Local media never stopped being important — it just stopped being profitable

James Cracknell
6 min readJun 2, 2024


Local democracy is nothing without local journalism, so why is more not being done to help the independent publishers keeping it alive?

Ten years ago I had pretty much given up on a career in local media. I had moved from paper to paper over the previous seven years, witnessed similar problems with similar failed solutions, and there seemed no end in sight.

Money had been draining away from the industry ever since the turn of the century, but the arrival of social media and smartphones — which, unfortunately for me, was the exact same time I began my career as a local journalist — saw the decline accelerate rapidly. It became existential. Without help, it would surely die.

How could I have a future in an industry which itself seemed to have no future? Surely, my best hope was to cut my losses and use the skills I had gained to start a career elsewhere, as many of my former colleagues were already doing.

But local news had not stopped being in demand. People still wanted to know what was going on in their local area — why police were cordoning off a neighbouring street, how the rail strikes would affect their morning commute, why the leisure centre was closed, whether the hospital was being well run and who was standing for election.

People still like to know these things. They like to know about local campaigns, local politics, local opinions, local events, local charities and local sport. As well as providing important information about the stuff that directly affects people’s daily lives — and being essential to local democracy — local media also helps people feel connected to their community. That has never changed and never will. It is important, it remains important, it will always be important.

So what has changed?

Local media stopped being profitable. Cheaper and more efficient platforms for advertising became available. Local businesses broke their habit of advertising in local papers, switched to social media, and never thought twice about going back. Readers, meanwhile, got used to the idea of news being made available for free on the internet, and fell out of their routine of buying a local paper.

The decline became self-perpetuating, as corporate newspaper owners rushed to protect their profits by cutting costs, in turn making their product worse and entrenching yet further decline.

That was it, done, a whole industry destroyed. And yet, here I am, still working in it.

After almost giving up, feeling utterly hopeless and actively seeking work in other industries, I finally got a lucky break. I met someone with an idea — the idea of producing local news not because there was profit to be made from it, but because it was important.

For ten years we at Social Spider have had the single aim of trying to produce as much high-quality local journalism as possible. We don’t have a radical solution — we just have a dedicated team of people who care about local media and want to find a way to make it work.

We’re a social enterprise, meaning that while we operate like a business, any money we do make above and beyond our costs goes straight back into doing more of the thing we deem to be a social good — local journalism.

I joined Social Spider in 2015 to become editor of our first publication, Waltham Forest Echo, after previously contributing to it as a volunteer writer in my spare time. I then helped launch our third local newspaper, Enfield Dispatch, in 2018, and continue to edit it today.

In Enfield we have been able to fill some of the gap in local journalism left behind when a previous corporate-owned title, Enfield Gazette & Advertiser, was closed down in 2017. We have been able to build a loyal local following by running exclusive stories, investigating local scandals (there’s a lot, trust me) and providing a platform for local community leaders to share the important work they’re doing.

We print 15,000 copies of Enfield Dispatch every month, send a weekly e-newsletter to 1,200 people, and have 225 paying supporters. In both 2021 and 2023, the Dispatch was shortlisted for ‘Independent Community Newspaper of the Year’ at the News Awards.

Meanwhile, the corporate-owned local newspapers in the London boroughs we cover have stopped being local altogether. They closed their local offices, axed local reporters, and stopped doing the things that made local people want to read them in the first place.

But I have to level with you. Getting to the point Social Spider is at now has taken a toll on us, and we are in a precarious financial position. We still receive barely any support from our local councils, and nothing whatsoever from central government.

In Haringey, where we had been publishing a print newspaper for eight years, we recently took the difficult decision to move to online-only because of the lack of support from local businesses and the council.

We have spent a decade demonstrating that high-quality local news still remains in demand — and still remains necessary — but we have now run out of money and are struggling to survive. Our back-to-basics approach has won us some loyal readers, and shown that there is life in local journalism yet. But we have by no means saved it. To do that, we need help from higher places.

Several substantial obstacles still stand in the way of dedicated, independent local media organisations like ours from being successful and filling the void left by the terminal decline of the corporate-owned press. But there are two in particular I want to highlight.

The first is access to funding. As I said, the profits have gone, never to return. We can’t uninvent social media and smartphones. These things are with us now forever, for good or ill. Local news will never generate anywhere near the revenue it did before the digital age arrived. But local democracy is nothing without local media, and if we value one, we have to support the other.

At Social Spider, we have hit our limit. We publish four 16-page monthly newspapers each covering London boroughs that previously sustained 48-page weekly newspapers. We don’t cover court cases, we don’t have sports reporters, health correspondents or feature writers, and we have to turn down far more invitations to local events than we have the time to accept. When one of our journalists goes on holiday or gets sick, breaking news goes unreported.

Without access to a fund set up with the sole aim of supporting local journalism, we will never be able to do all the things that local newspapers should be doing. And we may soon end up being able to do nothing at all.

Secondly, we need a level playing field. Despite our limitations, we are producing far more local journalism than our corporate rivals, and have far more local readers. But we have not been given the chance to even compete for the most lucrative source of funding still available to local media outlets — the public notice contracts issued by local councils, under law.

Either the law should be changed, or councils should be forced to open up their public notice contracts to independent media instead of using taxpayers’ money to prop up skeleton corporate publications.

Give us the financial backing and let us compete. We have shown what we can do and what our intentions are, we have shown that local media is still wanted and is still needed, but without help we will soon fade away just like every other local newspaper, and local democracy will die with us.

No news is bad news (Indie News Week logo)

This week (3rd-9th June) is Indie News Week, the UK’s first campaign to celebrate the unsung heroes of the country’s indie news sector. As part of this, any donations to support independent publications such as Enfield Dispatch will be match-funded during the whole month of June, up to a total of £15,000. Find out more about supporting the paper here or, to donate directly, click here.