As a representative of Lichfield Live I was among the 45 people from independent news publishers who gathered in Bristol recently at the invitation of the Public Interest News Foundation. Hosted beneath the offices of pioneers The Bristol Cable, the get-together was a rare chance for passionate local journalists to share our challenges, learn from each other’s successes and failures, and see how we can work together to better sustain and grow local media.
It should be no surprise that one of the takeaways was a reaffirmation of how important we all believe local media to be. Many of us sprung up out of need as local newspapers closed and their owners cut journalists and made them retreat into regional centres instead of having their boots on the ground of their community. We believe journalism is important for community cohesion and for ensuring transparency and accountability in local decision making.
In that vein we talked about how we can best hold local government to account, whether “saving” local news should really be our goal or whether we ought to build something better instead, what civic media is, how we can recruit and train journalists and – my personal favourite – what we can do to cover the apparently inevitable 2024 general election.
Lately it seems no discussion is complete without including AI and we were treated to an excellent talk from media consultant Madalina Ciobanu. While we talked about the potential threats – and some of the bad examples we’ve already seen – we also talked about the potential of AI to help us do the job we already do but also provide new products and experiences for our communities.
The challenges many, if not all, face is sustainability. While the traditional regional publishers are cutting left, right and centre, they still have immense buying power compared to the independent sector. Through things like public notices they receive a huge government subsidy and they are milking the remaining print circulation for all the ad revenue they can, in many cases taking the ad revenue that could support a truly independent local paper.
One discussion at the forum asked, “what is the secret formula for fundraising?” as independents seek to use grants to sustain themselves but struggle with the apparent lack of capital funding pots. Most publishers use a diverse source if income including advertising, donations and memberships. Another asked, “is print dead?” and a big takeaway there was that, for the moment at least, print may be the answer to sustainability for many publishers.
So what’s the answer? No-one has it of course, because there is no single answer.
Instead, the day was peppered with individual experiences, trials and successes. We can all continue to learn from each other in this way – share what works and what doesn’t and why, and problem-solve together. But more than this we can work together to promote the sector, lobby government and help new entrants to spring up with the advantage of our collective experience.
For me, as I continuously ponder how to wrestle Lichfield Live away from the precariousness of relying on volunteers and goodwill, I came away asking myself, is print the answer?
Whatever the answer, it’s an exciting time to be an independent local media publisher.