Hundreds of independent local news outlets continue to operate in the UK despite a difficult year for publishers, Press Gazette research has found.
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’ve mapped each title below and spoke with The Lincolnite and Bristol Cable to discover the secrets to their success, as well as trade body the Independent Community News Network on the challenges facing the sector.
In the past decade, 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,” he adds.
Although 2020 threw up many challenges, 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, although local and hyperlocal titles cover much of the country.
Estimates suggest that their combined reach is substantial.
“The reach of our sector is vast,” says Abbott. “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 last May, its members totted up at least 22m views a month between them.
Yet, while their reach is large, the sector continues to operate at a disadvantage. Securing equal opportunities for independent publishers when it comes to statutory public notices, 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,” says Abbott.
“A lot of these organisations were set up with no intention of making money, but they've been so successful that it's 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 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, he says, qualified for support under the government’s £35m "All in Together" advertising campaign during the pandemic.
"It was a miracle that we only lost one publication during the period,” he says. “A lot of them were facing imminent closure 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.” He adds that some journalists working at ICNN titles continued to report for free during the pandemic.
The Lincolnite: 'The hardest part was to convince people that we were here to stay...'
Daniel Ionescu, co-founder and editor of The Lincolnite, an independent title that has served Lincoln and the wider area for over a decade, says that consistently being there to report the news and dedication to the community has helped ensure the publication's longevity.
The digital pure player is currently run by a team of ten and counts 800,000 readers per month, which Ionescu says makes it a serious competitor to the area’s other major digital news offering, Reach-owned Lincolnshire Live.
“The hardest part was to convince people that we were here to stay and that we weren't going to fail after a year, after two, after three. But now with a decade of experience behind us, we are in a very different position on the market,” he says.
Critical to The Lincolnite’s success is Ionescu’s understanding of the business of digital news. Despite taking a hit to its bottom line in 2020, the title, which generates 70% of its revenue from direct advertising sales, remains profitable.
“We haven't been the single-faceted type of start-up where there's a journalist who knows everything about that field but not so much about the rest and is trying everything to make it work.
"We’ve had a more multidisciplinary approach in terms of 'let's have a good website, let's understand how it works, let's understand how people like to use it and what type of stories people want to read, and what can we give more, better or faster than any other competitors in the market?'”
Although he admits that Google and Facebook’s dominance of ad revenues means the journey is difficult for publishers both large and small, The Lincolnite is determined to ensure its own publishing platform remains front and centre.
“[Your platform] is where you want to drive all the traffic to at the end of the day, because that's where your revenue will be as well,” says Ionescu.
Longer-term advertising arrangements and expanding its geographic reach to appeal more commercially have also been important.
“We started as a hyperlocal and then we developed,” he says.
“It's hard to be sustainable in a small population area so we've had to scale ourselves bigger. Most of our clients, whether they're solicitors or accountants, or educational institutions have a presence in all the small towns across the county, so if they were going to advertise with us, then we had to have some reach and penetration in those areas to be of interest."
While following an increasingly challenging advertising-based model has worked for The Lincolnite and other independents, such as the south west’s Local Voice Network of newspapers which has guaranteed letterboxes to advertisers with enormous success, taking what has worked for one community and replicating in another does not guarantee results.
“There's no one size fits all. It's whatever the community needs and if you can provide what the community needs it'll be successful,” says Abbott.
Bristol Cable: 'We have a challenge to communicate to people that membership is more than a subscription...'
One local outlet with a different model that has brought it success is the Bristol Cable. The cooperative started as a community engagement project run out of a living room and now counts 2,600 members who bring in some 40% of the organisation's total income. Grant funding makes up the rest.
While the publisher, which is known for its investigative reporting, is now in its eighth year, sustainability is always a question.
“What we really need to do is push forward into something that's entirely audience-generated revenue, make sure that we're fully accountable to the communities that we're serving and to make sure that we're financially sustainable because those grants are patchy and the landscape for grants in the UK certainly is very minimal. That's a challenge,” says Marianne Brooker, communications coordinator for the Cable.
While other more established players in the city offer quick turnaround, highly entertaining news that brings in audiences, the Cable hopes that its idiosyncratic brand of slower journalism rooted in what its members want will help guarantee success.
“We just really advocate for the value of what it is that we're providing... and so it's kind of filling a distinct space that wouldn't otherwise be filled by these publications,” says Brooker.
While the Cable’s membership model has allowed it to pursue the kind of long-term, in-depth reporting that some advertiser-funded outlets cannot – including a five-year-long modern slavery investigation that netted The Cable the prize for local Journalism at the 2019 Press Gazette British Journalism Awards – convincing a wider audience of the need to pay for its public interest reporting remains a challenge.
“One of the challenges is that increasingly with digital news and commercial models of news, people don't expect to have to pay for journalism,” says Brooker. “We have a challenge to communicate to people that membership is more than a subscription, it’s more than just buying an article. It's like something that enables us.”
Rather than charging for the four print editions it produces each year, members receive a copy by post while editions are also distributed in the city for free.
“No one ever pays for single issues and I think that is something that's very different to other media models. It’s something that we have to work to explain to people that they're not gaining exclusive access or exclusive rights to something - they're enabling us to make this public interest journalism available to everyone,” she says.
As with other publishers reporting on a geographically limited area, scaling-up revenue when a brand's immediate appeal is to a limited audience also throws up additional challenges.
“Bristol is as big as it is and so we're also trying to make calls to people outside of Bristol to join as members to show solidarity for the work that we're doing or to people who are generally interested in supporting public interest news... or in particular issues that we're campaigning for through journalism,” says Brooker.
While the sector remains fragile – our data collection efforts threw up a number of publishers that had ceased publishing throughout the pandemic – Brooker is hopeful that other communities can follow Bristol’s lead in creating flourishing independent news scenes.
“It just takes a couple of catalysts to build a wider community around these ideas. If you're starting from the complete desert where nothing's available it's incredibly hard to intervene and change that.
"But then once you've done that, and made a really clear case for why this particular way of organising media is better, then things proliferate from there,” says Brooker. “That's certainly what we found: as an organisation, we've just snowballed and gained in size and members and impact. I think that also happens at the city level too.”
About the maps:
Drawing on hyperlocal and local news directories from various sources including ICNN and Hold the Front Page, as well as the membership lists of regulators such as Impress and IPSO, Press Gazette has pulled together a list of independent local news providers in the UK.
The vast majority of the titles are run by professional journalists, but in a few cases we have included citizen journalism sites where they appear to be in line with professional standards and are an important community resource. Some titles are part of wider publishing groups, but we would deem these small enough to still be classed as independent.
As far as possible we have tried to be comprehensive, but if there is anyone we've missed that you think should be included in these maps, or if there are any details about a title you would like us to update, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.