UK independent publishers struggle with revenue but reach large audience

Annual audience of 39m reaps £7m revenue for 72 independent news publishers

uk independent news publishers

A survey of 72 independent publishers based in the UK found that they make a total of £7m from a combined annual audience of 39 million people.

The Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), which carried out the survey, extrapolated the revenue earned by this group to estimate the total earnings of the UK’s independent news publishers to be between £20m and £40m in total.

In contrast, the UK’s largest commercial publisher Reach made £615.8m in 2021, while regional giants Newsquest and National World made £142m and £86m respectively.

“Dedicated publishers are working hard, having impressive social impact, and yet are still struggling to find the business model and revenues to secure their future,” said PINF executive director, Jonathan Heawood.

The survey, for the second annual index of independent news publishing, also showed that UK independent publishers focusing on national news made four times as much money as those that reported local news.

PINF found that the median revenue of those reporting national news was £163,000 in the last year, compared to £36,000 for those covering local stories.

The report said the contrast revealed “the depth of the challenge facing local news” and was deeply alarming. Some 80% of independent outlets in the sample focus on “subnational” news.

This gulf, said Heawood, was for him “the key takeaway”.

Revenue is biggest obstacle for UK independent news publishers

Across the independent sector, the national and local organisations surveyed reported that lack of revenue remains one of the biggest obstacles.

Despite often operating on shoestring budgets, the 72 publishers surveyed for the report reached an unduplicated audience of 39 million people over the year, reiterating the broken link between reach and revenue reported last year. The most popular independent outlet in the sample reached 6.1 million people over the year.

Last year's report surveyed 56 independent publishers and found they earned a combined £5.4m with a total audience of 10.1 million.

The survey, which ran online from January to March 2022, was open to independent publishers - those not part of the small number of large companies that control most traditional newspapers - with a turnover of less than £2m. Publishers covering print, digital, audio and video were included, while broadcasters including community radio stations were excluded as they operate in a different regulatory environment. Most were members of the Independent Community News Network, the regulator Impress, or both.

Non-profit UK independent news publishers bring in much less money and readers

The survey found that non-profits brought in much less (a median revenue of £23,000) compared to £66,000 for their for-profit counterparts. For-profits also reached twice as many unique website users, had four times the page views and 50 times the Youtube video views of the non-profit newsrooms surveyed.

While the report painted a difficult financial picture for the independent sector, independent publishers felt that they make a positive contribution to their communities.

Six out of ten of those surveyed said their journalism contributed "quite a lot" or "very much" to change in society - irrespective of how much money the publication generated. Publishers told PINF they were most proud of stories such as their coverage of Covid-19, local planning and land use, local environment and inclusive societies.

Many publishers were also positive about the future, telling the survey they were optimistic that news consumers would continue to demand high quality local news. Publishers said that interest in independent, local news had grown amid a decline in trust in legacy corporate media. This year’s Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that trust in the UK media had plummeted with 34% of those polled in 2022 saying they had faith in UK news, compared to 51% in 2015.

Philanthropy 'has been a cure' in US

Comparing the UK independent local sector with that in the US, the report highlighted how philanthropic funding has allowed US independent publishers to thrive.

The long-term view taken by grant-makers has allowed US publishers to "generate sustainable income from their readers and local communities because philanthropic funders have given them the time and space to experiment and innovate," the report said.

"Philanthropy has not been a sticking plaster for the challenges facing public interest news; it has been a cure, helping to reinvigorate and reinvent journalism for the twenty-first century."

Heawood said that there was an urgent need for a similarly long-term approach by philanthropists in the UK.

"There needs to be investment in the capacity of these publishers to move to a more diverse revenue model – one that has significantly more reader revenue, through membership or subscriptions. In the US we have seen the important role that philanthropists have played to help this transition happen – because they recognise the vital social, democratic role of news producers," he said.

Echoing the findings of last year’s index, advertising still remains the main income source for independent publishers, representing 43% of revenue. A third of ad revenue came from direct sell display and classified advertising.

A quarter (24%) of UK publishers relied on philanthropic grants, while reader revenues accounted for 22% of income. This was most commonly in the form of small payments from individuals. Converting readers to paying subscribers, however, remains a challenge. Limited skills and capacity in marketing and business development were reported as common constraints to growing revenue.

Most revenue tended to go on costs with staffing the biggest outlay (45%), followed by technology (28%), general administration (14%) and the costs of renting an office (12%).

Many publishers criticised the role of big tech saying that social media platforms and government favoured relationships with the larger corporate conglomerates over independents. They called for more access to government advertising and public notices, as well as grants to fund experiments in new projects and collaborations.

One publisher told PINF of the challenge of "operating in a world designed for doom-scrolling... not getting sucked into producing content solely for US media giants".

While just over half of those surveyed produced a print newspaper, this has not stopped experimentation with newer formats in the sector. The majority made videos and nearly a third produced podcasts.

Picture: Getty Images

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