Impact recipe for strengthening democracy in local news ecosystems

Independent local news providers operating at hyperlocal, community or regional levels are an essential pillar in the information ecosystem of communities. They serve audiences through highly targeted niches and are uniquely placed to meet the needs of under-served and marginalised communities. The Local Media for Democracy (LM4D) programme has pioneered capacity building and new product development with 42 media to counter news deserts, creating essential support to diverse media ecosystems in the EU.

Local and community news providers exist in hyper-complex media environments, where the rules of engagement with rapidly shifting technology platforms, negotiations of trusted news sources and understandings of audience demands are constantly shifting. They are often resource-strapped and small teams. A voice often under-represented around the negotiating table.

Yet local media are a crucial component of healthy media ecosystems, offering unique, mission-driven products and able to meet the needs of under-served communities and niche audiences. They are often willing to take risks and experiment in ways mainstream media find more difficult. They know how to make a lot from a little. They are well placed to generate impact and be a driver of change because they grow up in and of their communities. They focus on deep engagement and niche service rather than scale and they build their business models on the reciprocity with other media, businesses, stakeholders and civil society.

IMS has for the past 12 months offered capacity building to 42 media outlets in the EU across two cohorts. We designed a programme that offered two cycles of support covering audience understanding and engagement, multimedia content production and multiplatform distribution, innovation and product development, gender representation and news consumption gap, business models and revenue diversification. Participants received handbooks, guides and tutorials bespoke to their needs including on audience research, data analytics, audio-visual content distribution on social media, community building, business and revenue models, financial planning and project impact assessment.

Local media boost and diversify their platforms and content

As a result of this programming, 20 new local and hyperlocal websites, microsites and thematic projects were created and six legacy local media outlets modernised and upgraded their websites in news deserts across Europe. Independent public interest local and community media diversified their genres and formats by successfully launching newsletters, podcasts and videos. Most of the projects included multiplatform content distribution to ensure that they reach diverse, yet well-defined target groups, such as younger, older and marginalised audiences.

Business adviser and lead manager for the capacity support Iryna Vidanava said: “To see three mobile apps built from scratch in less than six months is a real stand-out achievement. As more and more people consume news on mobile devices, three local media outlets – in Croatia, Poland and Slovenia – developed apps delivering their content directly to their readers’ phones and incentivising deeper engagement with local news. This type of development shows how these media can be cutting-edge and bold once a small amount of funding and support becomes available to unlock their innovation.”

“… these media can be cutting edge and bold once a small amount of funding and support becomes available to unlock their innovation.”

Iryna Vidanava

With LM4D’s user and community centric approach, emphasis was placed on understanding and engaging with the audiences, both online and offline. Half of the LM4D partners organised public events, including focus groups to town hall discussions, public debates, pop-up newsrooms, open-editorial meetings, media literacy and citizen journalism workshops. To reach out to remote areas and establish a two-way communication channel with their readers, several local media developed and deployed online crowdsourcing solutions, such as automated modules and chatbots integrated with their websites or WhatsApp.

Through funding the creation of innovative products and solutions, supporting development of content, marketing and business strategies, providing guidance in revenue diversification and financial planning and stimulating best practice sharing of the media outlets of similar size, LM4D contributed to long term sustainability of local media in Europe. At least 15 partners conducted journalism training for their teams or community members, 13 media piloted new or increased existing revenue streams, 10 developed strategic documents, practical guides, media-kits and other license and knowledge products, and seven media automated their editorial and management processes – all of which is making their work more efficient.

The majority of the projects comprised multiple activities implemented over a period of six-to-seven months. The outcomes are all the more impressive given that organisations participating in the LM4D programme comprise a mere 5-10 people on average with even smaller project teams in many cases.    

From the programme, we can establish five ingredients that are key to effectively supporting local and hyperlocal media operating in highly complex media landscapes:

  • Grants of substantive value. IMS believes in long-term core support. But substantive grants attached to key product or service development can unlock initiatives within newsrooms and trigger further cycles of innovation and growth. In this programme, these were managed and administered by consortium partner Journalismfund Europe, with IMS contributing to pre-application and grant management processes.
  • Putting impact first. We developed an impact framework that allowed all participating media to start project implementation with a concerted focus on creating impact at multiple levels as a guiding principle. It was introduced to each cohort at the start of the programme. Being clear from the outset about the intended impact of their projects on the local community and on their own organisation allowed a sharpened view on project objectives and design, target groups and key performance indicators, data collection and monitoring, human resources and risk management.
  • Tailored capacity building and mentoring. Detailed needs analysis was carried out by reviewing project applications and by conducting one-to-one interviews with LM4D partners. We identified and sorted needs into groups, then designed a series of online workshops with expert media consultants and practitioners with knowledge and experience relevant for small and medium size media outlets. This was particularly cost effective as trainers developed lasting resources for other media partners in other contexts, making this a particularly impactful yet modestly priced programme. Individual consultations and mentoring were offered according to resource availability. The capacity-building programme was practice oriented and tightly linked to the projects but at the same time enhanced the strategic development of LM4D partners. It was overseen by a media manager and consultant with deep understanding of every project and liaison with LM4D partners throughout the programme.
  • Peer to peer knowledge exchange and support. Creating a safe and closed community is key to enabling the sharing of similar experiences across diverse contexts. Such safe spaces allow media to share honestly about challenges and work through solutions together, by sharing and learning not only from the industry experts but as much from each other.
  • Research-informed practice and practice-informed research. Defining and mapping news deserts provided an essential framework for the targeting of support. It also serves as an advocacy tool at the local, regional, national and international levels, providing much needed empirical evidence to sharpen legal and regulatory focus areas moving forward.

Iryna Vidanava said:

“Grant making and capacity building were harmonised throughout the LM4D programme – from the application phase to project implementation and impact assessment with close coordination between two media development organisations. Needs assessment was integrated into the application form and detailed through one-to-one interviews with all partners. Thus, capacity building and mentoring were neatly tailored to the partners’ current needs with understanding of the environments and markets they operate in.

“We designed technical assistance programmes that respect the partners’ scarce time and human resources: sessions were 2.5 hours, held online once or twice per month. In addition to video recording the webinars and presentations, together with expert consultants we developed thematic resource packs, including case studies and different tools, and shared these materials with all the partners. We even translated some of the materials and provided mentoring in a few local languages, drawing on our multilingual programme team.  

“While capacity building was an offer and not an obligation for the LM4D grantees, 90% of them participated in it. Their feedback was positive and very encouraging. Yet, the biggest indicator of success to me is the willingness and readiness of the LM4D partners to openly discuss challenges they face, share best practices and learn from each other. LM4D brought together a diverse group of innovative and dedicated public interest local media and created a platform for them to exchange ideas and solutions.”

Dr Clare Cook, head of journalism and media viability at IMS, said:

“Now that we have developed a recipe for success, we need support scaling these programmes. Digital ecosystems are very complex, with multiple actors of all shapes and sizes. There is no one-size-fits-all for who is best to work with, but we have found that digital natives and local media are particularly well placed as catalysts for innovation.

“A number of follow up initiatives are now needed. These not only include repeating and scaling this type of programming to other regions and language areas, but also scoping and realising shared service and support centres. There is a need to coordinate the empirical findings and lessons learned from the bottom up; to connect these local experiences to the necessary international fora to inform policy and regulatory changes.”

Dr Cook added:

“Finally, there is a question of strengthening the local ecosystems, not just individual actors such as media organisations. This means building bridges between actors at the local level to address gaps in the enabling environment. Such support in self-organising around each media actor will assist with longer term structural change.”

On 17-18 June, the Local Media for Democracy partners, researchers, experts and policymakers will gather at the Local Journalism Festival in Brno, Czech Republic, to highlight success stories of the vibrant, resilient local media as a result of this programme and discuss the future of local journalism in Europe.   The Local Media for Democracy project is an 18-month project co-funded by the European Commission and launched by a consortium of partners: the Journalismfund Europe, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), IMS and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ).