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Let charities run local newspapers

This week, a group of academics, journalists and charities proposed that charities should run local newspapers.
At the moment, it’s far from clear whether a newspaper can be a charity. Many legal experts think so.

The Charity Commission is sceptical. The new proposals ask the government to make it easier for them to do so.
Providing a local paper ought to be a charitable service, and I hope the sector gets behind the campaign to make it a charitable activity.

I should declare a fairly strong personal interest here. As well as being a Third Sector reporter, I’m also working with other journalists and charity workers to set up a not-for-profit local paper. It’s at an early stage so far, but it’s had a lot of support, and I’d like to explain why I think it’s the right way to go.

Local newspapers, for starters, have a definite public benefit. They provide information about local events, they keep people in touch with local schools, services and charities, and they hold politicians to account.

But they are in crisis. Their traditional sources of funding have dried up and their owners have responded by slashing budgets to the bone.

From personal experience I can tell you that reporters are stuck at their desks, reduced to rewriting press releases because they have so much space to fill they cannot investigate what’s really going on.

To give just one example: my first job as a journalist was on the Billericay and Wickford Express, but my office was in Brentwood, 10 miles away. I spent six months writing about Wickford before I ever visited it.

Communities without a decent local newspaper suffer, because local papers do an important job holding local politicians to account, whether they are selling council land at knock-off rates to developers, or giving planning permission to mega-churches owned by dubious reverends, or forbidding parking wardens from ticketing motorists living in wards where they’re standing for election.

Community organisations could provide local news better and more cheaply than the big national companies, which dominate the scene at the moment.

They have the trust of local people, they are close to the folk on the ground, and they can attract volunteer support. They can be honest, impartial, and representative.

They can provide services more cheaply than a profit-making company because they don’t have the same need for a margin; they can access a lot of services more cheaply than a business; and they can attract grant funding. They may be able to survive where a commercial business would fail.

This idea is a winner. It’s something I’d like to see the sector get behind.

  • James Renton

    “and they can attract grant funding”.

    David, this is the same lime that is given for almost all organisations moving towards charitable status. I can not see a long-list of charitable funders who are anxious to stop giving financial support to their local respite project just so they can give grants to a local newspaper – which would still be competing against privately owned businesses (which are not always nationally owned)?

  • David Ainsworth

    Hi James

    Thanks for your views. You’re right to say that not all local newspapers are nationally owned, and often the locally owned papers are the best. I don’t feel the business of a charitable paper should be to compete with these or any papers which are good at providing news to local people. A charitable paper should address the needs of people where no such service exists.

    There are certainly grant funders who might be interested in backing this idea. However I don’t see grants as the primary funding source. I think in most cases a charitable local newspaper ought to be capable of standing on its own two feet as a surplus-generating business. I would envision grant funding being used to help with start up costs, or conceivably for one-off projects outside a paper’s core activities.