Written evidence submitted by the Charitable Journalism Project
To: House of Commons Digital, Culture and Sport Committee inquiry into the Sustainability of Local Journalism
From: George Brock (Chair) on behalf of the Charitable Journalism Project
This submission addresses the third of the five questions listed in the terms of reference: ‘How can the Government support local news outlets to develop sustainable business models?’
The Charitable Journalism Project (formerly and briefly the Public Benefit Journalism Research Centre) was founded in 2019 by a group of editors, lawyers, funders of journalism and academics concerned about the future of journalism. The CJP’s purpose is to conduct and encourage research, inquiry and debate on ways to support non-profit, public interest journalism which is the bedrock of healthy democracy. The business model of local and community journalism is most threatened by the shift from print to online and the resulting loss of advertising income. Our argument for a more open and understanding approach to charitable status for newsrooms which are willing to apply for it was set out most fully in evidence to a recent House of Lords committee inquiry. The aim of this submission is to underline that the government can help to bring about this change of approach.
One reputable survey found a net loss of 265 newspaper titles in the UK between 2005 and 2020. Britain very probably now has fewer local papers than at any time since the 18th century. It is difficult to separate the job losses caused by the long structural crisis in mainstream publications and losses from Covid, but one analyst predicted that the combined effects might lead the disappearance of 5,000 jobs – roughly one-third of journalism’s UK workforce. The potential reduction in the number of journalists gives a clue not just to the closures of titles but to what is probably an even larger issue: the ‘hollowing out’ of local newsrooms which no longer have the resources or experience to produce effective reporting. This leaves an alarming gap for less reliable sources of information.
The CJP has commissioned Dr Steven Barclay to conduct research on ‘news deserts’ in a variety of locations across the UK to look more closely at the effects of what is already a widespread weakening of local journalism. His research is not yet complete, but focus groups and interviews in places such as Trowbridge, Lewisham, Whitby and Devon have already highlighted three aspects of the decay of local news:
There is one solution to these problems which gets little discussion but which requires no new law and no cost to the taxpayer: allowing providers of quality journalism to register as charities. This is a ‘minimal intervention’ which could have large effects in meeting the information needs of communities all over Britain.
When Dame Frances Cairncross published her review ‘A Sustainable Future for Journalism’ in 2019, she took the view that widening the access to charitable status was, while very desirable, unlikely to happen. She suggested that the government consider establishing a fund, held at arm’s length from political decision-making, to develop and sustain quality journalism.
We respectfully disagree with Dame France’s pessimism. The crisis in journalism has only grown worse in the last three years. We see little realistic prospect that the government will act on Dame Frances’s proposal for a new funding agency.
We do not know how many local newsrooms, well established or newly started, might want to take advantage of charitable status. Some will not want to; some would not qualify. But we believe that the number may be large enough to make a significant difference. A rising number of experienced professional journalists who have lost their jobs could be galvanised into starting a new enterprise with the help of philanthropic benefactors. An injection of charitable money could generate a new generation of innovative journalism entrepreneurs.
We are doing what we can to estimate the scale of demand for charity status by setting up a project to give legal advice to newsrooms which want to explore this option and to publish a guide based on experience in a few test cases, so that others can benefit from what has been learnt about the best way to maximise the chances of being registered as a charity. The simplest way to see how powerful a stimulus this could be for local newsrooms would be to make charity status easier to obtain and see what happens.
Digital publishing has changed how we know the world around us. Multiplying cheap, frictionless routes along which information can travel expands opportunities to participate in the ‘public square’ and for free expression generally. But this wide ability to publish information and opinion also means that deception and fiction flourish at greater velocity and volume.
Journalism, done independently and professionally, attempts to establish and distribute the truth of what matters to a community or society in real time. That effort, which takes many different forms in different places, needs help urgently. Making charitable status easier to reach is not a silver bullet or a one-size-fits-all solution. But it will provide game-changing help where it counts: on the ground in communities where the provision of news is inadequate to peoples’ needs.
We hope that the committee will support the adoption of journalism as a charitable purpose.
Chair, Charitable Journalism Project
 Letter to The Times from Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive, Charity Commission, 19.1.21
 Under section 326 of the Charities Act