Higgerson: Digital Markets Unit Will Put Local Journalism On Sustainable Footing

The Digital Markets Unit will put local journalism on a sustainable footing by creating the right conditions for publishers to be fairly rewarded for their investment in news, Reach deputy group editor in chief David Higgerson has said.  

Speaking at a wide ranging Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee session at Cardiff University School of Journalism held as part of its inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism, Mr Higgerson said it was frustrating that the DMU felt “quite a long way away.”

When asked by committee chair Julian Knight MP whether fair renumeration for news content on social media would make a difference, Mr Higgerson said: “I think it would set the local part of our business fair for the future. We see very little in financial renumeration from social media platforms. There is no getting away from the fact that the money that once sat with news publishers in print and online sits with Google and Facebook.

“Facebook has described itself as a town square for local life. That town square has to facilitate access to reliable, accurate local news. That isn’t guaranteed with any platform. It is frustrating that the Digital Markets Unit at times has felt tantalising close, but also quite a long way away as well.”

Mr Higgerson said: “We’re trying to find a model of local journalism that local readers respond to and engage with. Where independent publishers are setting up and operating professional journalistic operations, that’s great – that can only be good for journalism, but there is a real risk that we end up in a world where people see Facebook groups as a suitable alternative to independently verified news.

He added: “There are a lot of cases now where a misleading Facebook post can be treated as fact, before a journalist has had time to investigate. To me that is the biggest threat to journalism locally – that we have the ability to post anything in an authoritative setting and it be seen as news straightaway. This is an existential threat to journalism.”

Speaking on coverage in local communities, Mr Higgerson spoke of how more journalists now work at Reach since the start of the pandemic. He said: “We launched MyLondon – we have 60 journalists with a commitment to getting to know each and every borough in London. Public interest journalism has to sit at the heart of what we do or else we’re not relevant locally.”

Giving evidence Paul Hutchison, editor of the Bedford Independent, spoke of the lack of relationship with the tech giants. He said: “They don’t see us as big enough. On a local level that causes frustration – I don’t know how Facebook’s algorithms work, but we can publish a story that does well, but another story of the same nature the next day does not.

“We have to use different streams to get our news out there. It would be great if Facebook put their money where their mouth was. They use this town square analogy – news is part of the vital ecosystem of a community. If you remove it, that community will fail. Facebook groups might appear to fill that void, but they’re not fact checked or regulated.”

On the safety of journalists online, Mr Higgerson said: “It is unacceptable that there is very little we can do as publishers when our journalists are facing threats to their life on a daily basis on social media.” He added: “If we turn around and say we’re not going to put content on that platform, that has a direct impact on our ability to sustain journalism. It is very difficult concerning the duty of care to our journalists.”

Gving evidence at the inquiry, BBC director of nations Rhodri Talfan Davies echoed the call for the DMU to redress the balance between platforms and publishers. He said: “The role of regulation is critical if we’re going to strike a balance that means the publishers who are investing on the ground in journalists, if we’re going to maintain a mix of plurality locally, we have to find a better value exchange.

“It is not beyond the wit of UK policy makers to find a balance that works for both the platforms and the publishers.”

Mr Talfan Davies spoke of the success of the Local Democracy Reporters scheme: “It was created because, we found we shared, with our partners in the commercial sector, the challenges of covering local authorities. We provided the funding, and the local commercial sector provided the employment framework for those journalists.

“There was a lot of scepticism, but it has delivered. It has delivered 250,000 stories so far on local authorities in all four nations, covering major stories on PPE procurement and corruption fraud in local authorities.”