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Hyperlocal News: Journalism without the journalists [Feb. 1st, 2010|02:03 pm]
The Mabiblogion

Print journalists are dinosaurs who crush innovation and entrepreneurial endeavour. Because they struggle to comprehend the Brave New Digital World around them, these Jurassic beasts have an inclination to stamp on it, reveling in the destruction they wreak.

Or that’s what some would have you believe.

New media scepticism is often caricatured as either neo-Luddism or rampant professional snobbery. It is journalists, in particular those unimpressed by new media, who are most often subjected to the ‘get out of the way, Granddad’ sneering of the Geek Elite.

However, while pessimism about new media is sometimes driven by a fear of change combined with plain bloody-mindedness, at other times it is driven by a hard-nosed quest for facts about the future of a much-cherished profession – preferably without the hype. And there is an awful lot of hype.

This year, as every year since 2004, it is predicted that the trend will be towards hyperlocal community-level news. It is reasonable to assume that this tech-prophecy will once again remain unfulfilled, or at best emerge as something far short of the revolution we are regularly promised.

This is, however, not to say that there isn’t a revolution of sorts taking place. In the US for instance, AOL, CNN and even the mighty Google are making investments in the local idea. AOL purchased two local start-ups in 2009: Patch, which delivers local news to communities; and Going, which publishes event listings.

Aggregators Outside.in and Everyblock have been bought by CNN and MSNBC respectively. All moving in the right direction, you might say, and indeed there is a lot to be said for Outside.in in particular as a model that succeeds in delivering local information on an enormous scale. Some 57,830 neighbourhoods can’t be wrong, can they? However, what is scarce on this site, and indeed, on other similar aggregators is actual journalism. Political reporting is particularly thin on the ground. And this is a worry.

Here in the UK there are quality hyperlocal sites delivering interesting and varied content along the lines of that which used to occupy the pages of our local rags. The Lichfield Blog, and in particular, the William Perrin Kings Cross Environment site are excellent examples.

The Lichfield Blog is a not-for-profit site run by volunteers and contributors, both professional and amateur. It uses the excellent Addiply self-service advertising system to generate enough money to cover costs. But despite being very good, it’s not a model that will help save or improve journalism. Indeed it is a model that if not challenged could potentially put paid journalists out of business. It doubtless wasn’t the aim of the Lichfield Blog to replace local news media. It is a site that attempts to fill the gap left by departing or failing local media. Despite this it does point towards some of the dangers that journalism as a profession faces.

William Perrin, who featured in Guardian editor Alan Rusbridgers’ recent Cudlipp Lecture, established the extremely good campaigning Kings Cross Environment hyperlocal site. Like the not-for-profit Lichfield Blog, this site doesn’t offer much hope for journalists, either. In fact, it is perhaps best that sensitive hacks look away now.

Quoted in Rusbridgers’ lecture, Perrin says:

‘…we have a very strong community of people around here who send us stuff. None of the people who work with me are journalists. I’m not a journalist by any stretch of the imagination; it’s an entirely volunteer effort…what I do in my community some people label journalism, it’s a label I actually resist.’

Rusbridger goes on to point out that depending on an individual’s perspective,

‘…you may find that vision of new ways of connecting and informing communities inspiring or terrifying.’

He concludes that it is in fact both inspiring and terrifying. It is hard to disagree with him. In the sense that large media owners no longer hold all the cards and control local media, it is inspiring. However, it is also terrifying because this used to be a big part of the job that journalists did.

William Perrin is not dependent on the Kings Cross Environment site for his week in week out income. He has another job, which pays the bills. The Kings Cross site, like the Lichfield Blog is run by people who make their money elsewhere. It is, without wanting to sound disrespectful, a hobby.

It is perhaps at this point important to remember again who is to blame for the current sorry state of affairs in local journalism. The singular failure of media corporations to respond to the challenge of the internet is the cause of the demise of local newspapers. This, in conjunction with a single-minded drive for profit, has meant they are now publishing a product that is not only out-of-date but often of a poor quality. Newspaper owners have nearly destroyed local reporting by not moving quickly enough to change their business models, and not investing enough in the newspapers prior to that model changing. In the meantime the gap left by the decline of local newspapers has started to be filled by enthusiasts. It is not the enthusiasts’ fault that their projects are now being touted as media which will, depending on the commentator, either save or destroy journalism. They are not to blame. But there is a danger that unless journalists and media organisations start to take grass-roots projects seriously they will again be guilty of responding too late to a paradigm shift in the industry.

While hyperlocals may represent a threat should major newspaper groups not act quickly to develop a local news model, they could also represent an opportunity. It might not be the opportunity as touted by hyperlocal disciples, but it is certainly there. So how can media organisations, or journalists, utilise the hyperlocal model?

The first thing to recognise is so obvious as to almost not need saying. Media organisations, and hyperlocal writers and bloggers, want different things from the local audience. Sites like the Lichfield Blog require community engagement and encourage community involvement. People are doubtless motivated by lots of things to contribute to these sorts of sites. However, it is fair to say, that it is not money that drives them to volunteer and contribute. It is most likely a sense of community spirit. On the other hand, media organisations seeking to grab their share of the local news audience are not doing it for altruistic reasons. They want local money. This disparity in objectives allows us to make clear a distinction that is not emphasised often enough. Local journalism sites and hyperlocal news sites are not the same thing. The objectives are different, the business models are different, the people involved are different and they are involved for different reasons.

However, despite the differences in objectives, these models do have something to offer each other. Amateur hyperlocals often produce original and quirky content. These are the kind of stories that could be useful to local news sites run by the mainstream media. In reward for sharing this content the community correspondents could receive a wider audience and part of the advertising revenue. Some media groups have already experimented with this model using local correspondents in postcode specific blogs, but so far it has been tentative.

Elsewhere in the world the so-called Pro-Am model for news production is being adopted with much less reticence. In the Czech Republic, for instance, PPF Media’s hyperlocal project ‘Nase Adresa’ (our address) is an ambtious attempt at fusing the talents of enthusiasts and  professional journalists. The potential benefits of this type of model are huge providing the relationship remains a fair one. Local correspondents would need to be correctly remunerated for their work and treated with the respect they deserve, while at the same time recognising that it’s only right they should play second fiddle to people who do the job for a living.

Mainstream media providers could also assist with journalism training for talented and keen community correspondents. This would help broaden the demographic of trained journalists and produce a new generation of hacks who have trained on the job and in their communities.

It’s a small democratisation of the media model, and it’s one that mainstream media can live with. A quiet revolution of cooperation rather than the shouty belligerence of some hyperlocal advocates. It’s also a proposition that journalists can live with. It’s a model that doesn’t replace them with untrained amateurs but encourages working alongside those enthusiasts while benefiting from their local knowledge and contacts. It’s evolution rather than revolution.

Sadly, it’s hard to see how new media hyperlocal start-ups that are not going to be based on non-profit models can succeed within the current environment. New and interesting approaches to advertising might help. The excellent Addiply system, for instance, helps publishers and advertisers to navigate their way around the complex world of online advertising. However, despite these innovations it is clear that making hyperlocal news pay from the position of an independent start-up is incredibly difficult. It may not even be possible in the light of the incredible growth of Twitter and its ability to show trending topics by region. Even Twitter is going local.

The only way that start-ups by groups of journalists could be profitable is through government funding, and in Wales it makes sense that this is considered. With some real funding they might have a chance of success.

In the short and medium term, however, if our interest is in rescuing journalism, sadly, we must again look to the mainstream media. The hyperlocal trend is something they have to embrace. And it’s about time, too. It’s time for them to get back to doing local reporting, and involve those that filled the gap whilst they were catching up. Of course it should have happened sooner and in some cases it’s perhaps already too late.

Most print journalists aren’t the progress-hating dinosaurs they are sometimes made out to be. But lots of the organisations they work for are. And, unfortunately, in some cases, they have awoken from their slumber too late to do anything about the huge incoming meteorite.

First published at

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