The cost of closeness

Low cost, low return – is “hyperlocal” worth it? 

We’re all locals in some part of the world, and in these parts, the nature of our news consumption changes. Is ‘local’ news a practice where journalists have become too remote from their audiences? That is the argument of Ross Hawkes in his contribution to The Guardian’s ‘Local newspapers’ crisis’ in discussing what “hyperlocal” means, and why it works.

 “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, in Hawkes view, is the essence of “hyperlocal” journalism and the focused, interactive nature of such news in connecting with audiences and giving them what they actually care about and are affected by. Ultimately, he comes up with a theory of an “almost two-tier journalism” where mainstream media learns from local media to create partnerships – sounding pretty familiar, convergence comes to mind yet again (as it always does when journalism is concerned). The theory links to the idea that everything is converging, not only online and print media but audience and journalist, now even traditional and hyperlocal media.

To move away from the theoretical stance, a comment on the article put it into practical perspective: “I work for a Community Radio Station that launched 6 years ago. By rights we should have had no chance against both an established local radio & newspaper in our market. But the local radio decided to focus on the ‘region’ rather than the specific town it was based in & the newspaper centralised its offices & editorial team. Both broke the direct link between themselves & the audience – while we stuck with our ‘hyper local’ editorial strategy.”

Another living, breathing example which made this area of news more understandable to me is Richard Jones’s hyperlocal news venture in another instalment of the Guardian ‘Local newspapers’ crisis’ blog titled ‘my hyperlocal site was fine, but it didn’t pay’. In the text Jones tells all about his start-up of website Saddleworth News, including its rewards in getting truly and deeply into his area’s stories, but also its financial shortcomings.

Though Jones was not the one to continue Saddleworth News to this day, his conclusion was that its purpose and online content reached audiences like other local news didn’t – for example, for an election story, he interviewed each candidate in full and linked readers to the interview audio files, while the local newspaper published only short prepared statements from the candidates. Paul Bradshaw of the Online Journalism Blog is quoted in a Culture, Media and Sport select committee report titled ‘Future for local and regional media’ addressing “hyperlocal” agendas like Jones’s, saying For the hyper-local publishers, bloggers, one key element of quality is transparency. If you report on a council meeting, then you link to the full minutes, you put all of that in its full form.” 

But is full form the best form? The committee report also takes into account journalism in snippet form, namely the previews published on Google that redirect readers to original sources. In the report’s section about Google News it lists criticisms from journalists and organisations such as the Guardian Media Group complaining that Google profits from the journalism on its site and is a threat to local news – but, where would journalism be without Google? The Managing director of Google UK Matt Brittin puts it nicely: Google is a “virtual newsagent”, it doesn’t charge news providers anything, plus they give the opportunity for ads, and Google News itself doesn’t carry any ads. The concern of bypassing subscription systems is understandable, but for example, in my experience, the Financial Times has a good enough system that even though I’m stubborn enough to try and access articles from various outlets like Google, I can never get to the content without subscribing. So it’s probably not solely Google’s problem, or ‘wrongdoing’. Search engine optimisation and the use of Google is increasingly quoted as a boost for journalism, so why not local and hyperlocal news?  

With all the issues that face local and hyperlocal news, the gist of it is that its closeness to the audience and the richness of information that people living in its range will appreciate is great, but isn’t very economically viable. To sum up, using Richard Jones and his time with the Saddleworth News, hyperlocal news does work – but it doesn’t pay. So will it survive?

User-generated trouble

What is the ‘citizen’ to the ‘journalist’?

John Kelly’s report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism called ‘Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold: the rise, challenges and value of citizen journalism’ raises several issues in determining the role of a journalist in a media environment pressured by reader demands and the influx of user-generated content (UGC), with audience involvement becoming a hot topic in the industry. The report defines ‘citizen journalism‘ as, in a fundamental sense, the “act of citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information.” If citizens then play an active role, this surely downplays the role of the journalist, who’s responsibilities are being shared – in Kelly’s report the weight of the journalist’s role is emphasised in saying the industry’s promise to tell the truth “elevates it in such a way that failing to live up to that standard can be especially damaging,” compared to other professions.

Now that we’ve established the importance of journalists, citizen journalism increasingly begs the question: what even is a journalist? Kelly’s report asks if it is now

“Anyone who creates something approaching journalism?”

The problem that sits with journalists is that the ‘approach’, the audience creating their own journalistic content, “has the potential to harm the established brand” or undermine journalistic values that working journalists have trained for. Personally, it is relatively easy to understand this sentiment; having studied the nuts and bolts of the title for almost 3 years now, I would pride myself on being able to determine quality content over someone who hasn’t had the training. Jane Singer’s chapterQuality Control: Perceived effects of user-generated content on newsroom norms, values and routines‘ in Journalism Practice focuses on this journalist insistence and belief in their role as gatekeeper, and that although citizen journalism can be a useful supplement it needs monitoring that newsrooms can’t afford.

Both texts take online growth, and the fact that publishing is easier than ever, into perspective – Singer writes: “arguably, if there are no gates, there is no need for anyone to tend them” while Kelly writes: “The media’s gatekeeper function was increasingly obsolete in a world where there suddenly were no fences.” How effective then is holding on to the gatekeeping responsibility? A point that caught my attention in Singer’s text was the comparison to the US and how “the contemporary technological and economic environments in which they work are similar.” Is rise of citizen journalism in mainstream US media (perhaps a result of less gatekeeping?) mirrored in the UK? I recall watching the New York Times documentary Page One last year and being impressed mostly by media reporter Brian Stelter, along with his enthusiasm for all things online, and the publication’s support of citizen journalism guided by their expertise. The New York Times has UGC-based The Local and Newsweek is going digital while the Guardian only discusses its citizen-involved future.

Whether the UK is on the same playing field as the US when it comes to citizen journalism, it is still a worrying presence to most that work in media, and culture blogger Daniel Montgomery puts it bluntly in a parallel situation: Would you entrust your teeth to a “citizen dentist,” or would you leave it to a professional?

Would you entrust your media to a “citizen journalist,” or would you leave it to a professional?

CHECK OUT: A New York Times video about citizen journalism in Iran