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Campaigners call for journalism funding to be devolved to local communities

Jana BartlettPublic interest news campaigners have called for existing sources of journalism funding – including the BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service and local authorities’ public notice budgets – to be devolved to local independent bodies.

The Public Interest News Foundation and NewsNow have recommended the idea after a pilot project in which people in six parts of the United Kingdom helped to produce ‘Local News Plans’ for their area – a scheme the two organisations now hope to expand across the country.

A report on the project has recommended the launch of new “arm’s-length funds” to support local media outlets after people involved in the scheme, including journalists, raised concerns about “undue influence” that financial backers exert on the outlets they fund.

The report also urged public, private and voluntary sector organisations to allocate a minimum proportion of their advertising budget to spend with news organisations that meet certain criteria for delivering local news, which would vary depending on the needs identified in each Local News Plan.

The report states: “When we discussed funding models with stakeholders in our six pilot locations, we often heard concerns about the undue influence that donors might exert on the news. Journalists are particularly sensitive to this risk.

“Therefore, we believe that any funding for local news should be run through an arm’s-length fund.

“These funds might be modelled on or even managed by the existing network of community foundations. They could absorb existing sources of funding, such as the BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service and local authorities’ public notice budgets, together with potential new funding from philanthropists, big tech companies or government subsidies.

“They could also receive donations from the public, including those who want to contribute to better coverage of their home areas even after moving away.

“Public funding, as recommended by the Cairncross Review and the DCMS Select Committee, could also be managed through these arm’s-length funds, and used to match funds raised from other sources.

“By pooling these funds, and putting them under the management of independent, locally accountable bodies, the influence of any donor would be diluted, and the funding bodies could make strategic decisions about how to support the local news ecosystem, in line with the priorities set out in the Local News Plan for each area.”

The report further called for Local News Plans to be developed for every local authority district in the UK, Public, and for private and voluntary sector organisations should allocate a minimum proportion of their advertising budget to spend with news organisations that meet the Local News Plan criteria.

Examples of criteria drawn up in the six pilot areas – Bristol, Folkestone, Glasgow, Manchester, Newry and the Welsh city of Bangor – included organisations committing to having a local presence in the areas they serve and striking a balance between positive and negative stories.

Sameer Padania, who led the pilot project, said: “We’ve seen the challenges facing local communities across the UK, but we’ve also seen how those same communities want local news to be part of the solution.

“High-quality local news reflects people’s pride in their area, supports their high streets and businesses, spotlights community initiatives and builds a sense of belonging. Local news isn’t just an add-on – it’s an essential part of every local community.”

NewsNow’s Jana Bartlett, pictured, added: ‘We’re delighted to have worked with PINF on bringing together communities to discuss how they can work out for themselves what they want from local news and how best to support local providers.

“At NewsNow, we believe that sustainably funded public interest journalism is vital for the health of local democracy.”