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October 26, 2011

Journalist plans to launch charitable newspaper

By Peter Kirwan

A journalist for the charity magazine Third Sector is looking to launch a charitable magazine in London.

In an interview in this month’s Press Gazette magazine, David Ainsworth, 35, said he was inspired by his experiences working as a local newspaper reporter for the Northcliffe-owned Brentwood Gazette between 2005 and 2007.

‘It was a good paper, very well-respected,’he said. Ainsworth’s job involved covering the outlying community of Wickford, a town of 32,000, which received its news in the form of a five-page slip edition inserted into the main paper every week.

Wickford was big enough to generate significant stories, but the community was too small to support its own news organisation, at least not one run on traditional commercial lines, according to Ainsworth.

‘They, the people in Wickford, weren’t getting great coverage from their local newspaper,’he said. ‘The town was covered as an afterthought by media that had their core coverage in other areas. And I think there’s a lot of places like that in the UK.”

Ainsworth’s experience of a news gap in Essex got him thinking about how to ‘create greater community engagement and maybe cost savings too’by running a small local paper as a charity.

In early 2011, an opportunity arrived for Ainsworth and his business partners, fellow journalist Kaye Wiggins and Ralph Michell, head of policy at Acevo, the organisation that represents Britain’s charity and non-profit managers.

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In London, Lambeth Council was wondering what to do with £200,000-worth of statutory advertising in the wake of its decision to close London Life, its weekly newspaper.

As Lambeth started to explore the possibilities, Ainsworth became intrigued by the possibility of using these revenues as a starting point for a charity-based newspaper launch in the borough.

For a variety of reasons, including a very short timeframe, Ainsworth’s bid fell through – but the experience provided him with some interesting contacts including Lord Phillips, a Lib Dem peer who had started lobbying the Charity Commission to allow local newspapers to be run as charities, Neil Fowler, a former editor of The Western Mail and now a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.

Britain offers its charities some of the most generous tax breaks in the world. A charity can make profits and not pay corporation tax. It can organise lotteries, raise funds, sell donated assets and still not pay any tax.

Donors get benefits, too: uniquely, HM Treasury allows donors to offset their gifts against income tax,regardless of how wealthy they are.

But the Charity Commission wasn’t keen initially and were concerned that ‘they would be opening the floodgates’to a large wave of applicants, whose merits might be tenuous at best.

The Charity Commission seemed content to persist with the status quo, which for example allows a charity to own a limited company, which in turn could publish a newspaper.

This is how charities currently run trading operations such as charity shops. For a would-be newspaper publisher, however, this solution makes accepting grants difficult. It also reduces the tax benefits of charitable status.

A charity cannot just pour money into a trading subsidiary. It has to lend the funds on a commercial basis, which would mean a charitably-owned paper would have to pay interest out of its revenues.

Phillips has persisted, ‘flogging away’in his own words, in an effort to persuade the Commission to allow local newspapers to become full-blown charities, and it now looks as if his campaign may be about to bear fruit.

In mid-September, Lord Phillips announced that he is ‘utterly confident’that the Charity Commission will relax its rules.

Equipped with a detailed knowledge of charity law thanks to his time at the Haymarket-owned Third Sector, Ainsworth is now interested in launching his own charitable local newspaper in one of London’s news gaps.

‘We’re at an early stage,’he says. ‘But we’re looking around London for somewhere to start up.’

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