Vicky Sargent's Blog Watch 9: hyperlocal journalism
Hyperlocal journalists, citizen bloggers and media watchers were getting animated last week at ‘Re-thinking Regional Media’, a lively event at Birmingham City University (BCU).
BCU, as you may know, is a well-respected provider of journalism and related media degrees, and had picked a topic a lot of us provincials are pretty passionate about. If you didn’t make the event, you can pick up the discussion highlights on the inevitable ‘live blog’.
But you didn’t need to be at the event to witness a heated and sometimes downright angry discussion that spun out of a warm-up post on the event’s blog a couple a weeks beforehand.
Why have Birmingham’s hyperlocal bloggers failed to deliver? asked Marc Reeves, a former editor of The Birmingham Post who has given up journalism and gone over to the ‘dark side’ of public affairs.
‘Five years ago’ he wrote, ‘Birmingham could claim to be at the forefront of a ‘movement’ that seemed to offer a glimmer of hope that there was an answer to the decline of traditional local media.
The democratic deficit left behind as papers and TV retreated from the territory marked ‘holding power to account’ could be filled – it was hoped – by a growing band of independent, socially active and civic-minded citizens who could use their digital and content creation skills to create news and information services for their neighbourhoods.’
But it has all proved to be a bit of disappointment, he continued, with Birmingham’s neighbourhood journalists running out of steam, having to get ‘proper’ (i.e. paid) jobs, or otherwise moving on.
In Reeves’ view, ‘a viable and sustainable model has yet to emerge’ with ‘the only option to ensure hyperlocal sites have futures beyond the transient interests of their hobbyist founders’ surely being ‘a true commercial strategy’.
I’ve a suspicion Marc Reeves piece was written to provoke, and provoke it did, with no less than 60 comments following, many of them from the Birmingham and West Midlands bloggers referenced in the piece.
Many contributors protested that Reeves had missed the point: their hyperlocal activities had few commercial aspirations, and the success or otherwise of what they were doing should be judged by other means, and in particular, local activism.
‘We are interested in helping to save old buildings’ wrote Julia Larden, whose blog is based around Acocks Green, ‘and in protecting and improving the local features of Acocks Green in other ways too. We gauge our success partly on the number of hits we get (We certainly do want an audience and there would be no point in having the blog without one) but even more on what we help achieve as a result of the pieces that we that we…..……we do what we do because we want to make a difference – and NOT to our bank balances!!’
A fuller account of the highs and lows and motivation behind running an independent local site are set out in post from Jon Bounds in the Online Journalism blog. His recent decision to put the legendary Birmingham it’s not Shit site up for auction on eBay has shaken many who had come to regard it as a part of the City’s landscape.
A more upbeat note is struck in a post in The Journalism Notepad advertising a position as Community Managing Editor with a hyperlocal venture called Staffs Live, worthy of note in that it is actually a paid job and not simply a labour of love.
One of the points made by those defending the achievements of hyperlocals (including a particularly well-argued contribution from Mike Rawlins, founder of Stafforshire’s Pits ‘n’Pots was that the rise and demise of sites, is just something that characterises the sector, and nothing to get too hung up about. What matters is that when one individual lays down the baton, someone else picks it up.
And there’s evidence that they will, certainly judging by the volume of output now being created by hyperlocals. Dave Harte lectures on social media at Birmingham City University and also runs the Bourneville Village blog. As part of new research into creative citizenship he’s been investigating the scale of hyperlocal publishing in the UK. It is bigger than he had thought, according to a blogpost published earlier this year in daveharte.com in which he describes his monitoring which suggests there is a news story published on a hyperlocal website in the UK every two minutes.
Returning to the question of revenue, and given the problems of raising money from the traditional media source of advertising, an alternative suggested in the Reeves piece was the public sector, which, he said, might target ‘a portion its considerable marketing spend through specifically hyperlocal channels.’
That might not work where a local site is busy attacking the council over this or that, but of course marketing spend is not the only way council money supports the local press.
In a post cross-published in Talk About Local, a non-profit organisation that supports people starting and running hyperlocals, Rob Dale of the Local Government Information Unit writes about public notices.
Councils spend £68m a year on public notices - advertising they are legally required to place in connection with their work on, for example, licensing - that currently provides a subsidy for traditional local newspapers. And yet, argues Dale, drawing on his own experience as a resident of Brixton ‘local communities [are] being better served of local information through hyperlocal blogs than traditional print.’
Making some of public notice money available to citizen media would also, he says, serve Eric Pickles’ agenda of ‘unlocking the Town Hall to social media and bloggers’. And this idea is more than just a thought - LGIU is actively engaged on a research project to see how this sort of change might be brought about.
It would be even better if the UK had access to the sort of resources available through America’s Knight Foundation, an organisation built on past fortunes made in the newspaper industry.
The Foundation ‘supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts’, and KF’s belief that ‘democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged’ is behind its support for all kinds of city, local, and hyperlocal activity, including citizen journalism. The benefits flowing from this philanthropy (as a well as lots of ideas to be plundered by the rest of us) are set out in its blog.