Tabitha Stapely of Social Streets addresses the disjunct between the importance of local journalism and the continued financial struggles of the sector.
It is well documented that local journalism provides a vital role in terms of truth and democracy. Independent journalism spreads information, exposes injustice, supports freedom of speech, and holds those in power to account.
Less well-documented is local journalism’s essential role in the social and economic wellbeing of communities. Publications that provide a broad range of community and cultural content offer readers understanding of their close neighbours, thereby increasing bonds and bridging gaps between diverse groups.
Increasingly, technology allows readers to connect with each other and contribute via commenting, social media platforms, and apps. Publications that utilise technology in this way allow readers to become co-creators of content rather than merely consumers. This leads to an increased sense of agency over the messaging within their community; the development of hyper local communication networks; and increased peer-to-peer connections.
In these ways local journalism can be seen as an important tool for developing social capital within the local community. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), which promotes policies that improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world, defines social capital as ‘networks, together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups’.
In this definition, networks are real-world connections. They are families, friends, neighbours, and colleagues in work, education, hobbies, and community groups. Shared norms, values and understanding are less concrete than our social networks. They are the unspoken and unquestioned understandings that draw us together and provide the lynchpins of community. Improving social capital is vital if we are to stimulate the local economy. Better networks create opportunities, and better understanding between people engenders trust, together enabling people to work together.
The challenge is that social value typically includes non-financial outcomes and impacts that have traditionally proven difficult to quantify and measure. Outcomes that cannot be quantified cannot be counted or easily evaluated or compared. In a period of industry disruption, with pressures on revenues, this makes it difficult for local journalism to identify, develop, and sustain its role of delivering social and economic benefit.
As a social enterprise, Social Streets is committed to developing a model for local journalism that works for the benefit of community while being financially sustainable and replicable. In an attempt to systematically map the benefits of local journalism, we explore four domains of influence – Culture, Wellbeing, Community, Local economy – and how these might be measured.
While people consume news of one kind or another every day, the inherent effects of this cultural activity are often only tacitly understood.
When local journalism, whether in print, online or in video, delivers thought-provoking cultural content, it resonates with different sections of their community, it fosters a better understanding of people and community, and offers new insights into other cultures and perspectives.
Impact measurement should look at whether content has offered a role model to follow; made readers proud of who they are; exposed people to a new issue, idea, or point of view; or gained new insights into other cultures or types of people.
It is increasingly recognised that cultural and community participation can act as an important health asset, that is to say a resource that enhances the ability of individuals to maintain and sustain health and wellbeing.
These assets can operate at the level of the individual, family, or community as protective and promoting factors to buffer against life’s stresses. The most widely reported benefits include helping people to feel less alone, fostering a more positive mood or outlook, and helping people to cope with everyday challenges.
Impact measurement should look at how local journalism has inspired people to take some action or make a change; made people feel more positive in their mood or outlook; enabled new or stronger relationships with others; and helped make people feel less alone or isolated.
Community resilience is often associated with high levels of social capital. By social capital we refer to the social interactions, trust, and shared standards of behaviour and expectations that enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric.
We must ask ourselves, is a local publication helpful in building a sense of community? Has local journalism encouraged a more positive outlook on where people live and work; has it encouraged people to volunteer or join a good cause?
Attempts are often made to quantify the economic impacts of the arts, cultural and leisure sector to the national economy. Few look at the significance of local journalism to local economies.
Local publications that provide content about local arts, culture, heritage, events and attractions have an impact on the local economy. Local journalism helps put places on the map, attract destination visitors to the area, influence people’s decision to locate or stay in the area, encourage residents to visit the high street, raise awareness of the night time economy, and ultimately boost spending locally.
In summary, local journalism must stay independent, timely and relevant to retain its crucial role in upholding truth and justice. However, by providing news and coverage on local arts, cultural and heritage issues, journalism can also be used as a catalyst for sustaining and developing social capital, community cohesion, heritage assets, and the local economy.
Undoubtedly, data and statistics will be vital tools in helping local journalism adapt to the changing media landscape, helping publishers understand where their audience is, what they are consuming and how they are consuming it. But relying on quantitative evidence alone will bring limited success. Insights into the qualitative impact of journalism is also necessary to understand less tangible factors such as the emotional and social needs of readers and communities, helping us identify the partners, stakeholders and revenue models that will support the new face of local journalism.
Findings from the survey
Social Streets CIC undertook an extensive consultation of local readers to explore the range of beneficial effects that go beyond the role of local journalism as a provider of information. With society increasingly concerned about its collective impact on people and the planet, understanding and acting on the wider social value of journalism will be critical for the successful reinvention of local journalism.
When Social Streets conducted the survey in 2019, it was in a pre-Covid world and findings were to be published just before lockdown. Had the survey conducted the survey in a post-covid world, one in which we have all come to better appreciate living on a more local level, it is likely that the findings would have shown an even stronger correlation between local journalism and community wellbeing.
As it is, the findings reveal that the benefit of local journalism extends well beyond its primary role of upholding truth and ensuring people are informed; it also offers important and measurable benefits in terms of supporting the local economy, strengthening community cohesion, and increasing community spirit and wellbeing.
These results were based on a consultation of 200 readers of our flagship title Roman Road LDN, a publication that serves a population of 40,000 in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in East London, UK. All responses were gathered anonymously. To find out more, see the full report.
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