Philanthropy needs to address the local news crisis


Jonathan Heawood


Imagine if the education system collapsed overnight. For most philanthropists, this would be an obvious and inescapable call to action. Whether or not you were already funding work in the education field, you would want to make sure that the nation’s children were properly educated, either by funding schools or by lobbying the government to fix things.

So, why haven’t philanthropists responded to the crisis in local news? Or to be more precise, why haven’t philanthropists in the UK responded to the crisis in local news? Because our peers are getting stuck into this challenge in the United States and right across Europe.

Local news is just as important to society as education and other parts of our civic infrastructure. Local news drives democratic engagement, mitigates disinformation and protects environmental standards, among many other benefits.

For years, we have been able to take local news for granted, safe in the knowledge that local campaigns will be amplified, and local authorities scrutinised, by an army of local reporters. That’s no longer a sound assumption as great swathes of the UK become ‘news deserts’ and ‘news drylands’ with little or no local news and – as a result – minimal accountability.

‘This isn’t about writing blank cheques. This is about supporting the development of sustainable organisations.’

We have relied for too long on the commercial news industry and the BBC to provide our communities with news and information. Now that those two pillars of the news economy are under threat, we urgently need to build up a third pillar. As Gilles Marchand has pointed out, this is where philanthropy comes into play.

Or, at least, this is where philanthropy should come into play. However, philanthropists in the UK are wary of journalism. They don’t have much experience of funding in this area. Our charity regulators have historically been reluctant to recognise the charitable purposes of journalism (although this is now changing). And many philanthropists probably share the public’s antipathy towards a news industry which – in the words of Sir Brian Leveson – has been guilty of ‘outrageous’ conduct over the years.

The Press Forward coalition was launched last year in the United States with 22 founding members pledging half a billion dollars to rebuild local news. In the UK, we are struggling to find 22 foundations that are even willing to have a conversation about local news, let alone put their resources into this crisis.

Local news is at risk of extinction, and we need philanthropists to step in – not to solve all the problems, but to be part of the solution.

In particular, we need philanthropists to support the emerging sector of independent local news providers who are full of ideas and inspiration, but struggling to survive and thrive in the face of stiff economic headwinds and a policy environment that favours corporate newspaper publishers, even where those publishers are closing local news titles and making journalists redundant.

Philanthropists should fund local news outlets and networks that have the potential to grow. This isn’t about writing blank cheques. This is about supporting the development of sustainable organisations. The evidence from other countries is that local communities will pay for local news when they value what’s on offer. So, like the American Journalism Project and the National Trust for Local News in the US, we should support independent local newsrooms to create diverse revenue streams from readers and ethical advertisers.

By funding start-ups in news deserts, and scale-ups in other parts of the UK, philanthropists in this country can stimulate a vibrant local news economy, just as our counterparts are doing around the world.

We also need philanthropists to work with politicians and civil servants to craft a new policy environment, supporting local news that meets the needs of local communities, rather than funding dividends and unsustainable returns for private equity investors.

And we need philanthropists to support local news in the right way: using pooled funds, intermediaries or match-funding schemes to reduce the scope for interference, and listening to local communities to ensure their needs are met. At the Public Interest News Foundation, we are piloting a Local News Fund for Newry, where local people are guiding our grantmaking – an approach modelled on successful local news funds in New Jersey and other US states. We are also launching the Indie News Fund, through which independent newsrooms around the UK are crowdfunding in order to unlock match funds from a range of donors.

The UK has been slow to recognise the fundamental changes that are taking place in the local news ecosystem. The market for traditional local newspapers has collapsed. Independent providers are filling some of the gaps left by the commercial media, but they are fragile. The BBC has an ambivalent relationship with local news, and in any case, a monolithic broadcaster with a lot of baggage should not be the sole source of news and information for the myriad different communities of the UK.

We need to support independent news media outlets that are rooted in the communities they serve. They are most likely to engender trust and engagement, and thereby to drive impact for their communities. This is a role for philanthropy.

Philanthropists should not have to play this role forever, but they should be prepared to play it for now. Otherwise, all our good work in so many other sectors will slowly unravel, as we deal with communities that are uninformed, unrepresented and dominated by unaccountable politicians and corporations.

Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of the Public Interest News Foundation (

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