I'm sat in a cafe reading about a raft of new initiatives in the UK to 'fund' local and community news:
HoldTheFront page reported that Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, will formally announce the plans for a ‘Local Democracy Foundation’ to tackle the “chronic underreporting” of local news. The Guardian noted that
The registered charity would receive funds from the BBC and internet companies, while also seeking donations from businesses and institutions who support its aims, to enable journalists to cover events that would otherwise go unreported.
The Welsh Government have announced it scheme (long mooted) to create a fund of £200,000 to support welsh-language hyperlocals. Emma Meese, director of the Independent Community News Network (ICNN) said:
This is a major step forward in recognising the invaluable work of independent community journalists across Wales. Investing in this sector could have a great impact on local journalism, local enterprise and social cohesion.
The latest round of Google News initiative funding has also proved a windfall for regional and local journalism. And, of course, we recently had the Facebook/NCTJ community news project. Made possible by a £4.5 million) charitable donation from Facebook.
I'm reading all of these posts about big pots of money, and having a moment of dissonance.
All this money and I'm in coffee shop that doesn't take cash.
As someone who has a memory made of ...wait...don't tell me... I can't remember right now. Being able to tap my phone to pay for a coffee is a godsend. But as much as it's convenient for me, and cheaper for shops and banks, the cashless society doesn't work for everyone. Current estimates put the number of people without a bank account at nearly 2 million. More manage budget on a day-to-day basis - they are lucky if cash makes it to their accounts. We've know for a long time that "not having access to, and not making use of, banking services continues to carry financial and social costs for poorer households."
Coffee, news and Charity
As I'm reading about these projects, it strikes me, and this might be because of the number of coffees I've had (that's the downside of tapping: no empty pockets) that local news and cash are similar concepts in our cashless/network society. Both remain essential commodities, especially for those that have less representation in our society. But both are increasingly expensive and inefficient systems to maintain.
I was particually struck by this reading about one of the projects funded in the recent round of Google DNi; Loquial. It's a platform that will enable readers to submit local and community news online or in print:
The service will give the public an opportunity to harness the trusted environment and wide reach of their local news brand to share their news and their content with their communities, but it will also provide efficiency for newsrooms — time saved repurposing and repackaging hyperlocal community content will be reallocated to more in-depth reporting from professional journalists.
Now, I'm not questioning the motives behind the project and I know its not a simple either/or. There's no reason not to celebrate any of the recent crop of funding for news projects. Anything, absolutely anything, that gets good journalism about, for and into communities is to be welcomed. But it's an example of a cashless approach to local journalism - it's cheaper and more convenient to 'tap-in' your news rather than have someone there to 'man the till'.
It makes me worry (slightly) that there is a sense of inevitability in accepting that local news is a minority service. Like a local branch of your bank, demand just isn't there for newsrooms on the high-street.
I think one consequence of this direction is the increasingly popular view that local journalism should be seen as a charitable service. It's something that should be subsidised as corporate social responsibility or a social duty alongside normal business. I can see that it fits with ideal view of the essential social core of local journalism. But it risks marginalising local news as the thing we need but, day-to-day, is only really of concern to the few effected by it. How do we frame local news in the same way we frame hospice care or animal shelters? In cashless economy who's going to rattle a tin for journalism?
Sat in a nice coffee shop, finding an accessing local news is, like forgetting my wallet, a minor inconvenience solved with a tap of my phone. For many that's not the case and I hope that's something any funding (and those who have that money to spend) consider as the debates continue.