10 Nov 2009

Challenges for local newspapers

I came across an interesting opinion piece in the UK guardian this morning by George Monbiot. The Guardian's website has been running a series of articles on the decline of local newspapers in the UK and the consequences this can have for local democracy, but Monbiot (as usual) raises some challenges.

In particular, he highlights how rare it is for existing local newspapers to act as genuine force for local government accountability by speaking truth to power. Monbiot being Monbiot, he probably only defines truth as anti-capitalist views and power as multi-national corporations, but his basic point is useful: that simple economics makes it difficult for private sector local media to challenge local vested interests, whether in government or the provate sector. Can a local newspaper dare to undermine its own advertising revenues by joining a campaign against a new supermarket (as in his case) or by challenging a case of corruption involving local political and business elites. Elite-capture is pretty much guaranteed.

There are examples of news organisations designed to be neither state-run nor profit-oriented. The BBC is the most famous example, but the (UK) Guardian newspaper itself is another. The BBC gets a form of public subsidy through TV licenses and the Guardian is run on a non-profit basis, owned by a Trust. It must be possible to take something of these examples and develop a model of local media that funded from a more divserse range of sources and therefore less dependent on advertising revenue from a small pool of potential advertisers.

Subsidies would be the obvious answer (with public interest content being subsidised, or similar), but a franchise/syndication model could also potentially bring in national advertisers to reduce dependence on local elites. Watch this space to see how Daraja's approach to this problem, under the working title of Twende Pamoja, develops.