Behind Local News and the hyperlocal challenge.
On Wednesday this week I spent the day at Wolverhampton Wanderers ground for the Behind Local News Conference (#BLNConf). If you're not aware of BLN, its a new initiative by regional publishers in the UK to showcase the work they do. The Facebook and Medium sites are really fascinating resources, offering some very detailed conversation about the day-to-day of working in local journalism. They are well worth a look. So the conference was a chance to make that growing network more tangible, and we saw a real mix of voices on the stage and on panels that represented the full range of local and regional news providers in the UK.
That alone was enough to make the conference interesting for me. Having representatives of different newsgroups at a conference is nothing new. But the starting point for this was the newsgroups themselves and everyone in the room shared the same commitment to making things work. I think a comment from Reach's Alison Gow summed up the value of the day.
"The more you can tell people what you're working on internally, the more they will start to think about how they can get involved with their own ideas." - @alisongow on how to create an innovative and engaged newsroom.#BLNconf— Behind Local News (@behindlocalnews) May 23, 2018
As a conference I found it one of the most positive I've been to. There wasn't anything 'new' per se. But there was loads of insight and a feeling, one that I've held for a while, that at the core of the industry are journalists who are genuinely care about what they do and are interested in how they can do it better.
Emma Meese from the Centre for Community Journalism offered perhaps the most critical perspective of the day - and I mean that in all senses - with her plea to take collaboration with hyperlocals more seriously. It started with a long list of gripes that members of the community network have with news publishers. This included a general feeling of not being respected or taken seriously to more specific accusations of content theft.
What struck me about the debate was not the content. The concerns expressed aren't new. No less valid because of that but not new. It really made me think about the line between advocacy for journalism and advocacy for hyperlocals.
It's often said that hyperlocals fill a gap. They fill a gap that has been left behind by a shrinking local and regional press - oasis in the news deserts. That idea, that hyperlocals pick up the role that existing publishers don't want or can't do anymore, is extremely prevalent, I'd say a cornerstone in the community media debate. By necessity then, advocacy for hyperlocals often paints existing publishers in a negative light. That, in turn, forms an underpinning part of the argument for hyperlocals role in addressing the democratic and social deficit - replacing traditional journalism in the fourth estate role. In that context collaboration with media organisations seems at best a moot point. Isn't gap community media's USP?
But its clear that a goal for hyperlocals is not just reporting on their communities, it's about representing them and making them visible. That representation means collaboration is important. Stories that are important need to reach a wider audience to have impact. Hyperlocals become essential to the flow of information from small brooks and streams of local life to the massive river of news where most publishers now ply their trade. Important stories, good journalism, should find the biggest audience it can.
My reading of that - and much of the debate from yesterday and other similar sessions boils down to 'we can't live with you and we can't live without you'. That's not to say the position is wrong/untenable or even binary. But it's complicated and challenging to communicate and harder to unpick.
On one level I think its made more challenging by the fact that as Emma pointed out, a good deal of the members of her community were one time local and regional journalists. Collaboration with ex-employers is not always palatable or desirable for them. That's not to let the publishers off the hook. We still have a way to go before some in local newsrooms let go of the high-priest of journalism hat (would that be a crown or a mitre?). And there are as many people prepared to grind axes from within newsrooms as there are in the community journalism sector - the 'grey cardigan' brigade mentioned more than at the conference. But I think that means the negotiation between hyperlocals and 'the mainstream' as constituencies, or at least as groups that have any level of collective representation, isn't about collaboration. Yet. It's about arbitration.
I'm really worried that working this relationship out hasn't found a way to move beyond the 'messy divorce stage' where everyone is arguing about who is to blame for the state of things and who gets the money; the whole issue of the 'state subsidy for media' that is stat notices for example raised its head in the session. I'm worried because I don't see any honest brokers at work to help council the split. The best hope and one that worked hard in the last round of consultation was Nesta and they've completely moved out of the space.
That's a problem because we know there is something coming down the line from government in terms of regulation. We're not sure what but we do know that current government like to exploit gaps. The exisiting posturing press regulation show that - representatives of hyperlocal and community journalism and mainstream media have been predictably divergent on that issue too.
I'm not sure what the solution is but I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the political positioning, partisanship and antagonism of the debate from both sides. It's not helped by both an individual and perhaps institutional indifference of those within the mainstream of regional journalism*. But there is and should be a relationship between all levels of journalism.
This needs to be more than an idea we can somehow move from a parasitic to symbiotic relationship. It's the recognition that this is root and branch the same organism and cuts anywhere, hurt everyone - especially when they are self-inflicted
*I should say that I do think this is often down to lack of time to care one way or another. I would also argue that some attempts to build something more concrete and inclusive, whilst often ground down by process - like the BBC local democracy scheme - represent an opportunity for more joined up working.