Peter Houston

Peter Houston: So how did you get into local news?

David Floyd: I suppose I’m somewhat unusual in terms of my media background in the sense that I’ve always worked in what is, I suppose, described as community media. When I left school, I went to work for a local youth magazine, mainly funded by the local council in Harringay called Exposure, where I joined as an editor when I was 19.

Since then, I founded Social Spider in 2003, to do a range of stuff around both community media, web design, and graphic design and that kind of thing. We were also doing media training for young people. Then we moved on from that to produce a national magazine about mental health called One and Four, based on my co-directors experience of mental health difficulty. We ran that for seven years and had some success, a lot of challenges.

Then we sort of fell into launching a local newspaper in 2014. Since then, we’ve been launching more local newspapers. So it’s a slightly strange trajectory into the world of local news publishing, but one that I think has helped quite a lot, because the starting point for our work has always been, we’ve got an idea for a media product, which is needed by either a local community or a community of interest.

And the challenge we set ourselves is how do we make this major 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’s serving? That’s is a big challenge, but it’s a different starting point to the starting point of corporate media groups.

I love that phrase, commercially viable enough. We’re coming back to that. So Social Spider now produces five community newspapers?

Yeah, five community newspapers. We have Waltham Forest Echo, which was our first one, Tottenham Community Press was our second one, then Enfield Dispatch, EC1 Echo, and Barnet Post, which we launched in print this month.

How do you decide on the kind of geography of what demands a title?

Yeah, so we’re increasingly finding out that the level that our publications work at is a London borough size area. That may be different if we were to use the same model, your general model, outside London, the model may work differently, but within London, a borough size area is where it works.

So here we have a number of three boroughs, one constituency area, and one postcode in different bits of East, North, and Central London currently, but the borough model was the main one.

Is that a population size, or is it because these areas have similar concerns?

It’s partly a population size thing, it’s partly that a lot of the income streams are through things like premises licenses and new advertising products that businesses have to buy. And to get the number of them you need to make the publication work at the scale you need, it’s better to have the borough size publication to do that. London boroughs are not perfect areas for local news. I mean, some boroughs have more real identification from the local population than others do.

And in a sense, to some extent, a part of the job of the local newspaper is to build that shared understanding across what may be a slightly arbitrarily defined political setup in some cases, but they’re generally well contained enough to make it work and have enough shared experiences to make something work.

I think that’s an interesting idea that that the local paper is actually at the center of the community and in some sense, creating the community. That’s a lovely idea.

Yeah, I think that’s a really important part of the local paper’s role. There’s obviously holding power to account, that’ss a vital part of the local paper’s role. There’s much discussion which will have been on your podcast, but elsewhere as well, about the decline of that public interest scrutinising the work of the local council and other local public sector agencies and potentially bigger businesses in the local area.

If you lose that, you’ve got a really big problem because although local people can campaign about things via Facebook groups and the like, what a journalist can do, or professional journalists can do to hold power to account is different from what you individuals in campaign groups can do. And then the role of the local newspapers is absolutely vital in terms of that.

There’s definitely something beyond that, in terms of building that sense of community locally, about understanding people in your local area, as people who may share interests in the same relatively mundane things, or may have the same annoying problems in their lives.

And building that shared understanding of that, because you there’s a tendency to think that all we’re about as people are people who have a particular position on some controversy in the political issue, or the culture wars, and most people’s lives are not about those kinds of divisions that they’re more likely to be about.

Several of us with very different views on life like to get together and play chess in the park or something, it’s the kind of story when we might cover in one of our papers, those shared experiences, and what brings people together and understanding that and amplifying that is really, really important. It’s a key part of what we do alongside the public interest news stuff, which is also vitally important. I mean, that combination is important.

In terms of the platforms you’re on, how’d you get your news out to people?

So we have a print-first model, which is, I suppose, quite unusual now, particularly for an organisation that, as I say, I only started doing local news in 2014. But we have monthly print publications, primarily, four of our publications are monthly print publications. One is a bimonthly, every two months, because that’s the one focused on a smaller local area in Clarkenwell.

But that’s our model, we distribute copies for free around the local area, via a mixture of some door to door distribution, some distribution in community venues, such as libraries, pubs, and cafes all over obviously, with them doing a bit less of that during during COVID. And then we have on-street newsstands, we call them buckets, where you pick up your new copy. Some of them are outside supermarkets, some of them are outside stations or on high streets in particular places.

They’re our single biggest outlets where people picking up copies. That’s where thousands and thousands are picked up each month. A couple of them distribute 10,000 copies per month. There’s one which is 15,000, one which is 17,500, our first paper in Waltham Forest, which is steadily growing its circulation.

Those are solid numbers.

Yeah, I think that demand is is definitely there. People definitely do pick the paper up and want to read it, which obviously, they need to. It’d be a pretty useless product if they didn’t, but they do. And we have increased numbers based on the fact that we get rid of copies and there is more interest in receiving them. I think the interest and desire to read print publications is still there.

We’re under no illusions, if we stuck the paper in a newsagent, and charged four pounds for it, I think it’s very unlikely that very many people would buy it. Some people would just to support what we’re doing. But you’d have a very exclusive model of local news, which is not what we’re seeking to do.

Are you doing much online or via email?

Yeah, so all of our newspapers have websites and the majority of the stories going to the print paper also go online. We’re now moving towards our news reporting being digital-first, but the features content remains print first. It’s this kind of combination. Obviously, the feature stuff is less time-sensitive.

Each of our publications has a weekly newsletter, which people can sign up for. That gives them a roundup of the week’s latest stories, which they can read. There’s also lots of work on social media, Twitter, Instagram, little bit on Facebook, that combination of activity. In terms of online, we’re building up gradually, it’s been trying different things. We have different editors for different publications who have slightly different approaches to things.

Everyone is trying what works, trying to see what works and gradually building that up. We get a lot of online engagement as well, alongside the print-first situation because commercially, print-first works.

So, let’s get back to commercially viable enough. What’s your model, your business model?

The bit of the business model, which is not specifically about income, but which I should have mentioned earlier to make some of the rest of it make sense is that we have a combination of paid journalism and voluntary input from people in the local community. So our editors are all paid journalists.

We also have the BBC, local democracy reporters for our local areas who are hosted by us. So all those people are paid journalists working on news and, in the editors’ case, on editing. Then the featured content is commissioned from people in our local community, local residents or people working for community organizations or campaigns in the local area.

That combination enables us to get a breadth of input into the papers, without which would be a higher cost of paying for freelance contributions across the entire content of the publications. So that does contribute to the business model. In terms of the income generation side of the business model, print advertising is our single biggest element. And that brings in 85 to 90% of the revenue for the newspapers.

Then we have membership schemes, which are effectively donation schemes. So people living in the local area who want to contribute to the continuation of the publication pay, in most cases, five pounds a month to support publication. And if they choose to, they get a copy of the paper posted to them. They get a tote bag and a badge and the range of desirable merchandise that you get in those circumstances.

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.

How important is that BBC program, the local democracy program to you?

We’ve recently started hosting the two BBC local democracy reporters from the beginning of July. So it was really important for us as a mark of success in being a real local news publisher, I suppose, having seen ourselves as the sort of young upstarts trying to break into the industry. You certainly see it as a badge of honor to have been awarded those contracts.

It doesn’t have a major financial impact. The cost the BBC provide obviously pay the wages of the reporters and pays some of the on costs. It’s kind of a full-cost recovery model to support the hosting, but you don’t get a massive chunk of swag for managing the contract. From a prestige point of view, it is brilliant, and it’s great to be working with those reporters and have them as part of the team. It doesn’t make a huge financial difference.

There was a survey that recognised that independent publishers like you guys are operating on a shoestring budget. Is that a scenario that’s familiar to you?

Yeah, yeah. I mean, there’s different levels of shoestring budgets. We are in a different position, turnover wise, to a lot of colleagues who were involved in Public Interest News Foundation and the Independent Community News Network that we’re also part of.

A lot of those publications are one man or woman at their kitchen table, doing a phenomenal job at producing high-quality news, mostly online, but either paying themselves two or three days a week by the donations they’re able to pull in, or some advertisements, or you see in some cases literally being voluntary, but while producing a professional standard of work.

That situation is definitely not ideal. I think from my point of view, there are routes out of that. There is money there in markets for local news to generate some income and to generate real jobs. Obviously, the people who of their own accord decided to start up something from their kitchen table to meet the news gap in their local area are more likely to be people who are skilled as journalists than people who are skilled on the commercial side and who are thinking of how do we do local news as a commercial problem to be solved.

It makes it more difficult for them to go down that commercial route. The absence of funding or investment to support people to bring in assistance on the commercial side means that people are often stuck in that situation of really working away for years for no money and providing great service but not getting paid for it.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the commercial opportunities are not there. It just means that creating the framework where people will be able to access them is not necessarily possible, in most cases. Because of the kind of organisation we are, because we have always been a social enterprise, and we’ve always been in the situation of saying, well, this is what we want to do, from a social point of view, how do we solve that commercial problem?

We’ve always had that dual angle of needing to solve the commercial problem, we have a slightly different starting point. Not to say it hasn’t been hard, getting where we’ve got to has been extremely hard, and there’s lots of pain involved in getting here. But we’ve always had some revenue from what we’re doing in terms of the news side and we’ve been able to gradually build up.

What do you think it would take for every London borough equivalent in the country, whether that’s a postcode or a constituency area, what would it take for them to have their own publication?

That’s a really interesting question. I think, in this specific area of London boroughs, it would be extremely easy because of the demarcations there. The only reason why each London borough doesn’t have a publication at the level that we operate at is the lack of startup investment to support either someone like us or to support someone locally who’d like to do it and to have that combined editorial and commercial model in place.

In every London borough, if there was 25 grand of startup money to get it off the ground, then getting something that we do like our borough level running costs for our publications are 50-60 grand a year. You can do it, you can do an awful lot with that you can go and get the publication out to tens of thousands of people.

To an extent, that money is already in the system in that councils will be spending a lot more than that on council-based, council-funded public notices, which are currently going out for the corporate local media groups, which are subsidising terrible publications with little or no local news in. So this could be something now about redirecting some of that money that’s already chugging around the system but not actually supporting your local news.

On a London borough level, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to do. It would just involve some combination of government and philanthropic funders thinking it was important enough for that to happen. I’m not sure about when you look at a UK-wide thing. Different local areas will have such different situations.

My parents are from Coventry, which has a has a smaller population than the London Borough of Barnet, where we’ve just launched a newspaper. I mean, Coventry still has a daily local newspaper called the Coventry Evening Telegraph. The situations are very different in terms of different kinds of local news.

The relatively big city centres with a clear identity will continue to have quite good news products, I imagine for some time, although it’s once you get beyond your Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Coventry, and you’re getting to places where loads of people live but are a little bit smaller and can’t justify a publication on their own in that way. And then the deal they’re going to get from the corporate groups is not going to be very good.

There is this manage decline model that the corporate groups have been following. The challenge is the old model is collapsing, partly through the core strategy of the corporate local news groups, and there isn’t the investment and support for new models to emerge.

The talent is there, the desire from people to find new models is there, particularly amongst colleagues within Independent Community News across the country but that financial support to enable people to make that leap is sadly not currently there that’s really stifling that happening, which is a real shame.

Why does it matter? Why does local news really matter?

As we discussed earlier, the public interest news element is really, really important. There are things that, that journalists can do at a local level that individuals and campaign groups cannot do, particularly in terms of holding power to accounts in terms of amplifying local voices.

Just recently and one of our local democracy reporters was doing a report on a lady living in Morton Forest. There were two people in the same week, two single parents in Morton Forest, with the same number of children. In one case, the council was moving the mother and three children into a one-bedroom flat, which had mice in it. The local democracy reporter flagged that up and explained why something may need to be done to prevent that happening.

There was a second single parent who was being moved with her children out of the council accommodation to a new home in Stoke. She’d never been to Stoke and obviously, no offense to Stoke but moving people randomly hundreds of miles to somewhere they’ve never lived is not really appropriate. The local democracy reporter focused on that.

If local news wasn’t there to flag up those issues, of course, there would be some people in the local community who might get involved and try and do something but the amplification that journalism can provide to that and the official independent view on it that has to be taken seriously. You get something there from journalism that you don’t get from anywhere else.

People in that situation don’t have anyone to stand up for them. Local news plays an absolutely vital role in those kinds of issues. From our point of view, in terms of our particular model, the fact that we offer opportunity for local residents to write themselves.

Once again, on the housing issue, we have a columnist, who’s written for us for four or five years, for our board and for his newspaper, who lives on the estate which is being knocked down by the local council. It’s her monthly diary of life on a condemned estate and you’re explaining the practical realities of that and these kinds of situations.

If you don’t have local news publications to get those messages out there, people are mostly compassionate and do care about their fellow citizens. But if you don’t know what’s going on, and that information is not getting to people, then these stories get lost and people end up just at the mercy of arbitrary power.

On the whole, are you optimistic for the future of local news?

Yeah, I’m extremely optimistic. I’ve been somewhat frustrated by some of the more downbeat coverage of the outlook for local news. In a sense, I think that corporate local news providers had a long period of decades and decades, where in many areas, they were providing the lowest common denominator products to scoop up the advertising income and then churning out publications, which were really terrible that no one valued and that’s the reason why those publications got into difficulty, but actually, there are opportunities to produce high-quality publications at a local level in most local areas.

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 in your particular area. That’ll be different in different areas. But the good news is that barriers to entry now are much, much lower. You don’t need to own a printing press, you can start up a publication, certainly easily for tens of thousands, but you can probably start a local publication, if you’ve got people who are going to input voluntarily to begin with, for a couple of thousand.

The ability for people who are not wealthy to get local news publications off the ground is is very much greater. And then once you, as a group of people who want to do something, are producing a publication, you can, working with people in your local community, set the direction of what you’re doing and the opportunities for doing that are really strong now.

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