Recently I was sitting with David Floyd and Anna Merryfield from the social enterprise Social Spider CIC, discussing the rapid rise of hyperlocal community newspapers, websites and radio stations – they themselves now run two community papers in Waltham Forest and Tottenham.
It occurred to us that what hadn’t been done since the start of this trend was a forum where London’s various publishers could get together and have frank discussions about how they could collaborate and learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. This led to us co-organising a half-day London Community Media Summit recently, the first this quietly emergent sector had seen.
I’d become aware of the slow death of ‘proper’ local newspapers and the rise of community publishing through some consultancy work I’d done for Eastside Primetimers in Greenwich and Waltham Forest. I had been looking into the feasibility of taking into community ownership the council-published weekly or fortnightly papers which were being curbed by the then-Communities Secretary, who had vowed to significantly restrict what were dubbed the “town hall Pravdas”.
However, there is a risk that this shift might lead to the revenue from these titles – council statutory advertising in particular – going primarily to privately-owned local newspapers. These papers have been consolidating a reduced number of staff from several papers into ‘edge of London’ newsrooms far away from the community being covered, with fewer local reporters left on the beat. This can mean an absence of hard-hitting coverage of council meetings, planning committee meetings and so on – all of the places where key decisions that affect local communities are made – and this is where community media has a real chance to step up. As an aside, one questioner at our event also pointed out that community newspapers should endeavour to avoid overdependence on government advertising, because as the not-for-profit sector as a whole has discovered with regard to grants and small contracts, public sector taps like these can be turned off at any point – this makes savvy diversification essential.
Once underway our summit took off, with support from the Eastside Primetimers Foundation and the Centre for Community Journalism. We identified over 40 hyperlocal community publications within the M25 – though there may be more we have not yet heard from in London alone, and around 400 nationwide – and were fortunate to secure speakers from the Camden New Journal, Waltham Forest Echo, Brixton Bugle, Hackney Citizen, Bristol Cable and the Community Media Association. Also addressing us was Russell Hargrave from the Big Lottery-backed fund for community businesses Power to Change, which has already invested £200k in the community radio station Sheffield Live.
There was a real buzz in the room, even as participants grappled with tough questions about how best to set up a community newspaper, secure revenue and compete effectively with commercial papers and online media. But where the model can be perfected, these publications offer the chance for local people to inform and lead debate in their communities and hold those with power to account. I was left with the strong impression that people were pleased to be gathered together and gained some real benefit from sharing experiences – this is clearly a sector whose time is coming, driven by talent and enthusiasm.