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Indie news publishers call for Scottish Government support to help local news thrive

Over 80 people turned out for the first Scottish Beacon public event, exploring the topic of the future of local journalism in Scotland's communities.

On 7 June, over 80 people from across Scotland and beyond gathered in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket Community Project to mark the UK’s first ever Indie News Week. The event was hosted by The Scottish Beacon – an awarding winning collective of 24 independent, community-based news outlets. 

They came from a variety of backgrounds and organisations: freelance journalists mingled with independent publishers and trade unionists shared a stage with community activists and researchers. But each was there with a common purpose: to celebrate independent local and community-based news and to explore how to safeguard its future. 

Indie News Week is an initiative by the Public Interest News Foundation designed to celebrate and highlight independent news outlets within their communities and beyond. Under the banner of ‘No News Is Bad News’, 45 publishers across the UK took part in local events between 3rd and 9th June. 

Scottish Beacon founder Rhiannon Davies and PINF’s Head of Advocacy Hani Barghouthi opened Friday’s event by telling attendees about the campaign, with Bargouthi noting that recent years had been difficult for independent publishers like those in the Scottish Beacon, but that they continue to “offer a truly invaluable service to the communities they serve.”

It was a sentiment echoed by keynote speaker Richard Leonard MSP, who used his remarks to explore the relationship between media ownership and local power, noting that many large companies who dominate Scotland’s local news landscape “are answerable first and foremost to shareholders and not to communities.”

“In my view this reflects a quite concerning concentration of power,” he said. “This unequal distribution of wealth, ownership and power is not an accident or natural order and it can be challenged. Many people in this room today are challenging it”

Leonard went on to call for the Scottish Government to establish a support fund to help democratise media ownership: “these are local assets and they should be located in the communities they serve,” he said. 

Panel on independent news chaired by Jill Keegan, with Julian Calvert, Amanda Eleftheriades-Sherry & Phyllis Stephen
Panel on independent news chaired by Jill Keegan, with Julian Calvert, Amanda Eleftheriades-Sherry & Phyllis Stephen

Community publishers themselves made similar points throughout the day, including in a panel discussion on the value of local news for Scotland’s communities. Scottish Beacon members Phyllis Stephen of the Edinburgh Reporter, Julian Calvert from Lochside Press, and Amanda Eleftheriades-Sherry from Clydesider magazine discussed their routes into starting up independent publications as well as the challenges and barriers they faced. The panel was chaired by Jill Keegan of The Scottish Community Alliance.

Each highlighted the need for increased government support, both financial and to level the playing field with large corporations: “The magazine could fill itself several times over; the challenge is bringing in the money to keep it going,” said Eleftheriades-Sherry, while Calvert noted the huge influence of tech giants and that it was “impossible to keep up when they keep changing the rules.” Stephen highlighted the specific issue of independent publications being blocked from statutory advertising and called on the government to “think positively about publications like ours having access to that”.

A Q&A with journalist and author Jen Stout about her new book, Night Train To Odesa, saw Stout share many stories and insights from her time reporting in Ukraine. As well as telling journalist Devon McCole about how her roots as a local journalist in Shetland had prepared her for war reporting by equipping her with key skills, experience and confidence, she made a plea for international reporting to be truly valued: “Scotland is a country that claims to have an internationalist outlook but there are very few foreign correspondents here now.” 

Panel on diversifying the news with Gabriella Bennet, Juliana da Penha and Talat Yaqoob
Panel on diversifying the news with Gabriella Bennet, Juliana da Penha and Talat Yaqoob

In a panel on diversifying the news, Talat Yaqoob from Pass The Mic summed up one of the panelists’ key messages when she said “who is in the room reflects what the news is”. Yaqoob spoke alongside Gabriella Bennett from Women in Journalism Scotland and Juliana da Penha from Migrant Women Press, with each discussing their project’s roots and challenges, and how attendees could play their part in diversifying the media, from ensuring a diverse range of voices in stories of all kinds to giving up power within their own newsrooms and organisations. 

The afternoon opened with two short talks. The first was from Alex Kocic from the News Futures 2035 project who presented findings from the project in which 300 thought leaders spent a year thinking about securing public interest news in the future, emphasising high standards of ethical conduct and accessibility for the public, “who [should be able] to recognise its authorship, understand it, and assess for themselves its benefits.” Next, Michael Macleod of the Edinburgh Minute  discussed his newsletter project the Edinburgh Minute, explaining that it emerged from a need for an alternative to clickbait and algorithmic content, and is now growing into other cities including Glasgow and London. 

A panel exploring the need for a Scottish Public Journalism Institute (SPJI) followed, where the call for more government support was heard clearly. Richard Walker, founder of the National and Sunday National, appeared alongside columnist and critic Joyce MacMillan, and co-founder of The Ferret, Rachel Hamada. Together they discussed what the media should be for and the progress of a working group exploring a potential SPJI, with all in agreement that more support is needed to sustain quality journalism and that public money should be seen as a legitimate way to fund it. 

They answered concerns that some had about whether the state should have a hand in funding media by pointing to successful examples from other countries where subsidies already exist in different forms without issues – including a £200,000 fund made available by the Welsh government to help strengthen local journalism,

Rachel Hamada highlighted how the project is currently stalled: “We think the institute has the potential to be a hub for all sorts of initiatives – providing training, doing research, building media literacy. But it’s quite difficult for us to reach the next steps without having some kind of seed or pipeline funding… even just a few thousand pounds to employ someone to do a piece of work looking into applying for funding could get it off the ground.”

Workshop led by the Local Storytelling Exchange on behaviour change through storytelling
Workshop led by the Local Storytelling Exchange on behaviour change through storytelling

There were also workshops happening simultaneously during the afternoon. The first, led by Clare Harris, Scotland lead for the Local Storytelling Exchange covered how solutions journalism can be used to create behaviour change when it comes to sustainable practice. The second took participants through the basics of fact checking, led by Alastair Brian of the Ferret Fact Service. And the final workshop covered how those working in PR and communications could better work with the media to get their stories heard. 

Throughout the day, attendees shared their ideas about the threats and opportunities for journalism on flipcharts around the space. These were explored in an interactive session to end the day, with discussions about the dangers of AI, funding, media ownership and disinformation as well as opportunities like community newsrooms such as those run by Scottish Beacon members; potential government funding; taxation and the possibility of independent publishers filling the space left by reduced legacy media. 

Attendees were also invited to help build a ‘Citizens Agenda’ for general election coverage by answering the question: ‘What do you want candidates to be speaking about as they compete for votes?’. The responses to this question will be turned into a set of answers that will be put to parliamentary candidates by participating Scottish Beacon partners. You can have your say by filling in this short form. 

After six main sessions, three workshops, and a busy and thought-provoking day, Scottish Beacon founder Rhiannon Davies closed the event by thanking sponsor (Local Storytelling Exchange, Women in Journalism Scotland and the Corra Foundation) and asking people what actions they would take to support and sustain Scotland’s independent local news sector. There were ideas put forward for partnerships with local libraries for pop up newsrooms, and discussion of how to create a Scotland forum for those who cared about these issues. The funding issue once again came to the fore, with many committing to support their local news publishers to keep going.