THE FUTURE OF LOCAL MEDIA? DON'T HOLD YER BREATH…
The great, the good and the irrelevant of the media world packed into the Innovation Forum to hear talks and then debate about a media in this country that everyone agreed was absolutely knackered. And it's knackered because media owners' profits have been put before the hard core investigative journalism upon which democracy depends…the kind of stuff that dug out the MPs expenses scandal.
ITV has already stated that it's pulling out of local news coverage, while newspapers are sacking journalists left, right and centre. Is the great hope for the future of democracy to be found online, or in community media projects? Government regulator OFCOM has been bellyaching about this very question for years and its Contents and Standards person, Stewart Purvis, presented the latest Working Paper on this issue for the first time at the Salford conference.
You can see his presentation here and on page 7 is a special case study into the Salford Media by posh consultants, Oliver & Ohlbaum. What stands out is how the Guardian Media Group has an almost total monopoly of mainstream radio, tv and newspapers in Salford (Manchester Evening News, Advertiser, Channel M tv and Rock, Smooth and Real Radio), even though they are not physically based in the city.
Also interesting from the more in depth report on the OFCOM website is that the Manchester Evening News only reaches 10% of Salford between Saturday and Wednesday and only 30% when they give it away on Thurs/Fri. Even the Advertiser only reaches 70% of Salford. That's a lot of people with no news or information in Salford.
What also stands out is how crap these consultants Oliver & Ohlbaum are. In their main report they couldn't even spell Salford `Keys', and in their analysis of `Community Media' only managed to find Salford City Radio. Not only did the Salford Star not merit a mention but neither did loads of other community media, whether they're any use or not. Yet this is the stuff that the government is basing its future policies on. Sad or what?
Meanwhile, the OFCOM presentation recognised how "local journalism is important because it underpins democratic participation in the UK" and flagged up its four functions…Informing, Representing, Campaigning and Interrogating.
This is based on a report for OFCOM by Steven Barnett at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It's got the snappy title – Journalism, Democracy and the Public Interest: rethinking media pluralism in the Digital Age, but don't let that put you off. Barnett begins by quoting a Tory White Paper from 1995 – "A free and diverse media are an indispensable part of the democratic process…If one voice become too powerful, this process is placed in jeopardy and democracy is damaged."
And he continues, quoting from a Labour Party 2001 Consultation on Media Ownership– "A healthy democracy depends on a culture of dissent and argument, which would inevitably be diminished if there were only a limited number of providers of news"
And then Barnett looks into these four functions of local journalism that underpin democracy. While everyone knows what `Informing' means, Barnett defines Representing as "conveying the popular voice from citizens and voters to local and national elites". He defines Campaigning as "not simply discovering and reporting on facts but using them to orchestrate calls for action from relevant authorities" and Interrogating as "holding public authorities and private corporations to account and conducting independent investigations to uncover corruption, miscarriages of justice, public waste, corporate greed and other examples of wrong doing".
Barnett continues "That scrutiny depends on institutional support and adequate resources: as these become more depleted, local organisations and authorities become less accountable and arguably less responsive to the needs of the local community."
You can see where the Salford Star is coming from on this…
But back to the OFCOM presentation which states "We believe that the future of the sector should be driven by the needs of citizens and consumers"…and gives six pointers, particularly that it should be "underpinned by a spine of innovative grass-roots local journalism…Delivering public interest outcomes to citizens and consumers…"
You can see again where the Salford Star is coming from on this…But where's the money for it to happen?
And so it was onto the second session which was basically loads of big wigs from TV land, including Ruth Spratt from MEN Media, Michael Jermey Head of ITV News and Alex Connock, Director of Ten Alps, Bob Geldoff's media guzzling company, arguing about grabbing the public subsidy share of the £30-64million OFCOM reckons it would cost to do proper regional news when ITV backs down after the digital switchover.
The afternoon session – Future Opportunities and Challenges for Local Media – was the bit that we were interested in, and it was led by William Perrin, founder of Talk About Local and a former advisor to Tony Blair.
Perrin gave a talk about how it would cost only £100,000 to set up what he calls a `hyperlocal' web site which comes from the community and reaches parts of the community that other media doesn't reach.
Perrin pointed to online examples of good hyperlocal sites, including the Salford Star. Unfortunately he completely missed the point that the Salford Star doesn't want to be solely online because two thirds of Salford's community doesn't have access to the web.
We're a magazine that's been forced online because the very fact that we do the four things that `innovative grass-roots local journalism' should be doing – Informing, Campaigning, Representing and Interrogating – means we can't get any funding, never mind £100k!
We're biting (or investigating) the very hand that might fund us – ie the council, regional development agency, government etc etc. We've been banging on about this for years (see here and here and here)
When asked about this digital divide and lack of funding for media that actually does what it's supposed to, Stewart Purvis of OFCOM had no answer. He recognised the points but had no answer.
Indeed, all day, Steve Hewlett, who chaired the conference, was asking the `successful' community media groups that were on the panels or making points from the floor where they got their funding from – every single one was publicly funded. And none of them did all the four points of local journalism - "important because it underpins democratic participation in the UK" - Informing, Campaigning, Representing and Interrogating.
Says it all.
Meanwhile, if anyone does really care about local media democracy please donate to the Salford Star here - because we have no faith in any regulator or public body to help us...
Words: Stephen Kingston, Editor and Co-founder Salford Star