The following article is an excerpt from The Value of Networked Journalism, a report by Polis director Charlie Beckett, which will be published at next week's conference. The report looks at the value of networked journalism, which Beckett describes as a "synthesis of traditional news journalism and the emerging forms of participatory media enabled by web 2.0 technologies such as mobile phones, email, websites, blogs, microblogging, and social networks".
Conventional wisdom has always been that communities most naturally form locally, so surely a kind of journalism based on linking people together at that level should succeed? In fact, local and regional media have struggled to take advantage of the internet. They have not built online audiences in the same way that national media has, let alone taken advantage of pools of previously unconnected international readers. Indeed, commercial local media has been so under-confident of its ability to attract an online audience that is has fought a defensive battle to stop the BBC expanding into the space. It has asked for subsidies in a way that would not occur to its national equivalents.
Some reports have suggested taxing Google or forcing local authorities to put recruitment advertising back in local newspapers and to stop funding their own glossy propaganda publications. Whatever the merits of those ideas, they don't feel politically or practically plausible. Nor do they address the question of whether local media companies deserve that kind of support, or what will be improved in return. Journalist George Monbiot has refuted claims that local newspapers are some kind of bastion for democracy:
"For many years the local press has been one of Britain's most potent threats to democracy, championing the overdog, misrepresenting democratic choices, and defending business, the police and local elites from those who seek to challenge them. Media commentators lament the death of what might have been. It bears no relationship to what is."
This article is not the place to address the wider regulatory or subsidy issues, but we would suggest that networked journalism at a local level offers a way forward so that both journalism and the business can be offered some hope of reclaiming the purpose of non-national news media. At the local level above all it seems logical for professional media organisations to work with the citizen. This was also the conclusion of the House of Commons Media Select Committee report in April 2010:
"Local newspapers can learn from many of these innovative [independent hyperlocal] websites, and in some cases there is an argument that local newspapers should be working alongside them... it is local journalism, rather than local newspapers, that needs saving."
While mainstream local media has been struggling to cope with the challenge presented by the internet, hyperlocal online ventures have been blossoming. These non-commercial community or neighbourhood activist websites serve particular audiences in a distinct manner. Voluntary or citizen local media operating on a small and unstable scale may not make money, or employ professionals, and they may not provide comprehensive coverage, but they have a valuable function. It may simply be that hyperlocal - as opposed to more regional or city-wide online media - is not scalable or profitable by its very nature. It is, however, a good and growing example of citizen journalism with wider social utility. It could also be part of broader mainstream local networked journalism.
Independent hyperlocal journalism is not simply a hobby or a pleasant localist addition. It is a potential amelioration of the drastic problem of declining professional regional and local news media. The Guardian’s local web project is one example of how a national media organisation is seeking to connect itself to those grass-roots networks and in return, provide a wider connectivity for their work.
For decades local newspaper groups have disinvested in staffing and consolidation has diluted their local character. At the same time commercial local radio has failed to invest in significant journalistic assets, leaving the field clear for BBC local radio. Of course, local BBC channels are also dependent for much of their news on the declining capacity of local papers. Now ITV regional news is under threat, while previous government plans to create local news consortia have been effectively abandoned. Could networked hyperlocal be part of a renewal process?
One leader of this kind of activist hyperlocal journalism is Will Perrin, who has created a model in London and is seeking to spread the example nationally. His approach is very much from the starting point of the community rather than media:
"There's a basic communication black hole in the middle of all of this... hyperlocals could cover gaps that inevitably arise in newspapers."
Today Perrin's Kings Cross Environment enjoys a readership of just over three hundred daily hits. It has four main contributors:
"We have over eight hundred articles on the neighbourhood and we use the site to find campaigns and create what psychologists call, 'bridging social capital' (...) There are thirty active contributors and four or five people have authoring rights - so each of one of us has a network of people who tell us things... then about another three hundred people 'spectate' and occasionally get involved if we make things easy for them."
Why bother? For Perrin it is about local politics and connecting people, not profit:
"We use the web to drive people into local democratic avenues to get things to change (...) [The websites are] there to augment real human engagement in the political process. You need representatives to make decisions (...) but the web can help them understand better what those issues should be (...) we help augment traditional community action."
This is a much more directly 'political' motive to this kind of journalism than the general claim made by traditional media that it sustains democracy by reporting upon public administration and holding power to account. The localised ventures deal with issues that would otherwise be ignored, Perrin claims, such as pockets of the neighbourhood that have become no-go areas for the police. Despite the way it taps into local issues and stories, Kings Cross Environment is not particularly connected into other mainstream local media:
"Every now and then, maybe once every six to eight weeks, journalists ring me up and say, 'we saw that interesting feature on your website. Can we turn it into a quote and then into a story?'" Thus far, "there's been only one example of collaboration [with local newspapers]. I found statistics on ambulance call-outs in response to assault incidents. They were rising massively but violent crime was only rising a small amount (...) The newspaper picked up on my research, ran some more maths on the numbers, and ran a story."
Perrin is puzzled that local papers don’t connect more to community websites in general:
"Hyperlocal websites always have challenges working with their local newspaper and traditional media. They never find that easy. Local newspaper editors are very sharp-elbowed people, which is understandable given the history of the trade. What we don't see, and this is always a puzzle to me, is why local newspapers don't just reach out and embrace with a warm big hug the people who are creating content on the ground."
Perrin believes that despite their bureaucracy, local authorities might make better partners for hyperlocals than other media:
"Councils are quite risk averse and slow to change (...) [but] there are bigger opportunities for websites to work with councils than there are working with newspapers because the council people and the websites have very similar goals."
Now Perrin's work beyond Kings Cross Environment involves training people across the country to create hyperlocal sites. These tend to be community activists rather than mainstream media people. There are technical problems for those sites that stray into 'news' reporting, such as libel law and the cost of insurance. Marketing can also be a problem, as hyperlocal sites quickly reach plateaus and can find it hard to connect to the next group of people or a higher level of activity. It seems logical for local papers to help bridge that gap to each other's mutual benefit, but Perrin believes that old-fashioned attitudes hamper co-operation:"I think a lot of the papers are coming from an old-fashioned mindset which is that if I link out, I will lose that pair of eyes rather than thinking that I want that pair of eyeballs to keep coming back to me every week because I've got interesting things to link to."
Perhaps both local newspapers and hyperlocal sites could benefit by being more networked to each other. No-one is suggesting that hyperlocal sites can somehow replace local and regional media coverage, but Perrin has a gut feeling that the community media brands now being created from the grass-roots may have longevity. Not at the expense of professional local media, but as a more relevant and personal alternative to a declining sector:"As long as reliable free web platforms are available then some of the brands that have been available within the last two years could still be around in 150 years."
That is now accepted by a major commercial group like Trinity Mirror. Its regional digital director Richard Ayers says the market, and his group's attitudes, are changing rapidly this year:
"We welcome proper linking to other websites, such as independent hyperlocals, because we now see ourselves as part of the ecosystem. We are pushing partnership and participation hard."
The motive for Trinity Mirror is money, but Ayers claims it has acquired a new sense of the online media environment after a false start by much of the commercial regional press:
"Local newspaper websites were seen as 'companion' websites that reflected the newspaper's brand rather than having an independent existence editorially. One of the problems was that material was simply put online after it was published in the newspaper. There was little effort invested in creating a good online product. To make something work online (...) you need to plan and develop the design for weeks in advance and that was not done in the past - partly because the online teams were too small and too separate. Now all journalists are so-called multimedia journalists, but you can't become multimedia overnight. You need to strategise and make time for online."
One example of a failed effort was Teeside Online, now Gazette Communities as part of Trinity's Middlesbrough-based Gazettelive.co.uk. It started well but public participation was stymied by technical problems. Now it has relaunched and interactivity is soaring, says Ayers. The journalists are also being more pro-active with pages on Flickr and other forms of crowdsourcing. He insists that networked journalism is more than just a way of generating content, it is a battle for "the audience's hearts and minds". Heart and minds that Trinity can sell to advertisers. One problem is measurability. The Liverpool Echo has something like 75 per cent market penetration for newspaper reading in the city but online there is far greater competition. So advertisers see the smaller percentages and either don't spend or retreat to off-line platforms. Ayers says that he needs new kinds of metrics "to capture every touchpoint with a reader in an area so that we can sell that relationship. An interactive, connected, targetable online reader is worth far more to an advertiser than someone glancing through a newspaper".
For Trinity the internet does not replace newspapers, but can help revive them, even in the face of significant cuts. So although its Birmingham Post is no longer a daily it can still break news 24/7 online and the weekly paper version itself has grown, recently hitting 212 pages. So locally publication is now a two-stage publication process with two outlets in a networked market, where linking to other information or news sources is a virtue and not a threat.
If you talk to local journalists in the major newspaper groups or broadcast organisations, many will talk of over-work, poor pay and low standards. Lack of resources makes the networked journalism ideas of someone like Richard Ayers look ambitious. So it is not surprising that many of the better independent hyperlocal sites are created by experienced local journalists going their own way. They too, however, are limited by their access to traditional resources to create conventional local media platforms. In the end both groups have one thing in common. Both need to recognise the power of a networked audience and the advantages of connecting with each other.