Four weekly newspapers are to get help developing paywall systems thanks to a government-backed £2m fund for journalism projects.
The paywall project will benefit the Maidenhead Advertiser, Slough Express, Windsor Express and Barnsley Chronicle after digital payment service Axate won a share of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s Future News Pilot Fund.
Axate’s ‘digital wallet’ system allows readers to pay to access individual stories without having to subscribe, and is already in use at seven Iliffe Media titles, as well as the Newbury Weekly News and Cornwall Reports.
Baylis Media, which owns the Advertiser and two Express titles, have been using Axate’s system since March 2019.
Jeremy Spooner, chief executive of Baylis Media said: “I and my team are really looking forward to working on this project. As a charitable trust we act as servants of our community.
“But we can only carry on doing so if we have the income to reinvest in reporting. We think Axate can help.”
Victoria Hewitt, director of the Barnsley Chronicle, added: “Quality journalism is of critical importance to our local communities – our paper and website are reaching more people than ever before. However producing content costs money and providing it for free on our website is difficult to sustain.
“We need to look for ways of maintaining our journalism for the future, so that our communities can continue to access this resource. That’s why we will be working with Axate to explore a different approach through this trial.”
The project will see Axate work with business innovation specialists Wilson Fletcher to provide a comprehensive and repeatable 90-day programme which will help the three publishers develop a sustainable new revenue stream from their digital products.
Dominic Young, CEO of Axate, said: “This Future News Pilot Fund grant is a great vote of confidence in the potential of the Axate model to help local news publishers thrive and grow.
“We are really looking forward to working with these great publishers to help them secure the revenues they deserve from their investment in local journalism, and we look forward to sharing the lessons learned with other publishers.”
A total of 19 grants have been awarded to projects across the country, which were allowed to bid for up to £100,000 of the available funding.
Another beneficiary, chosen from 178 applications made, is “slow news” site Tortoise.
It will work with Reach plc-owned titles Grimsby Live and Plymouth Live on engaging with the communities they serve by hosting open “think-in” newsroom meetings with readers.
Independent news publisher the Manchester Meteor will receive funding to expand the membership of its co-operative ownership model and the Bristol Cable, another co-operative, will be given cash to test new ways of engaging with its members and readers.
Podcast platform Entale, which currently works with companies including Reach plc and JPIMedia, is also to get funding in order to “explore alternative distribution and monetisation mechanisms for public interest podcasting”.
The fund is being administered by innovation foundation Nesta.
Valerie Mocker, pictured, director of the Future News Fund Pilot Fund at Nesta, said: “Public interest news is such a vital part of our democratic immune system, so it’s important we ensure it is fit for the future and for everyone. The innovators we are funding are trying to transform the system, challenging how we engage audiences in the news process and trying out new models for financial sustainability.
“We are excited to work closely with the innovators to develop their ideas and importantly, to share these learnings with the wider news sector. This pilot is only a first step but an important one towards reviving public interest news for everyone across the country.”
However, the News Media Association has criticised the lack of direct grants given to local news publishers.
In a statement, the NMA said: “It is very disappointing that the Future News Fund, overseen by Nesta, has bypassed the local news media industry by failing to directly award it any grants.
“Local newsbrands reach 40.6 million people a month and create and deliver innovative projects in newsrooms across the UK. Importantly, local news publishers employ the vast majority of local journalists in the UK and are critical to the sustainability of local public interest news.
“But many of these established titles need some short-term support, over the next two to three years, to help them bridge the gap to a more sustainable future.
“We hope that, if the Future News Fund develops from a pilot into an ongoing fund, it will build on the existing infrastructure, talent and expertise which is delivering local journalism today by partnering with established local news media providers.”