Local media plurality stinks, but democratic owners could revive it

By Media Reform Coalition / Tuesday May 28, 2013 Read More
Last week we published a guest post by Dave Boyle about community ownership of local media – and how communities can take back their newspapers from the giant conglomerates which have so comprehensively abandoned them. Boyle is running a series of free workshops across the country aimed at helping people make this vision a reality. But although Boyle puts financial sustainability at the forefront of his pitch, we want to examine an advantage which might otherwise be only a footnote. We think community ownership structures could offer new kinds of accountability for local media – and thereby fix the grim state of plurality in local media markets. How grim? We use that word advisedly. For a few months now we’ve been working on a report about media ownership in the United Kingdom. One part of this report deals with the plurality of the local media market, analysing circulation figures for daily newspapers in 399 local government areas. From a national perspective it looks like there are at least four big local news providers – although their share of circulation is already dangerously concentrated (in some categories one group holds up to 45%). But at the level of individual areas, where companies actually compete for readers, the picture is dire. 25% of LGAs had no daily local newspaper, and in 68% of them one single company held more than 50% of audience share. In 49% of them that dominance is over 90%; in 36% it is a total monopoly. There was only one LGA in our survey where no company held over 50% of the market. Baldly put: most daily local news markets are dominated by a single company which isn’t even based in the area. There’s no faith in our report that this can be fixed through competition law. We take the stance that campaigning for plurality controls in local media markets would be bolting the stable door long after the horse has bolted – even if those markets were able to sustain more than one newspaper (a contested proposition at best). Instead, we orient our attention towards preventing cross-media concentration. There is a trend for consolidation of radio, TV and newspaper services in one company that we say needs to be halted and reversed. That’s still true – but democratic ownership structures offer an alternative vector for increasing local media plurality. In our national print ownership policy we recommend imposing behavioural obligations on big media companies because we recognise that plurality inside an organisation can compensate for lack of it in the market. Editorial panels composed of working journalists and with influence over major decisions would ensure that the vast power of the company’s market share is not wielded by one pair of hands alone. By the same token, community ownership of local newspapers might be one way to ensure plurality where there’s only room for one. Boyle describes two forms of democratic ownership: employee ownership and reader investment. In the latter model, readers would pay in to the organisation itself in return for the newspaper existing and serving their community; in return, they would have the right to affect major decisions at regular meetings. This would have to be representative rather than direct democracy, because editors need to be able to work quickly and independently in order to be effective. They cannot consult an audience of several thousand for every decision they take. The precise details are doubtless something for communities to decide for themselves – though those looking for advice on what works best could do far worse than attend one of Boyle’s meetings around the country. But even an annual meeting offers more accountability than the fake market democracy peddled by Fleet Street newspapers who claim their readers ‘elect’ them. Moreover, if a paper gets embroiled in uproar or scandal – that age-old, organic accountability mechanism – the opinions of its readers will have far more weight in the proceedings, because they are also shareholders. Our attention may recently (and for good reason) have been focused on the behaviour of the national titles. But we do need to talk about democracy (or lack thereof) at all levels – from national newspapers to local media outlets – and to campaign for the policies and structures that will best deliver meaningful change. The advantage of community ownership, both practically and ethically, is that it requires no government intervention, no top-down control. It can be done by anyone if the will and the help can be found.