Local news is under more pressure than ever. But as Covid has demonstrated, having local sources of information is vital both for keeping communities connected and holding local power to account.
However, local news doesn’t have to be just a labour of love. Social Spider is one publisher making the economics work for its five community newspapers: the Waltham Forest Echo, Tottenham Community Press, Enfield Dispatch, EC1 Echo and Barnet Post.
Social Spider’s MD David Floyd spoke to us on the podcast about what drove him to publish community newspapers, why local news is so important, and what it takes to make a paper viable.
Starting with the commercials
Social Spider was founded in 2003 initially to do web and graphic design for community media, as well as media training for young people. It then launched One in Four, a national magazine about mental health, before launching their first local newspaper in 2014.
“It’s a slightly strange trajectory into the world of local news publishing, but one that I think has helped quite a lot,” Floyd explained. “The starting point for our work has always been, we’ve got an idea for a media product which is needed by a local community or a community of interest.
“The challenge we set ourselves is, how do we make this media product commercially viable enough to be able to continue to be of value to the people that it’s working with, and the area or group that it is serving? That’s a big challenge, but it’s a different starting point to the starting point of corporate media groups.”
Making a paper viable
For Social Spider, a London borough-sized area provides the ideal balance of population and businesses to be able to bring in enough revenue to make a newspaper viable. Their current roster of publications are based in three boroughs, one constituency area, and one postcode across different parts of East, North and central London.
“Some boroughs have a more real identification from the local population than others do,” Floyd commented, outlining why the borough model works. “Part of the job of the local newspaper is to build that shared understanding across what may be a slightly arbitrarily defined political setup. But they’re generally well enough contained to make it work and have enough shared experiences to make something work.”
The papers each have a combination of paid journalism and voluntary input from people in the local community. The editors are all paid journalists, and Social Spider also host BBC Local Democracy reporters for their local areas.
“That combination enables us to get a breadth of input into the papers, without what would be a higher cost of paying for freelance contributions across the entire content of the publications,” Floyd explained.
Perhaps unusually for a newer local news publisher these days, Social Spider’s model is print-first. Four of their five publications are printed monthly, with EC1 Echo printing every two months as it is focused on a smaller local area.
Distribution is mixed, with copies put through doors in the local area, as well as being made available in community venues such as libraries, pubs and cafes. The papers are also available in newsstands outside supermarkets, stations and along the high streets.
“Our single biggest outlets are people picking up copies,” Floyd said of the newsstands. “Thousands are picked up each month, with a couple of them distributing 10,000 copies per month.”
“The demand is definitely there,” he emphasised, explaining that print runs and ad rates grow because there is interest in receiving copies. “People definitely do pick the paper up and want to read it. So the interest and desire to read print publications is still there.”
Print advertising is the biggest earner for the papers, bringing in up to 90% of the revenue. There is also a membership option, which Floyd described as a donation scheme where people living in the local area can choose to support a publication for a few pounds a month.
“If they choose to, they get a copy of the paper posted to them, as well as a tote bag and a badge” he said. “We have 300 or so people supporting our publications via that route, and that contributes 10 to 15% of the income that we need to keep going.”
Floyd is under no illusion that the free model helps significantly, and doesn’t believe charging for copies in a newsagents would be viable. “You’d have a very exclusive model of local news, which is not what we’re seeking to do,” he said.
Each newspaper also has a digital presence, with the majority of stories in the print publication appearing online. There is also a weekly local newsletter, as well as a presence on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But although each brand gets a lot of online engagement, it is the print-first model which works commercially.
Why local news is so vital
Floyd sees holding power to account as a vital part of the role of local newspapers, and noted that the decline of this at a local level is problematic. “If you lose that, you’ve got a really big problem,” he said. “Local people can campaign about things via Facebook groups and the like, what a professional journalist can do to hold power to account is different from what individuals in campaign groups can do. And the role of the local newspapers is absolutely vital in terms of that.”
But local papers’ role in the community should go beyond politics. Floyd believes that building an understanding between people in a local area, whether that be sharing the same interests or having the same problems, can help bridge wider divisions.
“There’s a tendency to think that all we’re about are people who have a particular position on some controversy or political issue, or the culture wars,” he said. “But most people’s lives are not about those divisions. They’re more likely to be about, several of us with very different views like to get together and play chess in the park, or something.”
“Those shared experiences are what brings people together, and understanding and amplifying that is really, really important.”
Social Spider’s model is one that Floyd thinks could work in every London borough. The only reason it doesn’t so far is a lack of startup investment; he estimates that each one would need around £25k to get it off the ground.
But using their model as a blueprint for other areas in the UK is complex. “Different local areas will have such different situations,” he said, pointing out that Coventry, for example, has a smaller population than the London borough of Barnet, where they’ve just launched a newspaper. A number of cities in the UK have existing news products, although the quality and economic model will vary by publisher.
However, Floyd is optimistic for the future of local news, and believes that there are opportunities to produce high quality publications at a local level in most local areas, in a financially sustainable way. “It’s a case of finding what the level of the market is in your particular area, and what the most relevant business model is, and that’ll be different in different areas” he said.
The good news is that the barriers to entry are now much, much lower. There’s no need for printing presses, or even print at all, as publications like the Manchester Mill are making a subscription model work via a simple email newsletter. With the right model in the right place, local news no longer has to be a battle of managing decline.
Listen to the full interview with David Floyd here (interview starts at 17.35):