Hundreds of independent local news outlets continue to operate in the UK despite a difficult year for publishers, according to research undertaken by leading media industry website Press Gazette, writes Hamish Mackay in the SCOTTISH REVIEW
The website reports: ‘At our count, there are currently at least 400 local and hyperlocal news providers not owned by any of the major regional publishers (Reach, Archant, Newsquest, JPI Media, Iliffe Media, MNA, Tindle Newspapers etc) that are reporting on their local communities. We have mapped each title… as well as trade body, the Independent Community News Network (ICNN) on the challenges facing the sector’. Among a number of Scottish members of the ICNN are Midlothian View, My Turriff and Shetland News.
In the past decade, points out Press Gazette, deep cuts to corporate local media have led to the closure of hundreds of titles, but new technology and alternative business models for journalism have allowed hyperlocal publishers to emerge. The 2019 Cairncross Review into the state of UK news media further underlined the importance of local reporting and public interest news, which it defined as one of the areas that ‘matter greatly’.
‘The sector is now recognised as an essential part of the media ecosystem, which it previously wasn’t,’ says Matt Abbott, deputy director of ICNN, which aims to increase the professionalism within the sector. ‘People just kind of thought: “who cares about these guys?”, and a lot of councils felt the same way… but the sector has proved itself to be a really valuable part of the news media ecosystem in the UK. More people are going out and setting up new organisations all the time’.
The sector has proved itself to be remarkably resilient. Of ICNN’s 125 members, just one closed down during the pandemic. Press Gazette’s analysis suggests that Wales, Scotland, London, the south-west of England and parts of the south coast are among the areas in the UK where independent local news is particularly vibrant.
Estimates suggest that their combined reach is substantial. Abbott explains: ‘The reach of our sector is vast. A lot of our publications are matching or outperforming their competitors and that includes the Reaches of the world, the Iliffes, the Tindles, the JPIs’. According to an ICNN survey in May, its members totalled up at least 22 million views a month between them.
‘Yet, while their reach is large, the sector continues to operate at a disadvantage,’ says Abbott. ‘Securing equal opportunities for independent publishers when it comes to statutory public notices, National Union of Journalists (NUJ) membership and access to public money are among the ICNN’s key goals. Turning that reach into revenue also remains a challenge. Independent publishers are doing well in terms of reaching audiences and reaching readers. They’re not doing so well in terms of generating revenue for what they do,’ he says.
‘A lot of these organisations were set up with no intention of making money, but they have been so successful that it has got to the point where a lot of them now are on the tipping point… because it’s become so big they need to start looking at how they can monetise the product. And that’s tricky.’
Although the emergence of new bodies such as the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) and some public funding, such as that from the Welsh Government, have improved the funding landscape, financial support for struggling hyperlocals is lacking, says Abbott.
Only one of their members qualified for support under the government’s £35 million ‘All in Together’ advertising campaign during the pandemic, but he adds: ‘It was a miracle that we only lost one publication during the period. A lot of them were facing imminent closure at any point at any point and we were terrified that we were going to just lose the entire sector… But something happened. They were so stoic when the pandemic hit and they were just so resolute’.
To underline the message above, one of Scotland’s brightest, sometimes polemic, independent news website, The Dumbarton Democrat
(www.democratonline.net) is currently having an impressive run.
Its founder, owner and editor, Bill Heaney, pictured right, who launched it four years ago, is one of Scotland’s best-known journalistic figures after clocking up 55 years in the newspaper business while also dabbling in PR, and media and public affairs advice to large organisations.
He informed me recently: ‘We are having a record-breaking week at The Dumbarton Democrat. Our fearless reporting of local and national events from a local perspective brought thousands of viewers to our digital news platform this week. On one day alone we had nearly 10,000 views and 6,000 visitors – including exiles in America, Australia and South Africa’.
At 16, Heaney began his career as a copy boy on the Scottish Daily Express. He subsequently edited the Dumbarton County Reporter, still aged only 21, and progressed to editing the Dumbarton Lennox Herald and Clyde Weekly News, and then became group editor of Scottish and Universal Newspapers (SUN).
On his website’s success, he ventures: ‘No other local news outlet comes anywhere near our household penetration figures. Our reporting has, of course, brought us bans from the likes of secrecy obsessed, SNP-run West Dunbartonshire Council, who refuse to treat us like other news organisations according to custom and practice. However, we have had many bouquets too from people who believe in freedom of the press. We are free to access for readers and we don’t take advertising unless it is from community groups and charities. That is free too. We don’t spin: we stir, and that’s our role as journalists in this community’.
Heaney, voted three times Scotland’s Weekly Journalist of the Year, is vastly experienced in newspapers and PR. He was a special adviser to Scotland’s First Minister, Henry McLeish, from 2000 to 2002 – liaising with Scotland’s regional and weekly newspapers, plus TV and radio; and subsequently media adviser to David Martin, MEP, past vice-president of the European Parliament; and later media adviser and PA to John McFall, MP (now Lord McFall), who was the then chairman of the Treasury Select Committee at Westminster. In spells as a freelance, he has supplied copy to most national newspapers and TV and radio.
The birth of The Dumbarton Democrat has an interesting genesis. Heaney had written a column for the Lennox Herald about a GP being unlawfully sacked by a health board which the newspaper’s lawyer refused to publish. The GP later won his case at an employment tribunal.
Heaney explains: ‘It was following this episode I set up The Dumbarton Democrat as a digital news platform. West Dumbartonshire Council have refused to recognise and boycotted me. It all came about when I was thrown out of a council meeting after I asked, during a break, for the public address system to be turned up so that the press and public could hear what was being said. In the aftermath of a row, I told a press officer to “bugger off”, and since then the council has refused to have any dealings with me. I now cover meetings from the public benches’.
Heaney, an editor emeritus of the Society of Editors, is certainly a formidable advocate of press freedom and I wish his website well. However, I am amazed that, single-handed, at the age of 76, he finds the time and especially the energy to produce such an informative and entertaining daily read.
The BBC’s Clive Myrie was recently voted both Television Journalist of the Year and Network Presenter of the Year in the Royal Television Society Television Journalism Awards ‘for his versatile, measured and compelling style’.
Now the Daily Mail’s Ephraim Hardcastle column has come up with evidence, it claims, of what is perhaps a more idiosyncratic side to the BBC newsman. Hardcastle reports: ‘New Mastermind host Clive Myrie claims to have pushed the boundaries when standing in for Huw Edwards on the BBC’s flagship Ten O’Clock News: “I have done the 10pm news with the jacket open and wore a blue shirt as opposed to a white shirt,” he says. “These are the little things that slowly chip away at the edifice.”‘
‘Who knew?’ asks Hardcastle more than somewhat sardonically.
Still slowly recovering from a very nasty close encounter with COVID-19, which as a high-risk shielder could have caused me my life had it not been for my two Pfizer vaccinations, I am heading to my homeland of Sutherland for a few days’ break to take in the heady air and catch-up with relatives whom I haven’t seen for far too long. Thus, there will be no media column on 24 August, but I will be back in full flow on 1 September.