Think of it as shrinking the public sphere to the size of your street, and then examining it with a magnifying glass. This is more or less what the Trinity Mirror group of newspapers did in the UK this year.
Their experiment with what they call “hyperlocal community websites” was so successful that they have decided to roll it out nationally, the Media Guardian reported. These websites cover news relating to a specific postcode (see some of these sites at href=”http://www.gazettelive.co.uk/gazette-communities” target=_blank mce_href=”http://www.gazettelive.co.uk/gazette-communities”www.gazettelive.co.uk/gazette-communities).
News from the group’s community websites, citizen journalism and other user-generated content (for example, user blogs) is posted on a website dedicated to an area falling under a single postcode.
A selection of these online stories are then also printed and distributed to homes in the postcode area. The 22 hyperlocal websites launched as a pilot were so popular (and unexpectedly so) that the same formula is to be applied nationally, the group’s regional managing director told the Guardian.
align=leftThere are some negative aspects as well. One could argue that hyperlocal websites may lead to a navel-gazing approach to news; that an event or an issue only becomes important when it happens in one’s own backyard.
align=leftThat is not sensible in a globalised world where we have to learn more about other countries, other cultures, other regions, and try to understand how our interests are linked to theirs. Another point of concern, raised in the USA after a recent spate of job cuts at big newspapers, is that hyperlocal sites which rely on user-generated content and citizen journalism may eat into the mainstream journalism market, eventually leading to job losses as work gets “farmed out” to consumers instead of journalists (!_LT_EMsee Michelle Ferrier’s discussion of this problem on the Poynter Institute’s website!_LT_/EM).
align=leftA counter-argument is that the success of these websites lures more investment and creates the need to bring more staff on board to cope with the demand. This was the case at the Teesside Gazette, which will also recruit bloggers, including local charity workers, teachers and youth leaders, the Press Gazette reported.
align=leftWould this hyperlocal approach be a good one to transplant to South Africa?
align=leftThe answer would depend on your definition of community media. If you take the term to refer only to content, these sites would qualify as they provide news from the bottom up and shine the news light into the local nooks and crannies ignored by the big broadsheets or radio stations.
align=leftHowever, if you see community media as referring to an independent ethos, as a way to counter the concentration and conglomeration of media resources in the hands of Big Media, these hyperlocal sites would be regarded as just another tentacle used by big media companies to grab a piece of local audiences.
This is the case with Trinity Mirror in the UK, and in South Africa, many local community newspapers are also owned by big conglomerates like Naspers and Caxton. This situation could easily result in community papers having a generic, one-size-fits-all look and feel.
Moreover, a community paper having to provide profits for a big parent company could yield to the pressure of commercialising to the extent that the relationship with the local community Ã¢Â€Â“ in all its diversity Ã¢Â€Â“ suffers in the same way as when a take-away franchise takes over the old Mom-and-Pop cafÃƒÂ© on the corner.
In the South African context there is the added issue that web-based news outlets would also exclude many communities whose members do not have access to computers and the internet and who rely on radio or print for their news and information.
align=leftThe most exciting form of community media occurs when local communities find a way of taking control of the ownership and management of community media, so that they could exercise greater control over the coverage of issues they consider important.
align=leftSuch media could then incorporate local interest groups, social movements and community leaders in order to tap into a local network. But such initiatives would need financial support to get started.
align=leftIn South Africa, such support is meant to be offered by the Media Development and Diversity Agency. The MDDA’s work is also seen as socio-politically important because community media is seen as a way to balance the skewed picture of social reality which results from mainstream media focusing on lucrative (historically white, but increasingly also black middle-class and elites) audiences and neglect poorer ones, or those without access to power structures (for instance, rural audiences). Community media, according to the MDDA, is regarded as way of extending “ownership and control of, and access to, media by historically disadvantaged communities, historically diminished indigenous language and cultural groups” (!_LT_EMsee!_LT_/EM href=”http://www.mdda.org.za/” target=_blank mce_href=”http://www.mdda.org.za/”!_LT_EMwww.mdda.org.za!_LT_/EM).
align=leftThe MDDA says it aims at channelling resources to community and small commercial media; working towards human resource development and capacity building in the industry and facilitating research into media development and diversity. A similar logic underpinned the licensing of community radio stations, many of whom have been struggling financially and found themselves having to resort to more commercial formats in order to be economically viable.
align=leftNews focusing on a specific community, no matter how small that focus is, does not have to be myopic. The challenge for community journalists is to show how local issues and concerns are related to bigger processes Ã¢Â€Â“ national policies, for instance, or global trends and movements.
align=leftThe high unemployment figures in a local community may have to do with a national or even global economic slump; crime statistics in the local area could be compared with and understood in relation to national trends or police capacity, and so forth. In the South African context, a main challenge for community media is to bridge the social fissures and fault lines that run through geographical areas.
align=leftThe challenge is to see “community” not only in the narrow sense of people with the same income levels, similar social standing or even race and ethnicity. Community media could play an important role in getting different sections of the community to reach out to each other, to facilitate greater understanding between different groups and encourage people to think of community in an inclusive rather than exclusive way (the recent xenophobic attacks across the country was a violent example of the latter way of thinking about community).
align=leftBecause of the way that South African society is still scarred by the polarisations and geographical schizophrenia persisting from apartheid laws like the Group Areas Act that forcibly kept communities apart, and because of the huge class differences between different areas, postcode-based community news might lead to even further isolation and polarisation, and less interest or compassion for what goes on on the other side of the railway tracks, so to speak.
align=leftIt would be much more of a challenge for community media to conceive of “community” in new ways and to play a part in getting members and sections of communities to talk and listen to each other in a way that big mainstream media are unable to.
Dr Herman Wasserman is a senior lecturer in journalism studies at Sheffield University (UK) and Associate Professor Extraordinary of Journalism at Stellenbosch University.
This article first appeared in The Media magazine (September 2008).