Corporate v. Independent media responses to community projects – a case study
How would your local paper respond to an innovative community project?
Say one that teamed up veteran local filmmakers with mentor aspiring local filmmakers, mentoring them to make films about four local charities, with a World Premiere screening in a local cinema?
The budget is £0.00 and it’s all about fostering a sense of community and giving local filmmakers a leg-up.
What if, shortly before launch, the organisers of this ‘unique experiment in community filmmaking’ were to email a press release to two local newspapers.
- Local Paper One (LP1) is an independently-owned monthly, published by volunteers
- Local Paper Two (LP2) is a once-independent, but now corporate-owned, daily
You can stop imagining now, because this recently happened in the UK, where 90% of the surviving local paper titles are now owned by 5 corporate aggomerators.
The project was the pilot of the See Through News community filmmaking project 1 Sunday Morning, 4 Films: doing good in…
The experience was most instructive.
A Tale of Two Local Papers
Before emailing any press release, or more commonly, suggesting a story idea, alerting them to a school event, public lecture etc. etc., you need to find out where to send it. This is what happened with these particular two papers:
- LP1’s website, front and centre on the first page, had a box headed ‘Do You Have A Story?’. Beneath that it reads ‘Send your stories, letters and photos to us at:, with email and postal addresses.
- LP2’s website presented a harder challenge. This was partly because of the ads cluttering every part of the site, partly because the most prominent contact links were for buying advertising space rather than stories tip-offs. The first likely-looking button invited the reader to ‘write an article’, the next to ‘send your pictures’, then ‘send your videos’. Further clicking and scrolling down finally revealed the name and photo of an ‘Audience and Content Editor’, with contact details including an email address.
The community filmmaking project sent its press release to Local Paper 1 and Local Paper 2’s email addresses. It did so in the same email, rather than separately, reckoning this might incite some local rivalry, and create competition to be first to latch onto such a gimme community story suggestion.
The responses from the two local papers were remarkably, and revealingly, different.
- LP1 responded the same day, enthusiastically. The editor praised the project’s strong community ethos, asked for more details, promised prominent coverage in the next edition, and offered to help spread the word locally in the meantime,.
- LP2’s server bounced the email back. The technical blurb was obscure, but the gist appeared to be that the person with the photo on the website no longer worked there, or at any rate the email address provided was no longer valid.
Naming and Shaming
So which local papers are we talking about here? In this case:
- LP1 happened to be The Archer.
- LP2 happened to be the Hendon & Finchley Times.
- The locality happened to be Finchley, north London
- The World Premiere venue happened to be London’s iconic 1938 art-deco The Phoenix Cinema.
We encourage you to find out more about this original and fun pilot project, but that’s not the point here.
What this article seeks to draw your attention to, are the contrasting responses to exactly the same press release by the two titles, one independent, the other corporate-owned.
If you’ve not yet given up on your local paper, have had similar problems contacting them, or are wondering whatever happened to your good old local rag, See Through News has another project for you.
The See Through Newspaper Review Project, ‘a unique media literacy public service project’ explains why corporate owned papers all follow the same business model characterised by fewer journalists, more ads, and more reader- or robot-generated articles.
The Project’s main focus, and unique asset, is its network of inter-connected Facebook Groups, each of whose URLs features the brands of these corporate-owned titles.
The Project’s Review groups offer accessible, fun tips on how to distinguish good ethical local journalism from corporate clickbait.
Anyone is free to post. Groups members are encouraged to praise good examples, and explain what makes them good, but rarely get the chance. Most posts identify bad examples, and explain what makes them bad.
Pilot group The Salisbury Journal Review contains plenty such examples – feel free to join your local paper’s Review group and join in.
The See Through Newspaper Review Project has claimed the Facebook Group URL for virtually every corporate-owned local newspaper title in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Mexico and Japan. To find yours, search Facebook for any corporate-owned title and filter for Groups.
What this case study tells us about corporate ownership of local papers
But let’s return to our Finchley case study. In brief,
- LP1, The Archer, is a ‘proper’ local newspaper. It is a newspaper practising journalism. Finchley is fortunate to have one, as there aren’t many around any more. All independents struggle to make money now so much traffic is online, and Facebook and Google suck up 80% of all online ad revenue.
- LP2, The Hendon & Finchley Times, pretends to be a ‘proper’ local newspaper. More accurately, like 90% of all surviving UK local newspaper titles, it’s a local cog in a corporate clickbait machine. Once independent, the H&F Times is now little more than an advertising platform squeezing the dregs of brand goodwill from what remains of its dwindling pool of readers who remember what it once was.
Their different responses to See Through News’s press release is typical of these two types of local newspaper.
- LP1 is run by local volunteers. It has an online presence, and its print edition is distributed free at local hotspots like The Phoenix. Ads from local businesses cover The Archer’s costs, and most people read the print version. Old School, but it can survive as all the writers are volunteers.
- LP2 is one of more than 200 local titles owned by Newsquest, the biggest of the five conglomerates that own 90% of British local papers. Newsquest in turn is owned by Gannett. Until 2019 Gannet was the 2nd-biggest such conglomerate in America. In 2019 Gannett merged with GateHouse, the number one local news media conglomerate. Gannett and GateHouse are owned by the New Media Investment Group (NMIG).
Any of these names sound familiar? Don’t feel bad, not even the families of NMIG’s board, let alone the good folk of Finchley, have heard of the New Media Investment Group. Yet this New York hedge fund is the great-grandparent of their local newspaper.
The UK’s other local newspaper agglomerators are Reach Media, National World (fomerly JPI Media), Tindle Newspapers and Iliffe.
They all share the same cost-cutting business model. Unsurprisingly, they also share the same frustrating characteristics, such as being appearing to be far keener on seeking your advertising or subscription money than on hearing your local news tips.
Pre-internet, in the days when selling newsprint and the ads in them could fund a couple of dozen local journalists, local newsrooms buzzed. Veteran reporters and ambitious up-and-coming hacks would compete to pick up the phone first, for a chance to be the first to hear a reader’s cracking new lead.
At corporate-owned titles these days, phones ring unanswered and emails get bounced. They’re not really in the news game any more. Where once there were twenty editorial staff in a humming newsroom in the centre of town, now only one or two journalists actually live locally, often newly-qualified and inexperienced, and these days they often work from home.
Being a local hack is not as much fun as it used to be. Time-consuming investigations are long gone, field reporting a rarity. Even making a couple of calls to get some quotes and local colour are no longer the norm.
The few remaining reporters are saddled with ever-increasing daily story quotas. Their only way to hit their targets is to trawl social media, recycle any tidbits with a byline, or cut-and-paste press releases from advertisers, still adding a byline.
Local Journalists Replaced by Cheaper Ads, Robots & User-Generated Content
Corporate-owned local paper editors, also overworked and often covering more than one title, also have to meet ever more demanding quotas.
As our pilot group, the Salisbury Journal Review demonstrates, corporate-owned local papers routinely cut-and-paste their advertisers press releases, stick an employee byline and photo on them, and publish them as ‘news articles’.
We also demonstrate how to spot Robot-Written articles, another cost-cutting way of filling all those pages once written by professional, locally-based journalists.
Their other stock-in-trade, increasingly, is User Generated Content, or UGC as the trade jargon has it.
UGC means stories you and I write for them. That’s why they ask you to ‘write a story’ rather than ‘send a story idea’, and want to publish your (free) photos and videos under their brand.
Such inside-baseball nerdery is invisible to ordinary readers. Corporates don’t want to publicise the fact that local rags are now corporate-owned. That would make it harder to pretend they’re still practising journalism rather than advertising.
The See Through Newspaper Review Project seeks to explain this to the general public in accessible and entertaining ways. Its Review groups act as critical friends, celebrating good local journalism wherever it happens, as well as pointing out the bad stuff.
Fewer people read local papers these days. Some are shocked to learn the details of the scale of the corporate takeover, but few are surprised at the general trend. We’ve all seen the proliferation of ads, and the diminution of local news, over the years.
Regular readers may not be familiar with jargon like ‘UGC’, but they know there’s less and less to distinguish their local paper’s content from the Internet in general, and local Facebook Groups in particular.
Some places are fortunate to have bright sparks like The Archer, ducking and diving to operate as local independents. But they all struggle to deal with the post-Internet economic realities.
When Facebook and Google suck up the lion’s share of online advertising revenue, there’s not much left to pay proper professional journalists to follow up good local stories.