Danielle Borges and Urbano Reviglio, CMPF Research Associates
Having a social impact is a cornerstone of journalism. This is even more true for local media for their proximity to the social issues they cover (Blagojev et al., 2023). In this second blog post for the project Local Media for Democracy (LM4D), we investigate best practices and strategies among local and community media outlets to fulfill this goal. There are certainly various ways in which news organizations and civil society can make a societal impact by advancing a well-informed and participatory citizenry. Traditionally, local news media has played this public interest role, for instance, by informing, representing, and investigating at the local level (Barnett, 2009). However, with the advance of new forms of communication and possibilities for reaching audiences, on one hand, and the different needs of audiences and societies on the other, these traditional public interest roles have expanded to include also listening to or even empathizing with audiences (Pignard-Cheynel & Amigo, 2023). During our research for the LM4D project, we have observed a common strategy to carry out public interest activities: networking and cooperating in order to strengthen social inclusion activities, public participation and investigative journalism.
Particularly meaningful local media initiatives for social inclusion are the so-called “street newspapers”. These are magazines or newspapers sold by people experiencing social forms of marginalization, such as poverty or homelessness (Cockburn, 2014). They are usually produced by independent non-profit media entities that have the mission of tackling poverty and reporting on social justice issues, offering alternative perspectives on public perceptions on poverty and social justice. Founded in 1994, the International Network of Street Newspapers nowadays gathers 92 street papers in 35 countries, published in 25 languages, with 3.2 million readers worldwide. They support street papers to start up, develop and scale through regional networks, events and other peer-to-peer learning opportunities. They have also elaborated a map list where you can find your local street paper.
We interviewed representatives from two street newspapers: Zebra. and Fuori Binario. Zebra. is a non-profit street newspaper from Bressanone, Italy (Südtirol), close to the Austrian border: it has been producing monthly bilingual news (in German and Italian) in the format of a magazine since 2014. According to Alessio Giordano, a journalist working in Zebra.’s newsroom, their public interest mission is to offer socially excluded groups an extra source of income during their search for a job by selling Zebra monthly issues. Every year they have within their newspaper sellers around 60 individuals that belong to socially excluded groups and without any regular source of income. These people stay as part of the salesforce between 1 or 2 years, after which some 80% of them manage to find a job. During this time salespeople are also supported in their job search through job coaching, legal and bureaucratic assistance. The magazine costs EUR 3 and half of this amount is kept by sellers with around 10.000 copies sold every month. Zebra.’s news content ranges from local to international news and is currently selected and produced by the Zebra.’s newsroom in collaboration with external contributors. However, one of Zebra.’s future objectives is to involve their sales people in the news production, engaging in participatory journalism. Zebra.’s revenues come from different sources, from which the most important are sales, followed by local advertising, with only a residual part coming from regional public funds.
Due to their proximity, we also had the chance to have a face to face interview with the editor of Fuori Binario, from Florence, Italy. Founded way back in 1993, even before the International Network of Street Newspapers, it is, in general, similar to Zebra.: a monthly newspaper sold and often also written by marginalized people. Yet, the price of the newspaper is up to the buyer, with a minimum of EUR 1 to cover printing costs. Fuori Binario also has dozens of “friendly places” (mainly social clubs) which buy several copies for EUR 2 and sell them for 3. In this way, these venues sustain the street newspaper and the people that work to distribute it. Fuori Binario’s main goal, according to its editor Cristiano Lucchi, is indeed to “favor integration and restore dignity.” Through their reports and broader activity, they indeed defend individual freedom and cultivate solidarity. They do so not only by offering part-time jobs but also giving voice to unheard groups. Through their news they aim, above all, to break the stigma around poor people, migrants and other vulnerable groups. They don’t have a precise target audience: the editor argues that the readers are quite heterogeneous and many are random pedestrians. Moreover, Fuori Binario is also part of a wider network of social and political movements that collaborate well beyond the newspaper. Food collection, factory strikes or solidarity when natural disasters such as floods take place: when there is a need, the off-track network activates.
Networking and cooperation are essential at all levels to have a social impact (Konieczna, 2018): from community street newspapers in their various activities to local media in their journalistic investigations. This is the case of Indip, a self-funded local media in the Italian region of Sardinia which has recently developed InLeaks, a whistleblowing reporting platform based on GlobaLeaks, part of the wider Whistleblowing International Network. Thanks to the cooperation of this organization which offers their tools and expertise for free, Indip can rely on this whistleblowing platform guaranteeing the privacy and safety of sources. Indip also produces innovative investigative journalism; it embraces the principles of “slow journalism” (which we have discussed in our last blog post), proactively engaging its readers while refusing ads, editors and sponsors to preserve its independence. This distinctive approach enables Indip to produce daring and nuanced investigative reports, such as their collaborative six-episode investigation with Irpimedia on the mafia in Sardinia.
Another example of innovative cooperation is Reporters United, a non-profit network of reporters aiming to support investigative journalism in Greece. It is indeed a hub in a larger network with foreign journalists and international media such as Investigate Europe, the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Algorithm Watch, and the already mentioned Whistleblowing International Network. They try to act as an agency connecting Greek journalists, photographers and videographers with foreign media outlets. They therefore provide a platform for publishing stories which – for a variety of reasons – struggle to find a place elsewhere. The endeavor of Reporters United sheds light on the interconnectedness of media nowadays. One of their implicit goals is in fact to provide further visibility for disregarded stories in Greece, including local news, amplifying them in foreign media outlets which, in turn, may trigger a national public interest.
Despite the initiatives described above differ in terms of their public interest mission, they all rely on transnational networks to support and spread their public interest mission. The ties and structures that bond these networks have the potential, among others, to increase the quality and strengthen the impact of journalistic products, to reach out wider audiences, to use synergies for team working and to share resources (Heft, 2021). This translates into the desire to support other similar initiatives rather than compete with them, to find common solutions for similar problems and to provide best practices to be shared among the network. By setting the agenda on important issues, and contributing directly to social justice by promoting and developing social inclusion activities, the media initiatives presented in this blog post are excellent examples of how journalism contributes to social progress. When this is driven by a profound desire for social justice, it can really drive a positive social change, and when it connects with other local as well as transnational organizations, it could find further strength and yield a broader social impact.
Barnett, S. (2009) Journalism, democracy and the public interest: rethinking media pluralism for the digital age. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (September 2009).
Blagojev, T., Da Costa Leite Borges, D., Brogi, E., Kermer, J. E., Trevisan, M., & Verza, S. (2023). News deserts in Europe: assessing risks for local and community media in the 27 EU member states. European University Institute.
Cockburn, P. J. (2014). Street papers, work and begging: ‘Experimenting’ at the margins of economic legitimacy. Journal of Cultural Economy, 7(2), 145-160.
Heft, A. (2021) Transnational Journalism Networks “From Below”. Cross-Border Journalistic Collaboration in Individualized Newswork, Journalism Studies, 22:4, 454-474, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2021.1882876
Konieczna, M. (2018). Journalism without profit: Making news when the market fails. Oxford University Press.
Pignard-Cheynel, N., & Amigo, L. (2023). (Re)connecting with audiences. An overview of audience-inclusion initiatives in European French-speaking local news media. Journalism, 24(12), 2612-2631. https://doi.org/10.1177/14648849231173299
This blog post has been written in the context of the Local Media for Democracy (LM4D) project. It is the second of a series of three: please read our previous blog post “Newsletters, podcasts and slow media: successful news media strategies to engage audiences in the attention economy”.