We're currently working with 20 grantees on the Future News Pilot Fund, a programme to help strengthen public interest news through innovation, particularly at the local level. As the world deals with the outbreak of COVID-19, we look at how our grantees are continuing to deliver high-quality news through the pandemic.
If the current climate has taught us anything it’s that we rely upon high quality and accurate news to help us keep up to date with volatile and ever-changing situations. Number 10 themselves have given journalists ‘key worker’ status to report on COVID-19 and over the past weeks, we’ve seen the importance of media disseminating and challenging the guidance set out by the Government to help citizens navigate the new normal.
Rewind a few months and we were just getting started with the Future News Pilot Fund, a programme supporting innovation happening in public interest news, particularly at the local level. Working with a diverse group of organisations made up of not for profits, tech companies and independent newspapers, the programme aimed to fund and support projects tackling two pressing areas; reimagining engagement with underserved communities and finding new ways to financially sustain news.
Then came the lockdown….
As an industry that was already in a precarious position before COVID-19, many of our grantees are now facing the contradictory and unique position of being a vital actor during this period with readership levels and appetite for information higher than ever and yet as an industry, facing huge losses of revenue with no clear route back to stability.
We’ve put together some insights and challenges we’ve observed to try to capture how our grantees and the wider sector are navigating and continuing to not only operate, but to innovate at this time.
Many projects on the pilot fund were aiming to break down barriers between the newsroom and audiences, bringing in diverse voices to tell their stories in a bid to make news more reflective of society. A number of projects involved being physically present in the community - bringing the newsroom to hard to reach voices. Whilst COVID-19 has put a stop to in-person events, the transition to online has presented some opportunity to tap into a wider audience than a real life event might afford. With organisations like Tortoise opening up their platforms and events to larger audiences, they are hearing from a wider range of voices which further shapes the topics they report on and the angle they approach their reporting from.
Similarly, Economy, whose original plan was to hold pop up events focusing on finding a common language to speak about economic issues in Birmingham, have switched to talk to communities across the whole country, tackling some of the pressing economic issues that are due to come out of the current crisis. They’ve been seeking out the hard to reach audiences through a network of community and charitable organisations, helping individuals understand more clearly how they are impacted by what’s going on.
There are also some projects who are having surprising success engaging with audiences online they thought they would struggle to engage with at all. Shout Out, who are delivering online newsrooms and media literacy courses, are having great success engaging with youth groups across the country - through the help of dedicated youth workers - something they had thought might not be possible through online engagement. And Hashtag Our Stories have found their AR storytelling tools are helping communities have a voice at such a difficult time, training communities over video calls.
Although ‘going digital’ does not even the playing field, given there are those who are still lacking access to the hardware needed to access online services, we are seeing some instances of it breaking down some geographical barriers and offering different opportunities for participation.
The sector was already in financial distress before COVID-19 and this has only been heightened by the current situation. The lockdown has brought with it huge losses in advertising revenue for all types of media, with newspapers alone set to lose up to £50m in online advertising due to the crisis.
All of our grantees are facing immense pressures and being forced to make very tough decisions. Some are finding that their diverse approach to income streams, through mixed models of membership support and philanthropic funding, is helping to weather the storm. Those with membership models have anecdotally told us they are, at the moment, continuing to to be supported by their membership base, especially those working in closer communities like the Bristol Cable.
Furthermore, Axate, who are working with local publishers to provide casual payments for news articles, are trying out their ‘Pay if you can’ model and working with local publishers to understand their needs at this difficult financial time. Their learnings will hopefully feed into wider conversations about how platforms and tech companies can work with the media sector to provide a service that is financially viable and beneficial to all of those involved.
As the financial recovery begins for the sector, we believe the media sector will have to experiment with different models of generating income, sparking a new era of innovating around financial sustainability. We hope that the ideas and organisations we have been supporting through the pilot fund will be influential in demonstrating what is and isn’t possible in terms of new business models for news.
When things begin to settle down and we go back to 'normal', there is an understanding that society as a whole will start to view functions differently, whether it's how we class ‘key workers’ or our relationship with work. We believe the same will happen with the media sector, allowing the public to view the function with more respect and understanding of the role they play in providing trustworthy, high quality information at such a critical time.
As for the pilot fund, we will continue to work with and support our grantees during this difficult time and to share the learnings of innovation with wider stakeholders and the government. Bringing together voices is important during this period and we hope to facilitate and engage with the sector going forward to ensure Nesta can help to support this important part of our democracy.