Is a sustainable future possible for local news?

The news industry is facing a crisis, and it has hit local and regional newspapers particularly hard. Print numbers are dropping, and online content isn’t making up the difference with digital advertising revenue. The figures look bleak: in the U.K, 198 local U.K. newspapers closed down between 2005 and 2016, with 40 going under in the last year alone. In the U.S., a shocking 1800 newspapers have closed in the last 15 years. Without the scale and reach of larger or national newspapers, many local news sources are struggling to generate enough revenue to scrape by.

Local news isn’t suffering because it’s not useful or relevant. While its content can sometimes seem small scale in relation to the tumultuous politics of national news, local news plays a vitally important role in a democratic society. It directly serves the community it covers, and is a valuable, non-commoditised resource. Local journalism also plays a crucial role in holding power to account: earlier this year, local newspaper The Bristol Cable ran a campaign which prompted the Bristol council to take action in response. A study conducted in the U.K. discusses the potential for a ‘democratic deficit’ in areas where local newspapers have closed down.

Similarly, one U.S. study found that local authority borrowing increased in areas where newspapers had closed down, resulting in huge extra costs for the taxpayer. Without local journalists investigating their projects and plans for spending, local authorities’ actions went unchecked.

Some organisations, like the Lenfest Institute and Knight Foundation’s $20 million fund in Philadelphia, or the BBC’s licence-fee funded local journalism scheme, have organised charitable funding to prop up local journalism. It’s a well-intentioned idea, and it might work as a short-term fix. But propping up regional newspapers with charitable funding won’t enable a genuinely sustainable future for the industry.

Local news needs to be self-sufficient to thrive in the long term. The move away from print editions to digital delivery has meant that local newspapers have lost a key source of revenue: their cover price. Reader revenue is a vital and mostly untapped potential income for online content, and could offer one solution to this crisis. Local news offers valuable content that readers are willing to pay for; they just need a way to pay for that content in a way that suits their needs as consumers.

For local news, this ‘chicken and egg’ problem is particularly acute. People won’t be willing to pay for low quality content, but high quality content requires resources to produce. Local papers, fighting for their lives, have reduced their staff drastically, and the quality of their output and the reach of their reporting has suffered as a result. It’s going to require a careful application of resources to reverse that trend.

If local news has a simple, seamless way to collected reader revenue at their disposal then that investment in product will not only be justified, but will also be their best chance at a long and successful future.