A barely articulated premise has been that one day – surely not too far away – there will be ubiquitous, free, high-speed internet access available to everybody via a myriad devices.
Connectivity – and the "connectedness" it engenders – will be the air we breathe. The world we inhabit will be an "internet of things", of which all kinds of objects – not just computers, tablets and phones – will be a part.
Emerging technologies associated with a semantic web of data will power the innovative applications, services, and enterprises that will compete and combine to meet the needs of communities in the 21st century.
In particular, the crucibles for global change will be "open-data" cities – cities which self-consciously and collectively decide to make available unimaginable quantities of data, openly and freely.
Such is the thinking that led to the UK's first Open-data Cities Conference, to be held at Brighton Dome Corn Exchange on Friday, 20 April.
But what has this got to do with local newspapers?
Clearly, we live at a singular juncture in human and technological development: human beings have been on the planet for about 160,000 years; cities have existed for, say, 6,000 years; the internet was created barely 50 years ago.The crucibles for global change will be "open-data" cities, which self-consciously and collectively decide to make available unimaginable quantities of dataGreg Hadfield
It is this conjunction that offers a final lifeline for the owners of city newspapers – or at least those capable of riding the next wave of disruption, rather than floating like flotsam and jetsam in the wake of the current inundation.
Much of what follows is informed by a series of serendipitous accidents that comprise my journalistic career; all of it is inspired by my faith that the future will be characterised by networks of networked cities – and my belief that data will be the lifeblood of these networks and that the media landscape in such cities is still up for grabs.
Metaphorically, open data will be the straw out of which technologists (and journalists) will make the bricks, which will build the walls of the mansions and palaces of a future whose architects may still be in our schools and universities.
My working life began as a print journalist in the last millennium (Pitman shorthand, typewriters, immobile telephones) and culminated in "Fleet Street" - (aka Wapping, Kensington, and finally Victoria, as head of digital development at Telegraph Media Group).
I rehearse this curriculum vitae for three reasons: firstly, to highlight how much has changed within a single generation; secondly, to remind myself of a personal journey from local, to national, to global; thirdly, because I increasingly find myself reflecting on "local" journalism in an era defined by global technologies.
Repeatedly, I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan's explanation of the despair that emerges at times of profound technological and cultural transitions: "Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools and yesterday's concepts." (my italics)
Then we come to the latest depressing circulation figures for what are most commonly described as regional or "local" newspapers.
Suffice it to say that all such newspapers suffered a year-on-year decline (excluding a handful that "bulked up" their performance by giving copies away for free). The worst figures were reported by the Nottingham Post, which recorded a remarkable year-on-year slump of 17.2 per cent and a print circulation of just 33,940. This in a city with a population of about 300,000!
Specifically, the Open-data Cities Conference will focus on 20 cities:
- Unitary authorities or metropolitan district councils, where citizens have as much democratic control over their lives as central government allows;
- Those with populations of 250,000 or more, which have sustainable local economies;
- Those in line for "local TV", as conceived in government plans for digital terrestrial television.
In these 20 cities, newspaper circulation has fallen by more than eight per cent in a year; in cities with a combined population of about eight million, the main city newspapers sell fewer than 900,000 copies a day.
Even after allowing for traffic to their websites (about 600,000 daily unique browsers, with many visitors also purchasers of the print product), it is clear that cities and citizens expect more from newspapers that are "local" in name only, that respond to demand for 24/7 news by publishing only one edition a day, and that often do not publish content on the web until after it has appeared in print.
Cities and citizens deserve better.
In a digital world, data is everywhere, all the time. It defines, describes and determines the world we live in. Usually, you can't see it; you definitely can't touch it. Occasionally, it is openly and freely accessible; mostly, it is locked away in databases controlled by big business or big government.
Often, you wouldn't describe it as data in the traditional sense. What I'm talking about is not numbers in a spreadsheet; it's much more than that. Literally, it is the "stuff" of everyday life.What I'm talking about is not numbers in a spreadsheet; it's much more than that. Literally, it is the "stuff" of everyday lifeGreg Hadfield
The more data that is released - without strings attached, in machine-readable and non-proprietary "open" formats - the more likely it is that businesses and developers will use it to build the applications and services that world-class cities need.
Of course, I'm not urging the release of personal data relating to identifiable individuals.
The civic data I'm talking about is data about schools, catchment areas, and property prices; about bus times and bus-stops, taxi ranks, car parks, and traffic congestion; about energy use, CO2 emissions, and carbon footprints.
Data has always been the stuff of journalism. The first edition of The Manchester Guardian carried schools data on its back page; George Orwell collected data about rents and wages on his road to Wigan Pier; performance data is an ingredient in all types of sports journalism.
At a national level, the move towards open data in Whitehall is irreversible; at a local level, progress is inevitably slower and more fragmented. Ultimately, though, the impact could be much more profound.
City data can provide the scale needed to return to the sort of "local" journalism I enjoyed at the start of my career as district reporter for the Normanton edition of the Wakefield Express, serving the needs of a mining community of fewer than 19,000 people. Today, some would call it "hyperlocal" journalism.Data can help journalism once more become a service, much more than a productGreg Hadfield
Never before has there been a better time to be a journalist; never before have there been so many tools and technologies available to journalists; and yet, never have cities and citizens been so ill-served by so-called local media.
Data can help journalism once more become a service, much more than a product. I understand why local newspapers stopped sending reporters to planning sub-committees, and why they stopped printing planning applications across two pages of newsprint. But I don't understand why not a single newspaper created a service like PlanningAlerts.com or FixMyStreet.
Data can help local media put themselves at the centre of the community, listening to and leading the conversations about openness and accountability.
If city newspapers work with the public and private sectors to open up the data, they can position themselves as the creators and curators of city data repositories that power the websites, the apps, the smart TV content of the future.
Most importantly, they can put themselves back at the centre of the democratic and commercial life of the city - by establishing richer relationships with the communities they seek to serve. By holding to account the great and the good, and the bad. By using data to make sense of the world.
Open data is about collaboration and co-production, about working in partnership with those inside – and outside – an organisation to achieve shared goals.
It's not about publishing content at people; it's not about content that is engineered in badly-resourced, bunker-like newsrooms on the periphery of cities, sub-edited by outsiders, and printed miles away on satellite presses.
Finally, opening up our data is about giving a voice to the voiceless. And that's the job of journalism. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
For more details about the UK's first Open-data Cities Conference, visit www.opendatacitiesconference.com.