Ross Hawkes is the founder of the hyperlocal news website Lichfield Live and a senior journalism lecturer at Staffordshire University. Here he argues that journalists working for large media companies awash in a culture of centralisation no longer connect with or understand their audience. This is an edited excerpt from a chapter in the the book, What do we mean by local.
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…
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 that now allow the journalist to set up a newsroom anywhere… But utilising this technology requires something that is not readily found in the modern newsroom – trust…
News is still the central ingredient in a media business but the difficulty lies getting bodies on the ground in an affordable way… 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…
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.
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 [which is] 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…
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…
Content is still king
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…
Journalists at a community level, fusing the power of communication granted by the internet and its many tools with rich, valuable local content, 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…
Those media groups that 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…
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 regionalnewspapers across the country for decades have been the original user-generated content…
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?…
Most hyperlocal sites will not, at present, have the resources to regularly tackle 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.
*What do we mean by local? is edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler & Ian Reeves and published by Abramis. Available at a special Media Guardian price of £12 from firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was first published on the Guardian media website and is republished here with the kind permission of the author, Ross Hawkes. Read more about him on http://thejournalismnotepad.co.uk/