Growing up in South Yorkshire in the Eighties, The Star newspaper was my window on the world. I devoured the back pages for the latest on Sheffield Wednesday. I studied the business section and wondered what would become of my family’s business in the declining steel industry.
I decided to pursue a career in computing and left God’s Own Country to seek my fortune in California. After 22 years of launching and running successful software companies in Silicon Valley, I have returned to the city of my birth. It is good to be home.
I still love to read The Star. It is a campaigning newspaper, staffed by diligent journalists and led by a formidable editor. But I worry for the future of local news. In an advertising market increasingly dominated by Facebook and Google, how do we fund the journalism essential to democracy?
Who pays the journalists to cover the courts, attend town hall meetings and hold civic and business leaders to account for their actions? The money used to come from local businesses. Not any more. Most dollars go to the duopoly.
In the UK, an estimated 265 local newspapers have closed since 2005. A government-backed report warned the decline of the industry has resulted in reduced “scrutiny of democratic functions”. It found a positive correlation between local newspaper circulation and turnout at local elections. The implications are worrying.
Local newspapers fulfil a vital convening role in our communities. In Sheffield, my data software company WANdisco plc launched the Laptops for Kids campaign with The Star to appeal to businesses to donate unwanted devices to redistribute among digitally excluded households. In just a few months, we have virtually met our target for donations. That’s the power of the press.
While their advertising revenues have been raided, local newspapers are still rich in one important currency. As sources of news, they are three times as trustworthy as social media platforms, according to a YouGov poll. Trust is something money cannot buy. It has to be earned, often over generations.
Before they had external shareholders to satisfy, the future big tech firms had idealism on their side. They wanted to make the world a better place. Quarterly targets and analyst expectations have changed all that. It pays more to spread fake news than real news. They swapped the frontier for the rentier.
These are big, intractable problems with major implications for the state of public discourse and the health of our democracy. It concerns me. As an entrepreneur, I look for solutions. I believe we can borrow one from the foundation of the modern internet as we know it: the open-source model.
This is software with code that anyone and everyone can inspect, modify and enhance. Open source encourages open collaboration. It allows for constant improvement. It enables the sharing of knowledge and expertise. It spurs innovation. It is responsible for many of the technological breakthroughs in the world today.
Open-source programmers publish their code and allow others to use it under licence. There are many different types of licence. The dual licence model is powerful and popular: software is free for applications of social value but for commercial purposes would attract a fee. This is the opportunity for the local newspaper business.
As it stands, local newspapers employ journalists who create original content. That content is published in print and online and then shared countless times via digital platforms such as Facebook and Google, which derive most of the commercial benefit because of their pervasive hold over the internet. Pennies go to the creators.
If we see journalists as creators of open source software that has social value, we can apply the same logic to their work. It could be freely available to all but for those who want to apply it for commercial ends, they must pay a fee. In other words, Facebook and Google should pay for the journalism that benefits their businesses.
The advanced economies and their democratic models have been looking for ways to support independent journalism in the age of the duopoly. All eyes are on Australia and its government’s new bid to force Facebook and Google to pay news organisations to access their content and “ensure a sustainable and viable… media landscape”.
By instinct, I am a libertarian and prefer market solutions to state intervention. Local newspaper journalism is so valuable yet it is in decline in many parts of the world. Journalism has social value. People place their trust in their local newspapers. Papers like The Star are part of the fabric of the community. It is time to licence their content and let the platforms pay.
• David Richards is founder and CEO of WANdisco plc, a data software company jointly headquartered in Silicon Valley and Sheffield