Government intervention needed to secure future of local news sector

Posted on: March 30, 2022 by Claire Meadows

Further government intervention is needed to secure the future of the local news industry, the Society of Editors has warned.

Responding to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee’s inquiry into the Sustainability of Local Journalism, the Society said that operational and financial measures were urgently needed if local news platforms are to remain “at the heart of the communities and audiences they serve”.

Announced last month, the committee’s inquiry called for evidence on the operation of the market for local journalism and how it is affected by increasing competition from social media and public service broadcasters. It also invited evidence on the impact of the 2019 Cairncross Review and how the government can support local news outlets to develop sustainable business models.

Responding to the consultation, the Society of Editors said that a package of short-term financial support was needed for the industry as well as operational assistance including legislation to put the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) on a statutory footing.

It said: “Across the UK, local news platforms remain at the heart of the communities and audiences they serve, and they continue to fulfil a vital role in a democratic society. While the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated digital shifts and subscription strategies, the crisis has also shone a light on the value of local news.”

The Society said that while it had welcomed the launch of the Digital Markets Unit in 2021 to help address the imbalance between news publishers and technology giants, there remained an urgent need for ministers to now bring forward legislation to ensure that it has the powers to effect change and it must be given the authority to require platforms to negotiate with news publishers over payment for content.

It added: “The digital advertising system continues to support the distributors of content disproportionately more than its creators and while platforms continue to monetise and distribute the content produced by news media organisations to engage their users, news publishers increasingly find it harder to meet the costs that news creation entails due to their loss of advertising revenue.

“While initiatives such as Facebook News and Google News Showcase have gone someway to recognising the value of news content and the cost of news production, the sums remain modest in comparison with the Australian system. With this in mind, the DMU must be given the powers to require platforms to negotiate with news publishers over payment for content in line with the Australian system.”

The Society also called on the government to fulfil its stated intention earlier this month to include further protections for journalists during the passage of the Online Harms Bill.  Alongside this, other measures to support the industry could include an expansion of – or building on – of the success of the Local Democracy Reporters’ Scheme as well as a continued requirement for councils to place public notices in newspapers and a clampdown on council freesheets.

It added: “As the Society outlined in its response to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s consultation on Planning for the Future in October 2020, the government should retain the statutory requirement for public authorities to publish planning notices in local newspapers if the public’s right to know is to be maintained. While the industry has innovated by introducing The Online Public Notices Portal which will see a common digital portal containing public notices published in print by regional and local newspapers across the UK, there remains a need to include the notices in print to ensure that those who do not go online remain informed of changes that might affect them.

“As the committee will no doubt recognise, the local news industry plays a vital role in holding local government and public bodies to account. The Society is disappointed that – a decade down the line – we are still seeing local councils flout rules in relation to the publication of council newspapers. It has now been eleven years since the passage of the Publicity Code, a set of regulations approved by parliament in 2011 to try and stop taxpayer money being spent on council freesheets and we are still seeing the rules flouted by Haringey Council. While the Society was pleased to see recent reports that government officials are investigating the council, it should not have taken this long to address the issue.”