Confronted with widespread lack of resources and government measures that hinder press freedom, such as rules targeting digital media in India, three news outlets brought to the table some of the concepts, strategies and practices they are testing with, and in, their communities.
“First: you, as a local outlet, are very different from national legacy media. You can’t replicate what they do,” said Dhanya Rajendran, editor of the Indian outlet The News Minute. When Rajendran founded The News Minute in 2014, she learned that difference the hard way, as the team gradually discarded the breaking news format for a more nuanced feminist coverage.
Rajendran's reminder was only one of the many insights shared at the panel organized by the International Press Institute (IPI) on how local journalism is reshaping itself. The discussion centered on experiences outside the North American and Western European media landscapes, highlighting how these practitioners are seizing opportunities and facing challenges to develop news projects that really engage and serve their communities.
Organized in the framework of the IPI report “Local Media Survival Guide 2022,” which collects insights and case studies of local news outlets in emerging regions, the panel also hosted editors Cheri-Ann James from The Daily Dispatch in South Africa and Ana Carolina Alpirez from Ojoconmipisto (“Watch out for my money”) in Guatemala.
@AnaAlpirez, founder & editor of @_ojoconmipisto in #Guatemala, discusses how her digital media outlet promotes citizen participation & focuses on the accountability of public funds in local areas - which has led to vital tip offs for investigative reporting on corruption. pic.twitter.com/nK8c3YLgUq— IPI-The Global Network for Independent Journalism (@globalfreemedia) April 7, 2022
“Local news is the most disrupted sector in the media ecosystem, but it is also the most exciting, because it’s where innovation is happening,” said Jacqui Park, main author of the report. Here are some insights from the panel:
Local doesn’t (only) mean small-size
The Eastern Cape province of South Africa covered by The Daily Dispatch hosts a population of 6.6 million; The News Minute is based in Bangalore, but reports on five states in southern India, comprising over 200 million people.
At first glance, these sizes would not suggest the idea of “local” – but according to the IPI report, local journalism is defined by the way it serves its community. If a new source is tapping into the needs of a specific group of people, empowering them by listening to their voices, and enabling them with the tools to better understand the world, it can be considered local no matter the size of its audience.
“A local newspaper is a cultural facilitator between citizens and institutions,” said Marianna Bruschi, digital development coordinator at GEDI, Italy, during a separate panel on community building and local news: the ways to do it are as varied as the audiences local news represent.
News with and for your community
Since its launch in 2013 as a digital native news project, Ojoconmipisto has been deeply rooted in communities as a reliable local source on the management of public money across Guatemala. “Big corruption starts from the local level,” said Alpirez, who stressed the importance of involving citizens and local journalists in the same mission.
“We created the portal, guatecompras, where citizens can see documents on the expenses of their municipality. We teach them [how to use these tools] and promote citizen participation, because if they have the information, they can make better decisions,” she added.
Ojoconmipisto also trains rural journalists in data journalism, so that reliable news can be provided to unserved communities and spur civic participation. “Citizens are the ones living in those areas, the ones that know what goes on there,” said Alpirez.
As local media, it is important to be rooted in the social and geographical reality, and identify and listen to one’s audience. In this way, local news platforms can heighten their credibility and build trust within communities. However, especially in countries that possess a high variety of regional languages, this is not enough to break such barriers. “I want very badly to make videos and podcasts in other languages, since a huge amount of the population don’t speak English,” said Rajendran.
“Money is a problem,” she continued. “We cater to five states and there are four languages. We can’t start with one and leave the other three behind.”
Financing local news: surviving or winning?
In recent years, local journalism has proved to be an essential service to counter misinformation and serve unserved communities. Yet, it still struggles to find viable business models that can ensure quality and continuous reporting especially for the ones unable to climb the paywall.
“[Online], we have always given news for free. How do we change people’s minds? That’s when the hyperlocal strategy comes into play: we give them news about them. We are slowly seeing some shifts, but our main revenues still come from advertising,” said James.
However, membership schemes and advertising are not ideal for every community, and local media have had to identify alternative ways of funding their work. For example, alongside their reporting The News Minute organizes training events, partners with NGOs and gives media consultations.
Philanthropy is one of the most common options for local media, which very often survive on grants from foundations, such as Open Society Foundation, the International Center For Journalists and Hivos.
“Ninety percent is covered with international grants, [and] 10% is funded by Laboratorio de Medios, with whom we organize trainings, partnerships and consultancies,” said Alpirez. However, panelists and other media experts agree that relying on grants is not sustainable in the long term. On the other hand, government funding is not often available and when it is, it can be seen as a possible form of editorial control if guardrails aren’t in place.
“Our work doesn’t end with the report. It’s a continuing project aimed at connecting local media around the world to learn from each other. A lot of people are working on their own, and it is essential to share best practices and highlight the many different ways to create innovation and sustainability,” concluded Park.
During a separate panel on media viability, Sameer Padania, director of Microscope Consultancy, reflected on how grants can be part of the solution, but not the solution itself. “The amount of money they give is predicated on survival: do we want to survive or do we want to win?” Padania said. In the fight for independent and community-centered journalism, the answer is clear — merely surviving isn't enough.
The sessions mentioned in the article and all the ones held at the International Journalism Festival are available to watch online here.