Local journalism has been facing serious challenges in recent times, leading to its decline, in some instances. However, in recognition of the role that the sector plays in building communities and strengthening democracy, efforts are afoot to revive and strengthen the institution.

Among the leaders in the efforts, is American-based The GroundTruth Project. Project co-founder, Kevin Grant, says they have started the project to revive and grow local journalism, worldwide, with the aim of returning the profession to issues that matter to communities.

Grant says the initiative was conceptualised in 2016 subsequent to the general elections in the US when “we began to notice that the sort of fundamental journalism infrastructure, let’s say, the local journalism infrastructure in the US, was really beginning to crumble at the same time that the country was beginning to polarise along political lines”. In the following year, the project was kick-started to “directly” address the crisis in local news by creating full-time reporting positions in local newsrooms so that they could build trust and community, and tell stories that “we’re not being told, and hopefully support the sustainability of the news organisations that they were working with”.

The project has now placed 300 journalists in newsrooms across the US and it is expanding to other countries, and has since launched in Nigeria and India. Three reporters have been placed in each of the two countries, at TheCable, in Nigeria and Scroll.in, in India. The project has a target of placing some 500 journalists in several countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, among others.

Grant said economic factors had contributed to the decline of local news. The internet had disrupted traditional business models of media organisations, leading, for example, to the decline in classifieds advertising, which were the backbone of local media advertising revenue in several countries, said Grant. The advent of digital advertising was compounding the crisis of access to advertising revenue by local media, he added.

The internet has created another problem: “The competition for the attention of members of any given community is now far more fierce. Various other sources of information or entertainment have taken away the eyeballs, the attention of community members in favour of other things. So, local news outlets no longer have a monopoly or a stronghold on attention.”

But the towel can not be thrown on local journalism, because the consequences would be dire to contemplate. The gap left by local journalism is being filled by social media which, according to Grant, is more susceptible to disinformation and  misinformation. “It means that people understand less about what’s going on in their communities. It means that there are no journalists who are playing the watchdog role to make sure that the public officials are being held to account. They’re not necessarily watching the large companies, the corporations, what they’re doing, the decisions they’re making that have effects on people. And finally, in the absence of local news which, as we say, serves as a binding agent in communities, people can be far more polarised, they can see one another as enemies, instead of neighbours,” said Grant, adding that the absence of local news can foment sectarian violence due to misunderstandings between various sectors of communities.

There is no “inherent” problem with social media, Grant argues, but “what is the problem is if citizens’ or residents’ news diets are made up entirely of entertainment, misinformation, often inflammatory sort off rhetoric about one another, or about other communities or other countries… That is a toxic stew of information that can truly poison people, certainly their minds, and can lead to what we saw, the attack on the Capitol on January 6, here in the US”.

Great start in Nigeria and India

So far, so good for the project in Nigeria and India, proclaims Grant. The way the model works is that the newsrooms, such as TheCabe in Nigeria and Scroll.in in India, set the editorial agenda, define the journalism positions and The GroundTruth Project works with them to attract and identify top candidates, said Grant.

The project’s reporters in the two countries are doing what Grant calls “critical beats”, reporting about environmental destruction, health and education, among others. “We are connecting to corps in the US and creating a global network of local journalists”. The initiative will be expanded to Latin America later this year, said Grant.

The project has big ambitions, such as achieving a corps of 500 reporters worldwide in the next five years. With the overall demand for local news, this will still represent a relatively modest contribution, said Grant. The partnerships will be built with newsrooms, journalism schools, philanthropic organisations, and members of the diaspora worldwide.

With regards to training, journalists are trained on safety and security, situational awareness, digital security and Covid-19 precautions.

The project is on its way southwards with discussions having started to establish projects in Kenya and South Africa, according to Grant.

Sector fairly vibrant in South Africa

South Africa has a fairly vibrant, albeit sparsely spread local journalism, with cities and towns having a lion’s share, while rural areas are largely underserved.

The industry has two main ownership structures: privately-owned print, dominated by the Caxton Printers, and community-owned newspapers, radio and television stations.

Caxton operates 146 print titles in various parts of the country, some of which are co-owned with local entrepreneurs. Most of these are published weekly, covering local issues in politics, crime, health, education, the environment, kids, entertainment and business issues such as motoring, property and lifestyle.

Caxton Local Newspaper’s national group editor, Irma Green, says the group has also straddled into web publishing and social media. The group runs 61 websites, supported by their own social media and commanding an average of 25 million pageviews per month, said Green.

The advent of Covid-19 has posed a challenge to the group, forcing it to consolidate some publications and changing publication days, said Green. But the pandemic has also helped reveal their worth to their readers. Green said they took a conscious decision to publish a lot of information on Covid-19 during the various lockdown levels, and their readers would use their publications to learn about the several lockdown regulations. “For example, we would create functionalities on our websites for our readers to download permit applications and advice on where to apply. We would advise on how to work in the midst of the pandemic. We received a lot of feedback from our readers countrywide. We sort of became a go-to place and a trusted source on information regarding various aspects of the pandemic,” said Green.

Caxton publications are known for a higher advertising loading compared to editorial, with some commentators arguing that this means that there is less journalism in the newspapers. Green says research has shown that a considerable amount of their readers enjoy the advertising, most of  which is from retailers advertising their merchandise. “The advertising is most appreciated by many of our readers, because it helps them with information on where to get the best deal in their shopping, in the face of difficult economic conditions.”

The group’s reporters receive rigorous in-house training to enable them to understand the local story and how to develop local angles to national stories, said Green. “During elections, for example, our publications concentrate on local service delivery debates, and this helps voters look at issues from their own situation,” she added.

Green sees a future for local media and finds social media to be complementary rather than in conflict with the sector.

Other media groups such as the Independent Media’s Africa Community Media, News24 and independent owners also operate community newspapers in various parts of the country.

Outside the privately-owned local media, there are some 200 community newspapers, 244 licenced community radio stations and five community television stations, which are owned and operated by communities through NGOs and other formations, according to the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), a state institution dedicated to mainly support community media and small commercial projects.