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September 8, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:14am

How Bristol became a local news oasis

By Andrew Kersley

Newspaper closures and cutbacks have led to large parts of the UK becoming deserts for local news. Bristol, on the other hand, has become something of an oasis.

With a population of around 500,000, Bristol is not even in the top ten of UK cities by size.

Yet it supports a daily newspaper and associated wesbsite, The Bristol Post/Bristol Live, investigative news title The Bristol Cable, culture brand Bristol 24/7, historic anarchist newspaper The Bristolian, university newspaper Epigram, and the hyperlocal Voice network of newspapers.

Just a few months ago, National World, the new regional news outlet run by David Montgomery, launched its own title, Bristol World, in the already news-filled city.

The Cable and Bristol 24/7 were both shortlisted in the local news section of the 2021 British Journalism Awards.

To find out why Bristol’s media scene has flourished, Press Gazette paid a visit to the port city to investigate its present independent media scene and flourishing journalistic past.

There were five or six daily newspapers

“If I were ever to go on Mastermind, Bristol would be my specialist subject,” says Martin Booth, editor of Bristol 24/7, a culture and lifestyle-focused site and one of the city’s leading independent media outlets. “I’ve written a best-selling guidebook about Bristol, and I’m currently writing my second guidebook to Bristol.”

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Booth says that when he leads gaggles of tourists on walking tours around the city at weekends, he always brings the groups to the old offices of the Bristol Times and Mirror, just minutes from the spot we’re sitting at on Colston Avenue.

“I talk about how less than 100 years ago there would have been five or six daily newspapers in a city the size of Bristol,” he says, before adding that he sees the current independent media boom as a continuation of that long history.

Bristol’s manageable size and rich local identity also seems to encourage interest in dedicated local media.

Bristol Post editor Pete Gavan says that “if you’re able to cover your patch in a way that’s inclusive for all parts of it… that does give an advantage”, adding that this is “much harder… in very large spaces like Birmingham or London”.

Founded as a blog in 2008 and relaunched in 2014, Bristol 24/7 used to be funded by a print edition, which was forced to end during the Covid pandemic. Now its four-person full-time team and network of freelances, currently without an office, is funded by a network of paying members. Booth tells me they’re glad to have “survived” the shift more than anything, though he admits they could “very much do with some more paying members”.

The city region’s GDP per capita of £32,500 makes it not just the wealthiest area in the south-west, but one of the five wealthiest regions outside of London.

But while leafy areas like Clifton Village have an average annual income after housing of just under £40,000, areas in the south or east of the city like Knowle West or Easton take home half as much or less. It means you can find areas in the poorest and richest 10% of the UK just a two-mile walk apart.

“On the outside, we’ve got this vibrant music scene, this vibrant art scene, some of the best restaurants in the UK,” Booth says energetically. “But once you get under the surface, you find that things are a little bit more complicated than that… It’s an amazing city of contrasts.”

Accounting giant KPMG is based at a sprawling sandstone Regency building just a few minutes’ walk away from abandoned industrial land. The dock, where in June 2020 at the height of Black Lives Matter protests an angry crowd unceremoniously plunged the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the water, is full of luxury yachts. “You can use the phrase ‘the haves and the have-nots’, but here you even get the ‘haves and the have-yachts’,” as Booth puts it.

Beyond just giving reporters plenty to write about, those divides also fuel another central part of Bristol’s character: its activism. I’m chatting with Booth outside a converted shipping container coffee shop, which is just a few steps away from the now-empty plinth.

The protest was one in a long line of protests and acts of community activism in the city, from an 1831 riot over the lack of voting rights to the 1963 Bristol Bus boycott over the refusal to hire Black or Asian bus crews. The city is the base for a whole range of national and local campaign groups, fighting for everything from renters’ rights to combating mistreatment of the elderly or those with special needs. One person I spoke to said (whether as a joke or not was hard to tell) that the local Avon and Somerset Police have to deal with the highest number of protest call-outs of any force in the country.

“It’s just not the city where people sit on their hands and do nothing – people fight and then they see something is wrong and they shout about it,” agrees Alex Ross, editor of the newly launched Bristol World. “And I think the media reflects it. People need to have representative news titles that can say what they’re saying, bring their message across and advocate for the city.”

Ross’s fledgling title was created in October 2021, by the growing regional publishing giant National World, and has reported a one-third increase in page views every month since launch (though Ross wouldn’t give actual traffic figures).

He says that despite the competition from elsewhere, National World chose to launch a new site in Bristol because it felt there were “still lots of underserved parts of the city” where people don’t have access to or regularly read local news.

The Reach-owned Bristol Post (also known as Bristol Live online) is a top-50 UK news website reaching some three million unique visitors per month, although the vast majority of its traffic comes from outside the city.

The city’s well over 40,000 students are another of the reasons why some believe local media has flourished there.

Booth says the city has one of the higher post-graduation student retention rates in the country. Epigram, the student newspaper at the University of Bristol and a regular winner of the Student Publication Association Awards, can often be found reporting on the same protests and city events as Bristol’s professional newspapers according to all those I spoke to. Meanwhile, Bristol’s other university, the University of the West of England (UWE), has its own journalism department.

Those universities are just a small part of a huge ecosystem that helps support the city’s bigger independent media outlets, according to Chris Brown, a senior lecturer at UWE’s journalism department and the founder of the Bristol 24/7 blog back in 2008.

Long tradition of volunteer media

“Even back then, there was a really good, independent kind of blogging scene going on, [that] was doing some really good work in investigating what was going on at the council and bringing to light what the mainstream media really weren’t picking up on at the time,” he says.

As Brown explains, the city has long had a tradition of ragtag volunteer media working to hold those in power to account; be that activists or bloggers (some of whom, like Tony Dyer, have gone on to be city’s councillors) or the anarchist volunteer-run Bristolian newspaper.

“There’s just generally quite a good feel around the city for being a bit more independent, of not taking the status quo in terms of media at face value,” says Brown. “Bristol’s media scene over the last few years has been built on some pretty strong foundations.”

That somewhat irreverent, rebellious attitude of many of those early bloggers has seeped into a lot of the city’s larger publications too. Most potently at The Bristol Cable.

The investigative outlet, which runs a 30,000-circulation quarterly newspaper, prides itself on a sceptical attitude towards those in power.

That attitude is probably typified by the fact that the city’s mayor refuses to invite them to mayoral press conferences – the same conferences now boycotted by the city’s newspapers in response to the refusal to let local democracy reporters attend. Some of The Cable’s most recent stories have included police abuse of local powers to criminalise the homeless, the mistreatment of special needs children, and even the low pay for journalists who have chosen to strike at Reach (which publishes the Bristol Post).

Initially, something of a “chaotic start-up” according to membership coordinator Lucas Batt, it’s now more of a “mature organisation” with ten staff and more than 2,700 paying supporters. Batt tells me those supporters make up about a third of the title’s funding, with a further roughly 60% made up of charitable grants and the rest from advertising.

The fact that it isn’t primarily funded through advertising – like local competitors The Bristol Post, for example – is one of the defining strengths of The Cable, according to Batt.

“The best thing about a membership model is you’re always trying to serve readers’ needs, to provide them with value, than with an advertiser model where you’re trying to provide advertisers with value,” he explains. For The Cable, Batt says it’s not just about trying to keep a local newspaper alive without relying on page views or clickbait, but changing the way that news outlets themselves interact with the communities they sit in.

“We exist to make Bristol a better place; to report with communities not about them,” he explains, citing how the group runs community sessions and meetings in the most deprived neighbourhoods. “It’s essential, it’s got to be the future of local journalism if you want anyone feeling the media is for them and relevant, especially given the broken trust relationship it has with communities.

“We’ve seen other local media outlets respond to what we’re doing [on community funding and deep investigations],” he says, before adding that “mimicry is the best form of flattery”.

Bristol seems to provide a microcosm of different ways to fund and structure local journalism in the modern world. The only question that remains is whether the experiment can last.

“Survival is success, and we have survived,” Batt says. “We’ve contributed to a change in the media landscape… But it’s interesting to wonder what it will all look like in ten or 20 years.”

Picture: TheBristolNomad / Getty Images

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