Journalism’s role in developing social capital
It is well documented that local journalism provides a vital role in terms of truth and democracy. Independent journalism spreads information, exposes injustice, supports freedom of speech, and holds those in power to account.
Less well-documented is local journalism’s essential role in the social and economic wellbeing of communities. Publications that provide a broad range of community and cultural content offer readers understanding of their close neighbours, thereby increasing bonds and bridging gaps between diverse groups.
Increasingly technology allows readers to connect with each other and contribute content via commenting functionality, social media platforms, and apps. Publications that utilise technology in this way allow readers to become co-creators of content rather than merely consumers. This leads to an increased sense of agency over the messaging within their community; the development of hyper local communication networks; and increased peer-to-peer connections.
In these ways local journalism can be seen as an important tool for developing social capital within the local community. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), which promotes policies that improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world, defines social capital as ‘networks, together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups’.
In this definition, networks are real-world connections including families, friends, neighbours, and colleagues in work, education, hobbies, and community groups. Shared norms, values and understanding are less concrete than our social networks. They are the unspoken and unquestioned understandings that draw us together and provide the linchpins of community.
Improving social capital is vital if we are to stimulate the local economy. Better networks create opportunities, and better understanding between people engenders trust, together enabling people to work together. ‘The folk wisdom that more people get their jobs from whom they know, rather than what they know, turns out to be true’. Sander, Thomas H. 2002. “Social capital and new urbanism: leading a civic horse to water.”
Why qualitative impact measurement will be key to the future of local journalism
The challenge is that social value typically includes non-financial outcomes and impacts that have traditionally proven difficult to quantify and measure. Outcomes that cannot be quantified cannot be counted or easily evaluated or compared.
In a period of industry disruption, with pressures on revenues, this makes it difficult for local journalism to identify, develop, and sustain its role of delivering social and economic benefit.
Only by understanding the social benefits of journalism will the industry be able to mould media to the demands of its consumers and thereby successfully navigate a rapidly and constantly changing landscape.
As a social enterprise, Social Streets is committed to developing a model for local journalism that works for the benefit of community while being financially sustainable and replicable.
In an attempt to systematically map the benefits of local journalism we explore four domains of influence – Culture, Wellbeing, Community, Local economy – and how these might be measured.
The results show a clear correlation between local journalism and community wellbeing, both socially and economically.
Notes on the pandemic
When we started our research on the social value of journalism in 2019, it was in a pre-covid world; the findings were to be published just before lockdown. Had we conducted the survey in a post-covid world, one in which we have all come to better appreciate living on a more local level, it is likely that our findings would have shown an even stronger correlation between local journalism and community wellbeing.
As it is, our findings reveal that the benefit of local journalism extends well beyond its primary role of upholding truth and ensuring people are informed; it also offers important and measurable benefits in terms of supporting the local economy, strengthening community cohesion, and increasing community spirit and wellbeing.
These results were based on a consultation of 200 readers of our flagship title Roman Road LDN, a publication that serves a population of 40,000 in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in East London, UK. All responses were gathered anonymously.