This week Orkney Today announced it was closing. The paper, which served the small islands of Orkney just off the Scottish coast, was — like countless other local papers — battling against declining circulation and disappearing ad revenues. “Orkney Media Group management and the newspaper’s excellent staff have tried a number of initiatives to reverse the fortunes of the newspaper,” the paper reported, “but to no avail.”

If the news industry as a whole isn’t exactly the picture of good health, local news is in the emergency room. News problems at a national level — falls in circulation, and collapse in classified and advertising revenues — are acute at a local level.

This has serious political implications, particularly in terms of who acts as the democratic watchdog, which is why this concerns not only news bosses but also politicians.

“We are concerned that … the problems in the local media industry are leading to a scrutiny gap,” read a report, Future for Local and Regional News, from the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport.

Defining Local

The problem is, when thinking about what to do about it, how do you define local? For Orkney Today this was pretty easy. It served a clearly defined geographic area — the Orkney isles — that is run by the Orkney local council, and that has a long established sense of community. But what about places that aren’t surrounded by sea, that don’t have a single local authority, and may not have such a long established sense of community?

This isn’t an academic question. In political — i.e. public policy — terms how you define local will determine what you do and how you do it. How can a government, for example, even consider direct or indirect subsidies, for example, without knowing who to give them to and what parameters to set?

Boil it down and you can probably define “local” in three different ways: Politically, economically, or socially. (I’m deliberately ignoring random geographic boundaries even though that’s how regional broadcast news appears to be defined right now). The way you choose to define local then has fundamental implications for the type of journalism you end up with.

If you’re in government you’re probably most worried about the health of democracy and so it makes logical sense to define “local” in political terms — i.e. at the ward level, or the local authority or county council boundary, or the constituency. This way you highlight the watchdog role of journalism. You make clear that, as a society, you believe in the idea of a “Fourth Estate” — a section of society whose role it is to scrutinize local politics, uncover corruption, and tell truth to power.

The problem with this is that political boundaries don’t necessarily make economic sense or correspond to what people think of as local. Take my ward in England, called “Kingham, Rollright and Enstone.” I don’t live in Kingham, Rollright or Enstone, I live just outside Chipping Norton. So a news service called The Kingham, Rollright and Enstone Times wouldn’t seem very relevant to me. On top of which my ward is pretty spread out (it’s rural) and there are only about 4,000 people in it in total. That’s too few for most professional news organizations to bother with, unless they can get costs close to nil.

Because if you’re a news organization then while you’re thinking about local politics you’re also thinking economics. You have to be if you’re going to survive. You have to think about how many eyeballs you need to make enough revenue via circulation, subscriptions, classifieds, etc. You’re making a calculation that, say, you need to sell 10,000 print copies a week to get by. With 10 percent penetration that means you need to serve an area of about 100,000 people. Multiply the numbers considerably for bigger publications or for broadcast. But the problem with an economic definition of local is that it’s unlikely to match the public’s perception.

If you’re a member of the public then local probably means your street, your neighborhood, your town. What the news industry likes to call hyper-local. As a participant in a recent Birmingham focus group said, “If it’s not within a 10 mile radius, it’s not local news as far as I’m concerned … it might as well be national.” That quote comes from “Meeting the News Needs of Local Communities,” a research report released this month by Media Trust. News at this level is great for building community cohesion and for making people feel a part of a bigger society, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but volunteers and non-profits providing it in a sustainable way.

Recipe for Success

That’s why it’s so hard for a government, or a news organization, to know what to do. You can’t create this sort of genuine hyper-local news service from the top down. Neither the government nor a news organization can direct the public to produce news about where they live. This sort of news has to be from the ground up. It has to be participatory. It has to be by and for the local community.

Which is why the local news organizations/co-operatives/forums most likely to work are those that start from the bottom, and that build participation, collaboration, mutualization, and partnerships into their DNA. This is very hard indeed for legacy news organizations to do. And it means that the best a government can do is to create a framework in which people are able to fill the vacuum being left by the disappearance of local news, rather than trying to subsidize the existing industry or provide top-down direct support.