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The Future of the Press: Does hyperlocal deserve the hype?

12th February 2013
  • ResPublica

A ResPublica/Carnegie UK Trust panel discussion

Local newspapers play an important social role in our communities, reporting on local issues which would otherwise go unnoticed by the national press and holding local services and politicians up to close scrutiny. In his investigation of the British press Lord Leveson warned that their demise would be a huge setback for democracy. However, despite their position in the heart of the community, sales of local newspapers are in free-fall with the latest figures showing a 10% annual decrease.

Is it now time for a re-think into the way that local media interacts with society? As social media and citizen journalism become ever-more present in everyday social, political and economic interactions, how can local media make better use of new technology and innovative practice, and harness crowd-sourced and civic platforms to inspire a collective exchange?

In partnership with the Carnegie UK Trust, panellists were asked to explore how local media currently interacts with public life, and to consider innovative ways in which communities can take control of and transform the social, political and economic spheres through ground-breaking citizen journalism. They were also invited to discuss the challenges for local media in maintaining the ethical standards in reporting and governance that have singled it out from much of the criticism levelled at the national press, as well as to examine how local media can continue to enrich and uphold our democratic system.

The panel:

  • Martyn Evans, Chief Executive Carnegie Trust UK (chair)
  • Helen Goodman MP, Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport
  • Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive, NESTA
  • Joanna Geary, Head of Social Media and Online Communities, The Guardian
  • David Minton, Director, The Leisure Database

The importance and value of local journalism

The panellists were of a shared opinion that local media has a very valuable role to play in society. The Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sports, Helen Goodman MP, stressed its important contribution to the local community and identity, as well as its role in holding people to account. Hyperlocal media can also include those who are otherwise excluded from mainstream debates, and appeal to issues that people really care about. She made the case that local news outlets should be identified as ‘community assets’ under the Localism Act.

Helen Goodman was more doubtful about reporting of an extremely localised nature, positing that this would often be better done face-to-face; this point was disputed by Geoff Mulgan, who maintained that there is demand for such reporting on a scale even smaller than traditional local media. More generally, he cited the work of OfCom over the past 15 years which highlights the fact that local (rather than national or international) news can be identified as the main gap in the news market, which the public wish to see filled.

The Guardian’s Joanna Geary focused on the great variety to be found among those involved in local news reporting, and made the point that use of the blanket term ‘hyperlocal’ for their work creates a problem by not reflecting the diversity of local media outlets. In addition, she and David Minton, Director of The Leisure Darabase, both drew attention to the influence of mobile technology in this arena, and the difficulties and opportunities which this has raised for large news companies and smaller local enterprises.

David Minton in particular emphasised the impact of the mobile phone in enabling people to reach out to a highly targeted audience and offer them information very specific to their location with immediate effect. He provided an illustrative example of this based on his own involvement in setting up the Splashpath website and app. Many subscribers use Splashpath to give feedback on their experiences of swimming pools, including by indicating their own personal challenges, and providing comments and criticisms. This information, once compiled, is not only a helpful service and community for pool users, but is also of significant value to pool operators.

Starting up and scaling up hyperlocal media

The difficulties of establishing a workable capital model for hyperlocals formed a significant part of the discussion. All of the panellists were broadly optimistic that there is a viable economic future for local journalism, but the varied nature of the sector generated similarly varied opinions and conclusions about which would be the most fertile direction.

Helen Goodman MP concentrated on the underlying popularity and positive economics of local newspapers, despite their apparent decline in circulation. In terms of practical solutions for funding, she indicated that public subsidy for local journalism was not on the agenda; instead she showed an interest in pursuing structural changes in order to facilitate greater co-operation between local journalists and news companies, and to rework the existing competition rules. On the latter point, she proposed a new system based on thresholds, so that papers whose overall circulation (whether online or in print) falls within a particular bracket should be subject to a corresponding level of regulation – such a system could thereby address the existing problems both of treating online and hard-copy publication differently without justification, and of subjecting local newspapers to excessive and unworkable levels of regulation similar to the national press.

Geoff Mulgan echoed Helen Goodman MP’s remarks in stressing the need to ‘rewire’ the economy of hyperlocals, and asserting that this did not mean implementing any public funding. He then went further by criticising recent governments for being blind to the transformation required in regulation of the sector due to the internet.

Beyond regulation, he expressed interest in experimentation with various capital models, and pinpointed a number of potential streams of revenue (including classifieds, other advertising and subscriptions), although he was sceptical about finding a model which might encourage professional journalists to report on extremely local issues. He also reflected on the financial success of The Guardian’s model, which involves aggregating a number of local news pieces with other material and advertising. Finally, he commented that there is promise in the future emergence of co-operatives and new business structures for hyperlocals.

David Minton expanded on the topic of the ability to generate revenue from subscription sites, based largely on his experience of the targeted audience model which he outlined in the Splashpath example. According to this model, if a site can offer the free subscription and targeted material which people want, then it will be able both to retain an audience and to look for a way to make money out of the content generated by its users, which may be valuable to others.

On the other hand, a large number of so-called ‘hyperlocal’ news providers are set up by local reporters who are perhaps unaware that there is any money to be made from this activity, and who are motivated by a passion for journalism or a particular subject rather than for any monetary reason – a point that was made by Joanna Geary. So although increasing numbers of people do appear to be trying to develop successful businesses out of hyperlocals, funding may be only a side issue for these voluntary providers.

The future of hyperlocal media

The general conclusion of the panellists was optimism about the future of hyperlocal media, although perceptions of their future character and confidence on specific issues varied between individuals. David Minton envisaged a future where hyperlocals find business success by exploiting the significant avenues open to them for growth through providing useful and relevant information to exceedingly targeted audiences.

Geoff Mulgan was similarly optimistic that, in light of the popular disposition to experiment with business models and the latest media and technology developments, someone is going to find a way to make hyperlocals profitable and the industry will become consolidated, which may well mean that in the future the sector will look very different. New structures, potentially in the form of co-operatives, could become the key local hubs of the future, supplanting actual physical locations and even challenging the legitimacy of local councils. In terms of wider issues in national reporting and accountability, Geoff posited the question: what type of intervention is needed to draw out the ‘public good’? Could hyperlocal media, and a diverse range of outlets, play a role in re-establishing trust and positive participation with the local and general population?

Helen Goodman MP laid particular emphasis on the ability of technology to give small groups of people a tremendous voice and the power to respond to issues which concern them, and despite having had initial reservations prior to the panel event, ultimately expressed confidence about potential for growth in this area.

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