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Ross Hawkes: Local reporting – at the heart of the past, present and future

Hyperlocal journalism is seen by some as the future of local news – as long as a way can be found to make it pay.

Continuing our series of extracts from What Do We Mean By Local?, LichfieldLive founder Ross Hawkes argues that partnerships between traditional media and local start-ups can pay dividends for both.


When did local become a dirty word? Those at the coal face of reporting might argue that it is anything but dirty. And yet the industry that employs them seems to be embroiled in a centralisation goldrush, an unstoppable charge towards a single newsroom for all journalism output in the UK. It seems strange for an industry to undermine its own foundations, but that is exactly what it has done by blackening the name of local reporting through the systematic withdrawal of funding and resources. Patch reporters in the true sense of the word are a dying breed. Gone are those who are known by everyone who is anyone in their local area with a finger firmly on the community’s pulse, replaced instead by ever-changing bylines hidden behind an email address. The harsh fact is that traditional journalists are becoming remote from their audiences who are also – although the terminology is an example of all that is wrong with the industry – the customers. If they are always right, then how can we ignore their needs?

This centralisation culture must surely have had an impact on the ability of journalists to understand and reflect the issues facing their readers. If you do not have your ear to the ground how can you accurately represent the views of the community? That is not to say there is a need for a physical newsroom in the centre of a patch, thanks mainly to the tools which now allow the journalist to set up a newsroom anywhere a Wi-Fi or 3G signal can be found. But utilising this technology requires something that is not readily found in the modern newsroom – trust. Reporters are too often chained to the desk, hamstrung by the theory that if you cannot be seen then you are not working.

Steve Dyson, a former editor of the Evening Gazette on Teesside and the Birmingham Evening Mail, believes newspaper groups cannot underestimate the need to have boots on the ground. ‘I’m not sure that traditional newsrooms know what they need anymore,’ he said. ‘But to be successful, any future media business – online or in print – needs people in and around local communities digging up stories of interest.’ It is an interesting view from someone who has seen the harsh realities of keeping the plates spinning as declining profit margins compete with the demand for news. News is still the central ingredient in a media business but the difficulty lies getting bodies on the ground in an affordable way.

The media industry is no different to any other, with entrepreneurs identifying gaps in the market ready to be exploited. The rise of the hyperlocal publishers has been testament to the opportunities being presented to those with an understanding of the modern, digital community. One of the accusations regularly levelled at hyperlocal publishers is that no-one is making significant money from them yet. While this may be true, positive signs are there. In his hyperlocal review of 2011, Damian Radcliffe (2012) acknowledged that funding was an ongoing challenge, but recognised that traditional media and start-ups were experimenting. A number of initiatives have come and gone in recent times, including the Guardian’s much-vaunted ‘Local’ project. Despite being wound down because the sites were no longer deemed sustainable, the organisation did admit that ‘as an experiment in covering local communities in a new way, it has been successful and enlightening’.

This struggle by traditional publishers to find a way for the newsgathering benefit to outweigh the associated costs is not a surprise. But according to the man nicknamed ‘The Godfather of Hyperlocal’, the solution is not to measure the success of such a site in the same way as traditional publishing. Rick Waghorn’s idea of making sites ‘not-for-loss’ as a first step is an important one, but one which is not comfortable for many of the traditional publishers trying to secure a slice of the new market (see Williams 2010). For former newspaper man Steve Dyson, the odds seem stacked firmly in favour of the new visionaries rather than the old guard – thanks mainly to the issue of centralisation. He explained: ‘They [traditional publishers] won’t go in the opposite direction, as this is counter-intuitive to the way they are structured and organised. And so this is where real local businesses could develop, because most major news organisations are leaving the marketplace wide open.’

And it is a view shared by Nigel Barlow, of hyperlocal site Inside the M60: ‘The structure of the media was blown away by the four big players’ consolidation of the independents over the last 10-15 years and it will be difficult to untangle that state of affairs. It seems that media groups, in an attempt to cut costs, are trying to do things on a regional scale. By doing this, they are once again making the mistake of being too remote from their audience.’

Getting to the Roots of Local

Part of the growth and perceived success of the new hyperlocal movement is down to passion and knowledge for the communities they serve – and recognising that ‘local’ is no longer a catch-all term. The idea of ‘community’ cannot even be described as a purely geographic phenomenon, with many people having a greater empathy and connection to an online social group than to their physical neighbours. The emotional connection between audience and publisher is particularly important in a society that is used to choice and being able to interact with their media, be it through phone votes, Twitter hashtags or red-button offerings. So for many of the successful hyperlocal sites, the ‘one of us’ mentality and the open nature of the work has been crucial.

There is also the social currency factor. With many websites being run as voluntary, non-profit enterprises or sapling start-ups, there is a greater goodwill element involved in the support they get. Lichfield Live (formerly the Lichfield Blog) was able to tap into this network when technical problems threatened the future of the project. Philip John, one of the founders of the site, explained: ‘We were quite honest about the fact that we were in desperate need of financial assistance and the local community supported us by taking out adverts and allowing us to purchase new equipment to safeguard the site for the future.’ This goodwill is also borne out in newsgathering. Eyes on the ground have always been a crucial part of the local journalist’s life.

But the effect of this network within a community is increased thanks to the ready availability of social media. The opportunity to interact with an audience in real time, all of the time has allowed the new breed of reporters to put themselves firmly at the centre of a local, social circle. By positioning themselves at the heart of their community, hyperlocal journalists can understand the needs and desires of the audience they are serving. In the current, technology-driven and globally connected society, the journalist has the ability to be at the heart of the community at all times. It is important to recognise the difference between centralised services and centralised reporting. It is possible for a newsroom to exist beyond the realms of bricks and mortar, by utilising the many technological tools available. This ability to put the journalist back into the local setting would surely put the local setting back into the journalist as well.

Who Should Set the Agenda?

If anything, this latest incarnation of entrepreneurial journalism at a local level is merely the industry going full circle to the days of pamphleteers and individual publishers. The only difference is the platform and range of tools now available. However, Steve Dyson insists the make-up of the community is the key:

When the printing press was first invented, hundreds and thousands of pamphlets were printed by individuals – whether they were politicians, activists, businessmen or quacks. But they quickly disappeared once newspapers were born and organised the content. At this stage of multi-media, there is a tendency for readers to be ‘search happy’, looking for and finding a multitude of disparate content and enjoying the early days of this online adventure. But still the most popular websites are those that organise the content, editing out the rubbish.

But the argument that society is increasingly looking for openness rather than pre-moderated media cannot be ignored. One of the key issues facing regional journalism is the inability to woo audiences in a defined geographic area. This is because the definition of local to the individual can vary, as can their point of access. Traditionally, local media sprung up around closely-connected communities. But with a more transient and commuter-led society, the issue of how to get the product to market becomes far greater. After all, how can you sell a product to an audience when you do not know where they are to buy it?

This is where digital offerings should come to the fore, by providing a universal option for those outside a circulation area to continue to access local information and news which has longevity and ease of access. If newspapers and other media outlets are struggling to come to terms with the fact that news, particularly at a local level, is now beyond their sole ownership and control, there are many who suggest the horse has already bolted. Media commentator Arif Durrani (2012) has claimed that social media has already turned the tide, suggesting ‘the hold of traditional media outlets like Rupert Murdoch’s on setting the news agenda is increasingly being superseded by Twitter’. If we are accepting that the national picture is changing, then we can safely assume the local picture will undergo, or already has undergone the change. Much of this change has been powered by the social media giants, with Twitter and Facebook allowing small media to punch above their weight in the marketing of content. This has in turn enabled them to build audiences quickly and effectively and gain support within a defined local community.

The view that news is no longer the sole domain of the journalist was supported by Professor Paul Bradshaw  who said (2011): ‘Traditionally, the media were the gatekeepers. They took information and they decided what went through the gate, what news people got. Now the gates are open, the news is circulating regardless of your decision as a journalist as to what is newsworthy.’ Hyperlocals have taken this standpoint and run with it. By utilising openness and information sharing, they have been able to tap into the flow of news thanks to an understanding that they do not control it, but are merely sharing it with like-minded individuals who share common values, ideals and interests.

Content is Still King

A wise person once decreed that content was king – but it is not a universally accepted view. Andrew Odlyzko (2001) suggested that the communication element of the internet was more important than the entertainment value of the information it contained. For journalists, fusing the power of communication granted by the internet and its many tools with rich, valuable local content, journalists at a community level will be able to thrive.

The quality of reporting certainly cannot be undervalued, mainly due to the fact that for many local reporters this is the gap in the market they will be attempting to exploit. In terms of the big, headline stories then speed is likely to be the space they are attempting to fill. However, in terms of longevity then it will be going back to basics. For all the technological breakthroughs and tools now available, no-one has yet replaced the ability of a journalist to get their nose stuck in and dig out a story.

This is where big media’s centralisation policy falls down. By not having the staffing levels or funding to make a case for sending a reporter to a parish council meeting or village fete, they are missing events that have real meaning to that particular community. By going back to basics and patch reporting, the hyperlocal journalist can have a steady supply of stories that will appeal to a local populace, as well as raising his or her profile within the community. Physical presence still carries more weight than faceless email. If centralisation is leading to lack of face-to-face contact, the situation is being compounded by the lack of value placed on communication as a whole within journalism and the wider media industry. Speculative meetings and time spent establishing contacts do not make a mark in the plus column on the balance sheet. But for the smaller, independent organisations who are likely to flourish if Clay Shirky’s view (see Benton 2009)  that we should allow 1,000 flowers to bloom in place of newspapers is correct, communication will be the central pillar on which their success or failure rests. While traditional media attempts to shoehorn outdated working methods which restrict the creativity of its workers, vibrant forward thinkers will be busy taking advantage by creating the sort of close-knit community networks which their media forefathers held so close to their hearts.

Is Clay Shirky right? Should we allow the flowers to bloom in the soil left fertile by the demise of newspapers and other media in local communities? Conor Clarke argued (2009) that they should be ‘propped up’ if they were deemed to have a public worth. But surely if a media organisation has attempted to reinvent its offering a number of times and adopted countless new strategies without success then surely there comes a point to put it out of its misery. The death of those media organisations which are merely holding back the inevitable would stop blocking the sunlight from those who have the green shoots of a new era ready to rise from beneath the soil.

It is a difficult argument to call. Those media groups who are not able to adapt to the shifting face of localism and are not prepared to meet the demands of their consumers should not be allowed to distort the marketplace further. It could be argued that attempts to support and underpin crumbling media businesses are actually acting against the public interest by blocking the rise of viable alternatives.

And the big newspaper groups cannot have their cake and eat it. After lobbying hard to prevent the BBC from offering an improved online offering for local communities, many of these organisations have failed to do anything to support the argument that they even had viable products worthy of protection. It could further be argued that they are taking the same ‘Big Bad Wolf’ role when it comes to independent start-ups. Free newspaper entrepreneur Chris Bullivant claimed that the ability of the national groups to throttle local advertising markets would lead to the ultimate demise of the independent publisher (see Luft 2010).

The Battle for Local Audiences

There is no doubt that lessons could be learned from both sides of the battle for local audiences. Traditional media has years of experience behind it, while new start-ups and hyperlocal initiatives have the spirit of adventure within them. However, the barrier between the two is still firmly up in some quarters. The phrase ‘citizen journalist’ is often trotted out in a derisory manner by many of the old school within the industry as a way of undermining the efforts of some new model journalism enterprises to give greater power to their audience. After all, reader interaction is nothing new. The letters pages of regional newspapers across the country for decades have been the original user-generated content.

Philip John, who also runs his own internet consultancy business, believes the use of the citizen journalist analogy is a dangerous one for modern reporters: ‘Citizen journalism is a term coined by journalists who needed a label for this new phenomenon that they were struggling to understand. Interestingly, it seems to have become a qualifier for whether or not, as a journalist, you’ve moved with the times – those using it as a derogatory term showing their inability to adapt to the new way with which they need to interact with their community.’

The BBC are one of the big media organisations who have moved towards greater integration of content submitted by the audience. In a blog, Peter Horrocks (2008) explained the role user-generated content played in the corporation’s newsgathering. Notably, he did not refer to ‘stories’ posted by the audience, but instead pointed to ‘information’ being submitted. Differentiating between journalism and information is crucial in the whole debate over citizen contributions, particularly when working out how to harness community engagement and support in a local arena. Few members of the public actually have any great desire to be a journalist – those who do tend to train professionally. What they do have is a thirst to become involved in the discussion surrounding their community. Often this manifests itself in allowing input into the finished piece, by providing an element of the published article and working with, rather than for, the reporter. Hyperlocals have grasped this concept of partnership as opposed to top-down management of communities and the information and news contained within them.

All of this begs the question: why doesn’t closer integration exist? Some efforts, such as Trinity Mirror’s Communities project in Birmingham, have sought to bring independent news sites closer to the professional journalists. However, this is the first step on a long road of true integration and partnership – and many more regional and local publishers are still some distance from even recognising the value or potential business threat that new hyperlocal efforts could pose, especially in the long run.

This is not to say that newspapers should seek to emulate or replace the hyperlocal publishers. The make-up of their organisations will make this virtually impossible and there are no signs that investment to make ultra-local, ultra-niche reporting will be forthcoming any time soon. But it can be argued that what they should be doing is attempting to understand the value of such sites as newsgathering tools and starting points for a wider analysis of local issues and local news. They have the potential to become agencies or specialist reporters in a reworking of the freelance model that would return to the theory of retainers.

Most hyperlocal sites will not, at present, have the resources to tackle regularly a wide range of issues in great depth over an extended period of time – but this is the area where traditional media can utilise its knowledge and expertise. Therefore, there is no reason why this new breed of ultra-local sites cannot act as a community news wire, breaking stories for the wider media to delve deeper into. This theory of an almost two-tier journalism, created through partnerships, could lead to a greater sustainability for both traditional media organisations and their newer counterparts, improve the understanding of what local is and inform how best it can be exploited in a journalistic sense.

Note on the author

Ross Hawkes is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Birmingham City University and the founder of hyperlocal website LichfieldLive.co.uk. His areas of teaching and research interest are social media, hyperlocal journalism and sustainable local reporting models.

  • WHAT DO WE MEAN BY LOCAL? THE RISE, FALL AND RISE AGAIN OF LOCAL JOURNALISM. EDITED BY JOHN MAIR,RICHARD LANCE KEEBLE WITH NEIL FOWLER.  PUBLISHED BY ABRAMIS BURY ST EDMUNDS SEPTEMBER IST 2013 ISBN 978-1-84549-593-0 PRICE £19.95 WITH A SPECIAL OFFER TO YOUR READERS OF £15.00 from richard@arimapublishing.co.uk

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  • August 21, 2013 at 6:05 pm
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    I would argue that the odds are more likely to be stacked against the traditional publishers exactly because of ex-editors like Steve Dyson who chose to live in the past, believing they could force people to pay for news by trying to restrict what they made available online. It was a nonsense idea which failed, but set publishers back years.

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