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Challenging times mean challenging the norms

Neil Fowler says that universities are brilliantly positioned to offer radical ideas for the future of news. Have they the nerve to try something different, he asks.

By Neil Fowler

Challenging times mean challenging the norms

Back in 2010, I toured various UK universities with my daughter as she looked at what engineering schools had to offer. And what struck me vividly were the close links these schools had with industry.

These weren’t links that were token names at the top of headed notepaper; they were real links showing the benefits of collaboration between academics, students and practitioners where real research and development took place with jointly designed products finding their way in to the real world.

Now that wasn’t a recent change. Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) departments in particular have enjoyed such relationships with their industrial sectors for many years. They are widespread and of huge value to all involved, from student to professor, and from executive to shareholder – and, most importantly, to the end user.

Sadly, in our own trade, the opportunities for such partnership working in terms of research and development have been largely forsaken over the years, with fault, I believe, on both sides.

Academics (trigger warning: generalisation on the way) broadly dislike the popular press; despair at what they see as poor-quality regionals and locals; ignore magazines and business-to-business products as irrelevant; and don’t want to dirty their hands on making something happen.

Practitioners (second trigger warning: another generalisation on the way) broadly believe academics to be out of touch; living on a different planet; and, anyway, we know best and can do it all ourselves.

The challenge

But there is still a chance to change that. Especially for universities – so here is a challenge: can a university take an opportunity to do something that may make a difference? Do something that may help the industry in a truly revolutionary way?

This challenge derives from some work that I carried out a few years ago, following the publication of a book by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) that looked at the potential for charitable and trust ownership of news organisation (‘Is There a Better Structure for News Providers?’). It remains a fascinating and relevant read and well worth a look.

The book was the result of a two-day seminar that the RISJ had organised, bringing together wise heads from around the world involved with charity-related news businesses. Many had charitable status and / or not-for-profit status – and they all seemed pretty successful.

Clearly there have been some attempts at this in the UK; Baylis Media in Maidenhead is an interesting example (though not a pure model as the charity owns the news business rather than actually running it) and a number of small very local operations have evolved.

But following the book and seminar, I was commissioned by a UK university, with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT), to investigate the establishment of a charity-owned news enterprise that would largely operate with the support of the students and resources of that university’s media school. JRRT knew that the Charity Commission would welcome interest from a major player, as its previous strict rules on news impartiality could be varied with the right kind of application.

I recommended that the university set up a new charity to be managed by an independent board of trustees. The charity’s news service – for television, radio, online and print (a publication competing in the marketplace) – would be provided by the university’s journalism department.

The aim would be for it to be a model that others would be able to follow – either using existing resources from a media school – or as a way of encouraging the establishment of major news enterprises with achievable aspirations, genuine clout and run along community and not-for-profit lines.

A major change would be that journalism degree courses would move to a two-year cycle (a degree for £18,000 and not £27,000, said one emeritus professor) and students would not have traditional vacations but would have holiday entitlements of five / six weeks a year.

Teaching would be very much based on the way nurses are trained – with modules in the classroom followed by periods in the newsroom. Lecturers would become mainly (brilliant) teachers but research opportunities would be limited for many of them.

It was the last factor, the role of lecturers, that was the sticking point, as well as the testing nature of going to a two-year degree. It was just a radical move too far. The demands of the then Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now the Research Excellence Framework (REF), seemed to hold sway.

Situation getting worse

However, little has changed since then, and has in fact become worse as the likes of Google and Facebook have tightened their grip on advertising spends and the number of professional journalists continues to decline. In particular, the regional and local newspaper industry remains in crisis and the ramifications for local democracy and scrutiny and the generation of news is immense.

So, can anything happen? There are substantial benefits that would be available to a regional news business that had gained charitable status:

• A local paper / site run and owned by local people could enjoy substantial community support;

• It could be campaigning. As long as it didn’t adopt a party political or predictable stance, it would be allowed and this would prevent it from being bland or muted;

• Ownership of this kind would give the prospect of attracting supporting grants from local businesses and charitable foundations;

• There would be many potential tax benefits. Surpluses would be re-invested back in to the business, or distributed to the community;

• Local readers could join the charity via a subscription or donation model. Such members could be encouraged to involve themselves in a more substantial way through volunteering in some way;

• Gifts to a charity have the advantage of Gift Aid relief. And charitable status would serve as an attraction for bequests and legacies.

The editorial policy would need to be even handed in allowing access to its columns, though this would not prevent it operating necessary editorial decisions in terms of available space set against competing stories and contributions. It would have to prove that it could satisfy the necessary requirements, such as control over content, so as not to become the agent of, or voice for, any party, group or other interest.

But that would not prevent the news business or any of its outputs commenting on anything editorially, nor would it stand in the way of a vigorous print, broadcast and online readers' letters / comment / feedback sections, for example.

Nor would the presence in the newspaper or on the radio of paid-for advertising be considered as infringing on its charitable nature, providing the key editorial tests were met.

Why a university?

It seems unlikely that any of the existing newspaper owners will give up any of their publications to charitable status in order to act as an exemplar to ascertain if such a model could work. The main opportunity therefore seems to be a start-up, operating in an existing market where competition exists, using a mix of paid-for and voluntary staff, and developing a business that has sustainability.

Ideally, this business would produce a weekly newspaper (either paid-for, free distribution or pick-up), a local online information portal of excellence including regularly updated online news, an online local TV service, as well as a community radio news service.

It would be funded after set-up by local advertising, donations, grants from foundations and possible circulation revenue. Most functions, apart from local editorial staff (and possibly advertising sales), could be outsourced.

Clearly a university with a journalism department would be a suitable location for such a business, as many have a base of both undergraduate and post-graduate journalism courses which could form the basis of an extensive reporting and editing resource.

It could be that, soon, many towns and rural areas will be left with no level of independent news service or scrutinising function looking at local government and the courts, for example. If an enterprise of this kind could be developed successfully into a break-even position, such places would have a chance of a news service for the future.

The potential benefits to an ambitious university are enormous:

• It would be the first university to produce a competitive newspaper with an online portal in to its community in the UK;

• It would be the first university to develop a charitably-owned independent news business of this kind;

• It would have the ability to position itself as a developer of a ground-breaking model that will be of genuine use to the industry;

• It would have to be a great teaching university. This year has seen the first Teaching Excellence Framework published in which universities will be judged as much on their teaching ability as on their research output. At long last.

• The added value to potential students of being involved in a news organisation operating in the wider market place. This could be a major attractant and would give the university and school a competitive edge in their branding and image;

• Universities are already established parts of the community; they are already a major economic force within the community; this would be a natural extension;

• Journalism schools already have technology and newsrooms in place; they have journalistic teaching and legal expertise; they have journalism students willing to learn and work;

• Universities have wider information and expertise bases along with HR, marketing and finance resources that can be drawn on.

Cleary there are threats. Existing media business would object (but competition might make them improve) and the turnover of students means quality of output might not be consistent. But the opportunities are massive.

There would need to be a (probably) full time general manager who would work alongside the editorial director (a senior academic) who would be the legal editor of the organisation and would be responsible for organising the students.

The journalism degrees would have to become even more work-focused. Some degrees operate in this way but the best comparison is with the way that nurses are already trained.

Nursing is a vocational module-based degree, with set skills being learned throughout the course, to enable the student to be fully prepared for paid work as soon as they graduate. Nursing offers a model that journalism training could follow.

The news organisation would aim to be an exemplar of news origination and use. One newsdesk, one diary across all outputs, that complement and do not compete. Its aim will be, to be able to produce a four-way news service that achieves a break-even enterprise and that serves its core aim of establishing local scrutiny on behalf of the residents.

There is my challenge to a current-day university (I suspect an old-fashioned polytechnic would have jumped at this): expand this basic business plan (there is a great deal of thinking behind it) and make of it what you will. It has to be better than just doing more of the same – or worse, nothing.