for those kinds of stories.

“It is the more standard local-news fare, such as public court records, planning applications, consumer news, and photo galleries showing families enjoying their communities” that bring much-needed subscriptions.

This is why the programmes supporting local news reporting are crucial, and, as we can see, if the public money is spent in local journalism, it is money well spent.

In 2017, BBC — a public broadcaster in Britain — launched the Local News Partnership between the broadcaster and the UK regional news outlets. Similarly, in 2019, public broadcasting network RNZ launched the Local Democracy Reporting (LDR) initiative. A scheme has also been established in Canada, and the Netherlands and Norway are among the countries examining models. In New Zealand, LDR is expanding and NZ$1.5 million of new money has been allocated to expand local reporting network across the country.

In its 2020 local partnership review, the BBC says its partnership with news outlets “has been a great success.” In its review, it says the 2017 partnership system was established “specifically to help address the drop off in levels of local political coverage by providing valuable new training, the guarantee of political reporters and a base level of local political coverage.”

While the review does not reveal a number of articles produced about local politics, it states that since 2017, the partnership between BBC and local news organisations has aided in the production of 390,000 pieces of content across the United Kingdom. That is a good number of stories in the difficult media ecosystem that continues to bleed local reporters.

About Dr. Merja Myllylahti

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