As local newspapers close and budget cuts put increasing pressure on remaining journalists, the hyperlocal journalism movement is stepping up to provide the services communities rely on. Nicola Slawson finds out more
For 126 years there had been a local newspaper in Fulham and Hammersmith. The first issue, which came out on 6 April 1888, featured a story about an accident involving a local boy who had been delivering milk on Dawes Road. In April 2014 the Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle was closed, leaving 180,000 people without a local newspaper.
Some, including the local council, were shocked when owners Trinity Mirror announced their decision. But some 242 local newspapers were closed between 2007 and 2011, according to the Press Gazette. More newspapers are being added to this figure each year. And it’s not just closures that are causing waves in local journalism; budget cuts and redundancies are putting increased pressure on remaining staff.
It’s in this environment that a new sector is fast emerging. Known as ‘hyperlocal’, or community journalism, thousands of websites have been set up across the UK serving local communities.
“A free press is as important locally as it is nationally”
Largely run by volunteers, the websites often focus on a very specific local area. According to The State of UK Hyperlocal Community News, a survey led by Dr Andy Williams, seven out of 10 hyperlocal website producers see what they do as a form of active community participation, over half see it as local journalism and over half as an expression of active citizenship.
Cardiff University recognised this growing trend in digital community journalism; opening the Centre for Community Journalism last year. They also provided a massive open online course (MOOC) on the subject, through FutureLearn. It served both those interested in the emerging sector, and offered practical advice to those wishing to set up their own hyperlocal service.
Professor Richard Sambrook, director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, explains why the university decided to invest in this area: “Community journalism, or hyperlocals, clearly have a growing role to play in the media mix in the UK and the world, and as a leading media research institution we wanted to invest in our understanding of this dynamic new sector.”
It’s a sector that could become increasingly important. According to the FutureLearn course, numerous studies show that the crisis in the UK regional commercial news industry endangers the democratic function that local newspapers provide.
Indeed, the closure of the Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle sparked fresh debate on the issue. Local Labour councillor Stephen Cowan said on his blog at the time that there is a need for a wider debate about local newspapers: “A free press is important for a free society and for people to freely make up their own minds what they think, based on independent information.” He added: “That is as important locally as it is nationally.”
Sambrook offers further explanation: “As local newspapers have cut budgets and staff, there are fewer journalists left to report councils and courts – the core democratic activities in most communities. Hyperlocals can certainly have a role in making up for this deficit.”
But Sambrook says we should be careful not to generalise. “Some hyperlocals absolutely take on the role of local journalism. But others do not seek to have this kind of role. They will be an important part of the mix going forward, but not the entire solution.”
But why have they become so successful while traditional local media is struggling? “Crucially, hyperlocals have to be close to the communities they serve. Indeed they grow out of, and are produced by, the community,” says Sambrook. “In contrast, much commercial media has cut back and lost touch with communities. As a result, readership falls.”
In some cases, hyperlocals are plugging gaps that already existed in local media coverage. Talk About Local is a small public service company that aims to help communities find their voice. Its founder William Perrin set up his own hyperlocal website (www.kingscrossenvironment.com) in Kings Cross, London, which didn’t have a local newspaper to begin with. The website has proven popular and serves the important democratic function that many see as so vital. As well as reporting on local festivals and events, the website campaigns on planning issues and holds those in power locally to account. He has since become an expert in hyperlocal journalism and is passionate about its role in society.
“Hyperlocals clearly have a growing role to play in the media mix”
“Many local websites provide local voice and local colour,” he says. “They hold local elected officials and public services to account and they do some of the functions of a newspaper.
“But they are different from newspapers,” he stresses. “They are complementary and we’ve seen one or two incidences where Local World, the big newspaper group, is starting to work with hyperlocals to bring them into its operation because they recognise their news gathering potential.”
In contrast, in many rural areas, there is no media. Perrin says: “In rural communities where they might not have anything other than the traditional parish newsletter produced by the local church committee, a local website can make a huge impact.” He adds that “having some media in a community makes a huge difference rather than none”.
He cites the Morton Hampstead Hub as an example, explaining that although it covers all sorts of local arts and crafts events for its traditionally ‘artsy’ local community, it doesn’t provide the democratic function his own website does. But Perrin argues that this is still hugely important for social cohesion. He says: “It’s clearly hugely important for what sociologists call ‘bridging and bonding social capital’, because it gives people something to rally around so there is a greater understanding of what’s going on in the world around them.”
Hyperlocal journalism isn’t the only new wave hitting local media. Along with the inevitable digital advances in how stories are both sourced and accessed, some local media organisations such as the Bristol Cable and Hastings Online Times are choosing a co-operative model with their readers owning the media organisations themselves.
The local media landscape is certainly set to continue to change dramatically over the next few years and perhaps it’s these grassroots initiatives that will help close the ‘democratic deficit’, and perhaps even influence and inspire their more traditional counterparts.