Hyperlocal journalism at the heart of Committee’s report on news journalism in Wales

By Matt Abbott | 10th May 2018

Independent community and hyperlocal news outlets can no longer be ‘dismissed as insignificant’, but are ‘extremely important’, provide a valuable ‘contribution to the overall journalistic ecosystem’ in Wales and should be nurtured and encouraged.

This is the view held by the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee as laid out in their report into news Journalism in Wales: Read All About It, released today (Thursday, May 10th, 2018).

Chaired by Bethan Sayed AM, the Inquiry placed ‘hyperlocal and volunteer journalism’ at the heart of its report, putting forward multiple recommendations to support it.

Key among the recommendations is that funding for hyperlocals proposed by Welsh Government last year should not be reserved entirely for setting up of new hyperlocal news providers.

Echoing the sentiments of C4CJ and ICNN, the report recommended that Welsh Government should use the £200,000 funding ‘for a contestable scheme that is available to both new entrants and to support innovation and sustainability among current operators’.

C4CJ Centre Manager, and Director of ICNN, Emma Meese welcomed the findings, saying: “Independent community and hyperlocal journalism is growing in strength and numbers and we welcome the Committee’s acknowledgement of it as a valuable and extremely important part of the news media in Wales.

“Without the vital contribution of these hyperlocal titles, communities would have little to no access to information about civic life. We urge Welsh Government to consider these recommendations and we look forward to working with them closely over the following months.”

The Inquiry set out to explore the state of news journalism in Wales – a country in which the media is smaller and less diverse and where changes are felt more acutely; to see if there were innovative models to support, and what effective solutions were available.

The Inquiry found the usual suspects: diminishing circulations, job losses, mergers and closers, social media dominance, print pounds vs digital pennies…

The effects on communities of these downward trends are no less familiar: poorer civic and community life, a lack of plurality of information, less engagement.

Bethan Sayed AM, and Chair of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee

But the Inquiry was also presented with some good news: the growing community and hyperlocal news sector which in ‘Wales, has more than twice the number of operators than might be expected based on its share of the population’.

This ‘new journalism’ is ‘rooted in communities’ and often run by operators ‘for love rather than money’.

In many villages, towns and cities across Wales, community newspapers have reached parity, if not overtaken their traditional rivals in terms of readership, page views and circulation. They are beginning to plug the gaps left behind as local newspapers retreat or close.

However, they are a tough prospect to make economically sustainable and are often ‘dismissed as insignificant’ or misunderstood in the local area.

Which is why the report is concerned about flooding an already saturated market with more fragile news outlets.

“Starting up hyperlocals in Wales isn’t a problem,” it says. “Sustaining them is.”

The report goes on to conclude that the money proposed by Welsh government should be made available more broadly to help innovate and develop the current stable of titles.

Centre Manager of the C4CJ, Emma Meese gave evidence to the Inquiry along with Dr Andy Williams of Cardiff University.

Emma Meese suggested that it was time to ‘stop thinking in terms of ‘newspapers’ and start thinking in terms of ‘news publishers’’.

Dr Andy Williams followed by outlining the various forms of state subsidy currently propping up traditional newspapers – such as advertising revenue from statutory notices and tax breaks for newspaper publication.

The report states that ‘urgent consideration should be given to changes to open up this [statutory notices] revenue stream to [hyperlocal] providers as far as possible’, and that local authorities would ‘benefit from greater clarity and guidance from Welsh Government on where [notices] could be published’.

The report says: “Where legislation currently states that statutory notices must be placed in newspapers, the law should be amended so that government agencies are able to place these advertisements with other news providers – including online.”

The report acknowledges that current legislation is an ‘anachronistic and inefficient way of publicising government activity’.

In short, the report recommends reforming the legislation surrounding statutory public notices and whether money generated through this modernisation could be used to create a similar body to the Knight Foundation in the USA which offers seed-corn funding for small start-up news organisations.

The report also raised concerns over the dominance of social media and urged digital giants like Facebook and Google to ‘recognise their responsibilities as corporate citizens in helping support good quality journalism in Wales and elsewhere’.

Finally, the Inquiry recommends ‘that the Welsh Government facilitates contact between representatives of the hyperlocal sector, Media Wales and other large news providers to investigate areas of possible collaboration and syndication agreements between them’.

According to the BBC, “A Welsh Government spokesman said: “The culture minister will carefully consider the report’s recommendations before formally responding”.”

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