It is a painful irony that the pandemic has dealt a hammer blow to local newspapers at a time when there’s such a need for them to do what they do best: existing at the heart of the crisis, covering unique regional news angles from the political and the medical to the personal and emotional.
An industry that was already struggling financially has had to make ongoing cuts, most significantly in staff costs. Local papers remain one of the most trusted sources of news, and are vital in upholding the democracy we all value so highly, yet we risk witnessing the permanent demise of an essential and highly-valued industry.
So as these torrid times rumble on, could the answer to the survival of local press lie in the joining of forces – and resources – with their nearest university?
Much like local newspapers, universities have a vital role to play in their community. They are defined by their location, they provide countless jobs in the local community, across a range of skill sets, and they represent the beating heart of that community. But in many cases both are under huge financial pressures, pressures that have been exacerbated by the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.
And yet they seem to exist in isolation from each other. As well as providing human interest stories from students and staff alike, a university’s academics and world-class researchers are a font of knowledge ready to be tapped into. While it seems a natural step to connect an area’s newspaper and university, digging out the stories at a time when newsdesk numbers are dwindling is another ask altogether – until now.
The Conversation publishes stories written by university academics lending their expertise to topical events. Any story can be explored in more detail by experts, written specially for an audience that is presumed to be non-academic.
We actively encourage the (free) republication of our stories, and as our articles are authored by academics from universities across the country, this presents the perfect opportunity for local newspapers – who are desperately in need of content – to find both topical and geographically relevant pieces at no cost to them. Indeed, we’ve seen academics go from writing for us to becoming regular contributors directly to their local paper.
And it’s our work with regional newspaper groups over the past two years that has cemented my belief that strengthening these links would be a mutually beneficial response to the crisis facing the regional press. This isn’t about academics taking work away from journalists, or thinly disguised PR. It’s about sharing great content to help put together a compelling paper that keeps readers engaged, allowing journalists to focus on the vital reporting only they can do.
As well as offering our stories via the Press Association and Reuters newswires, over the past couple of years we’ve been working directly with regional publishers, such as Reach and Newsquest, to help supply stories for both their UK-wide website and for individual titles. This isn’t a service for which we charge, it’s simply a way of amplifying the reach of our stories the same way we use our Facebook page, for example.
Late last year we took things to a new level with Reach, whose editors were keen for more Covid-themed content to use online. We knew from our own readership figures that there was a huge appetite for pandemic news as people sought expert opinion to cut through the maelstrom of daily news.
Through a shared channel on workplace messaging app Slack, we now give their editors a regular source of up-to-the-minute content that goes beyond Covid-19, keeping a daily dialogue going between the two businesses. It’s a model I hope we can adopt with other strategic partners.
We have become a news agency of sorts, giving broader reach to the voices of our authors. In doing so we fulfil our objectives, the academics gain a larger audience and the papers get that vital boost that could be the lifeline that sees them through this challenging period in their history.
Andrew Jaspan, who founded The Conversation in Australia in 2011, compared the research departments of universities to giant newsrooms. His belief was that by bringing together the editorial nous of journalists with the depth of knowledge found within universities, we’d be able to help the public better understand their world.
This democratisation of knowledge is core to our mission as a charity, and is more vital than ever as the world faces untold challenges affecting everything from our health, environment and politics to our culture, society and education. In an era of misinformation, we need to hear from more trusted expert voices.
Any local news publishers or groups interesting in finding out more about working with The Conversation directly can contact us at this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Standard republishing guidelines can be found here: https://theconversation.com/uk/republishing-guidelines
Chris Waiting, CEO, The Conversation
About: The Conversation is the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists, The Conversation exists to democratise knowledge. Founded in Australia in 2011 and the UK in 2013, is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and curated by a team of professional editors. Funded by a combination of its university members and charitable donations, The Conversation is ad-free and free to read. It operates under Creative Commons licensing, allowing its content to be shared or republished for free.