Can Universities Save Local Journalism?

The Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), Jeremy Hunt is advocating the greatest change in the local media landscape for a generation. His proposals for a network of local TV stations have been much debated since he outlined his vision at the Oxford Media Convention in 2011.

“For consumers, what this will mean is a new channel dedicated to the provision of local news and content…… that will sit alongside other public service broadcasters, offering a new voice for local communities with local perspectives that are directly relevant to them.”


………People in Barnham don’t want to watch what is going on in Southampton. People in Helmsford aren’t interested in what’s happening in Watford.  That is the system we currently have at the moment, so that is what we are trying to rethink.”


The plans are well underway, with the first 20 licences to be awarded in 2012. So is this saviour of local media, or a costly white elephant, delivering a service on an out of date platform, to an audience which doesn’t exist?

The first question is over money, can local TV finance itself on the budget it’s been given. There are serious concerns about this. Sir Nicholas Shott, the investment banker, asked to look into the initial proposals, raised a number of points in his 2010 report.

“Local TV is unlikely to be viable if it is dependent on local advertising revenues alone.  The agreement already in place with the BBC will be helpful in both providing an additional source of revenue and ensuring an adequate level of quality.  In addition, the Government may need to help facilitate access to national advertising revenue through an existing agency that has a significant existing inventory – for example a national PSB.  An underwritten national advertising contract of £15m per annum for at least the first three years will be required to have confidence in commercial viability”


These concerns remain in 2012 as the BBC’s Torin Douglas outlines


“The big issue is how local TV will be paid for….Jeremy Hunt has found it hard to convince established media companies that local TV is viable without Government funding – but groups in these 20 cities think it can be made to work…..Some set-up costs will be paid for out of the licence fee – £40m was earmarked for local TV in the latest settlement with the BBC….But beyond this, Mr Hunt has made it clear the services must be self-sustaining, funded by advertising…..Mr Hunt says: “Local TV providers will need to produce quality content that people want to watch, which in turn will make it attractive to advertisers.” That is easier said than done, as ITV and local radio companies are finding. The Government says the local services must be given “appropriate prominence” on the electronic programme guide, to make it easy for viewers to find their local station……


The second question is the method of delivery. At the moment the plans are to start broadcasting on Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), with the channels having a prominent position on the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). There are again many concerns about this; the cost of set up and broadcasting, the quality needed to compete with other channels and the onset of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). Almost all commentators believe IPTV can be part of the future for local TV, but at the moment are there enough people watching this platform to make it viable.

I have some experience of setting up just this type of service. I helped to run the BBC Local TV pilot in the West Midlands in 2005/2006.

Six TV stations were established; in Birmingham, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Coventry and Warwickshire and the Black Country. We put a team of video-journalists and content producers into each local BBC radio station in the region. They were an integral part of the news team, producing video content for the local area. We broadcast on two platforms; online and on digital satellite.

One of the things we realised at a very early stage was the future was not on satellite, it was online.

Many of the problems we faced were tied into producing the daily news bulletins for the satellite loop. It was far from ideal. We had the six stations on a continuous, hour long loop. Each service had to provide a news bulletin every day of exactly ten minutes. This caused obvious problems. Sometimes there was too much news, sometimes too little, either way it rarely fitted into the prescribed ten minute slot. It also meant the audience had to tune in at a specific time to watch their news. They wanted it on demand, when they wanted to watch, not when we decided to broadcast.

The simple fact was the content we produced; local, interactive material, fitted more elegantly as a multimedia, online offering, which people could read, see and listen to when it suited them.

There is still a great deal the current bids for local TV can learn from the BBC pilot.

Central to the idea is the need for a strong robust local media, holding power to account, acting as a genuine local fourth estate. BBC local radio and local and regional papers continue to do this largely, but it does need to be supported. The effect of falling revenues and tighter budgets inevitably mean the traditional forms of local journalism are under pressure.

The local TV pilot added another level to local news coverage. It was new, exciting and did a fantastic job. News was at the heart of everything we did and we made it a key point to cover local politics on TV to a greater extent than the BBC had done before.

On the night of the May council elections in 2006, we had reporters at every count, reporting on all the stories as they came in. Because of the format we were able to react to stories, and get them on air faster and more effectively than traditional TV. We had the freedom to put content on air and online around the clock, providing the audience with the very latest news in a multimedia format.

We didn’t have the constraints faced by existing TV teams. We didn’t have to work towards a deadline or bulletin. People were able to access our output 24 hours a day seven days a week.

On the night of the elections we were able to put the first video report online just after 1am, five hours and a half hours before the first Midlands Today bulletin. By six o’clock in the morning we had a full roundup of the main events of the election, reports from every count in the region, this was a comprehensive service which couldn’t have been done before and hasn’t since. For the first time BBC TV was able to report on the most important events at the grassroots of local democracy.  And there was a demand for this service too. That night we recorded the highest audience figures of the pilot, evidence there was a need and demand.

As well as championing local democracy, media literacy was a key focus. Each service had a content producer. It was their job to work with local communities, allowing new voices the chance to be heard. By the end of the project they were producing a quarter of the output. This was an ambitious target, but one that was achieved. It gave under served communities access to the BBC and a far wider audience.

All of this is central to the ethos behind the current push for local TV; media literacy, connecting communities, serving local audiences in a digital age, and the scrutiny of local democracy.

The pilot proved to be just that, a pilot project. For a number of reasons it wasn’t pursued by the BBC. It became the focus of a well orchestrated campaign by the local and regional papers and other media organisations. They claimed the BBC was encroaching on their fast decreasing market. The area of local, multimedia news online was their future and they didn’t want the BBC parking its metaphorical tanks on their lawns.

After a long period of consultation and analysis, the BBC Trust decided not to go ahead.

Six and a half years after the pilot began we are still to see a comprehensive network providing high quality, multimedia coverage of local news.

Obviously if the plans outlined by Jeremy Hunt can be funded and run appropriately this will meet the need. But are we missing an opportunity to create a plural local media using expertise, talent and resources which already exist?

Journalism schools at Universities across the country are already working – albeit individually and on a relatively small scale – with local blogs and communities. Staff and students at Newcastle University help run Jesmondlocal

What makes JESMONDLOCALNE2 different?…… 


While most hyperlocal services are run by enthusiastic amateurs, JesmondLocal is edited by   Ian Wylie, a professional journalist with more than 20 years’ experience in national newspapers and magazines, supported by journalism students from Newcastle University and local “citizen reporters” from the Jesmond community.”



Students and staff at Goldsmiths, University of London have been running EastLondonLines since 2009.


The University of Huddersfield – Oldham Campus, has just taken over running the widely renowned Saddleworth News. This is the handover blog by its creator Richard Jones.


I announced a few weeks ago that Saddleworth News was going to become part of the Digital Journalism course at University Campus Oldham, part of the University of Huddersfield. Well, it’s now time for the handover to take place.

Articles by the students will begin to appear here in the coming days and weeks. I hope you’ll show them the same courtesy and encouragement that you’ve shown me!…..

…….This is the 2,110th and last article that I’ve posted here since Saddleworth News began in February 2010. I’ve enjoyed writing every one, and they will all remain here as an archive. I’m getting back into work as a journalist and lecturer, but I’ll still be living in Saddleworth…’


Blog Preston was set up by a student at the University of Central Lancashire, it’s a fantastic illustration of how local blogs can evolve and live longer than the passion of one person.

“…..It is owned by Ed Walker, who now lives and works in London, it was edited between January 2010 – May 2010 by Lisa McManus. It was edited by Andy Halls and Joseph Stashko between May 2010 and May 2011. 


Andy has now left Preston but Joseph keeps the Blog Preston flame burning. The editorial team currently consists of Ed Walker and Joseph Stashko.


Plus there are a whole host of guest bloggers, photographers and interested members of the community who contribute to the site…..”



The community radio station Siren Radio operates in conjunction with the University of Lincoln. One of many such community radio stations in the UK.

“Siren FM is proud to be Lincoln’s first community radio station and has been broadcasting since 11th August 2007.  We aim to make radio accessible to all and especially those aged between 9 – 25 in the Lincoln area.  Since our opening 3 years ago we’ve developed a wide range of programmes and we broadcast something like 60 hours of locally produced material a week.

We have a full time licence from Ofcom and therefore we’re a proper radio station broadcasting on 107.3 FM and

Although we’re based at the University, who have provided some of the best studio facilities in the area, we are not a student radio station; we are very much a community station and our doors are open to all.”


Salford University is launching a multimedia local news service called Quay News and Grimsby TV, the longest running local TV station in the UK operates from studios at Grimsby College.  There are many more examples of this as well as the numerous student TV and radio stations at Universities and Colleges throughout the country.

This theory is nothing new, many people have already seen the potential of linking up with Universities.  Channel 6, the body bidding to run a number of the local TV services, announced a partnership with journalism schools in 2011.

A TV channel set up with the aim of delivering local TV services across the UK has signed partnership deals with two universities.

Channel 6 has signed agreements with Sunderland and Cardiff universities which could see their journalism students working on local TV services launched in the cities.

Under the deal, the universities’ studios and production facilities could be used to create local TV programmes, while Channel 6 is also in talks with Skillset Media Academies about partnerships with more than 20 other colleges and universities……..

…….Channel 6 chief executive Richard Horwood said: “Universities like Sunderland and Cardiff and the Skillset Media Academies have state-of-the-art studios and production facilities, highly motivated students, and well-qualified graduates.

“Many of them are already in the forefront of developing plans for local TV in their areas. They are key local partners, and we are looking forward to collaborating with them.

“We are also talking to other institutions, and welcome interest from any media school keen to get involved.”

Professor Richard Tait, director of the Centre for Journalism Studies at Cardiff University, said: “We are very happy to be working with Channel 6.

“It’s always exciting to be involved in something new in journalism – particularly a project of this scale and ambition. We share Channel 6′s belief that the leading journalism schools have much to contribute to the creation of local TV in the UK.”


The examples and proof are there. University supported local media can thrive, but to really work on a wide and sustainable level it needs to be done in a more concerted and co-ordinated manner. The plans by Channel 6 appear to be something close to this, but they rely on the structure of local TV, set out by the DCMS, an expensive network of conventional TV channels.

Why does this network need that? Why is it not already being done?

We can take the lead, as so often in this field, from across the pond. I’ve long admired the way in which journalism schools in the United States have combined teaching, with practical and often groundbreaking journalism. Just look at the work of Jay Rosen at New York University and Emily Bell at Columbia University in New York.

Now journalism schools in the states are leading the way again, in local news. Like the examples I’ve mentioned above there are already close links between the journalism schools in the states and local news organisations. But unlike the UK there is a concerted and financially supported attempt to do this in a more structured way.

A report, by the New America Foundation, has called for Journalism Schools in the States to fill the void of local news, by engaging with the communities which already exist, to provide a new form of news and information. It sets out the ways this can be done and how it can be properly resourced and funded.


“1. Journalism education programs at universities and colleges should increase coverage of local communities outside the university or college in conjunction with local media. 

2. The media industry should make a stronger financial commitment to supporting innovative thinking, research, and curriculum development in the journalism field; 

3. Local community foundations should engage by providing funds to support community media outlets through journalism programs; and 

  1. The federal government should consider the myriad of ways, both monetary and policy-wise, that it can encourage journalism programs to take on this role especially through grants from Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support journalism schools producing local content…..”


So why is this approach happening in the states and not here? Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust, thinks it’s down to a different, more innovative and imaginative attitude to local news. He believes US local news is leagues ahead of the UK, due to a traditional of experimentation there and conservatism here.

He cites a number of examples, including the work of the respective universities.


Role of universities in hothousing and nourishing start-ups…..


…….Many US universities have, for many years, published highly professional local newspapers and news outlets. This has broadened and deepened since the crisis in local news kicked in. Some college news outlets, like the University of Miami’s Grand Avenue News, have formed partnerships with commercial newspapers (in this case the Miami Herald). Some have developed news outlets and then sold them off to outside news companies (as with Montana University’s Dutton County Courier to the Choteau Acantha newspaper). Others have won awards for their investigative journalism (like from Chicago’s Columbia College). All these examples are taken from J-Lab’s excellent research on What Works. There are many more……..


Introverted universities 


……..Similarly, though most universities have a university newspaper (and sometimes more than one), most of these are for and about the university, rather than for the wider community. Nor have many journalism departments sought to incubate, or launch, actual news startups. There are exceptions, of course. Goldsmiths College in London launched, an independent news website serving Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Croydon. But there is nothing on the scale or ambition of media ventures at US universities…….”




There have already been calls for universities save local media. Prof David Chittick of Lincoln University argued in 2009 that universities had a significant role to play.  He said, with falling the revenues of local papers, they had a duty to ensure that a strong local media survives, by supporting them.


“We wouldn’t want to fetter editorial. The danger is that the medium might disappear. It’s not just a matter of influencing the local population, but ensuring that there is the ability to debate issues locally.

“We don’t always have a good press, but it is absolutely crucial to have a local press.”



There’s little doubt a strong, successful, vibrant and diverse local media can thrive in the UK. The examples are already there, shown by the success of a whole range of grassroots local blogs.  (You can see the full spectrum on Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog.)

But they need support and there is a fairly simple solution.

If you can combine hyperlocal blogs with journalism schools you can have a formidable network. Local blogs would get the means to add a whole new dimension to the local media landscape.  Teams of student journalists, able to cover the local news online in text, video and audio. The most fantastic resources; cameras, editing facilities and studios and databases are available. Why not use them to become a key part of the local media, broadcasting to a far wider audience than classmates or the rest of the university.

As well as daily news, listings and information, live events could be covered; festivals, local sport and concerts streamed online. The opportunities are huge.

It would give students the invaluable experience of working in a real life news environment, a showcase for their material and the chance to put into practice what they’re learning in the classroom.

There are hundreds of journalism and media courses at colleges across the UK with thousands of students, more than enough to create a sustainable service, in and out of term time.  If you add this to existing services, local media’s future could look very bright indeed.

Journalism continues to be at the heart of BBC local radio, even in the face of tighter budgets, there has been investment in local political reporters and plans to introduce chief news reporters.  Albeit far reduced from its heyday, there remains a strong network of regional and local papers, providing news and journalism.

So with all of this potential, is there really a need for the government’s vision of Local TV.  Why risk tens of millions of pounds setting up expensive TV stations which may or may not have an audience.

We know that grassroots local journalism is working, it already exists, why not invest the money in services we know can work. Creating a platform and network that people can easily access, where and when they want, using new technology to develop it on desktop, IPTV, mobiles and tablets, making sure the content is relevant, questioning and of a high quality.

By using the skills, enthusiasm and resources already there, surely that vibrant, strong, plural local media can emerge with Universities playing a central role.