As the academic lead for the Hyperlocal Media strand of the Creative Citizens project I was tasked with pulling together a findings and discussion panel for the Creative Citizens conference in September 2014. I was pleased to get input from practitioners as well as academics and below is a summary of the panel:
In this panel, researchers from the hyperlocal strand of the Creative Citizens project were tasked with discussing the scope of their work and their findings to date. This was then counterpointed with a discussion panel made up of those undertaking hyperlocal publishing projects as well as scholars and those investing in hyperlocal as an innovation space.
Dr Andy Williams from Cardiff University led off the session by outlining the detail of the strand’s work as it looked across the UK’s emerging hyperlocal ‘scene’. The strand’s research has represented a journey of sorts as it began by simply identifying how many hyperlocal operations there are and how much content is produced, before moving on to a deeper textual analysis of hyperlocal and a subsequent surveying of practitioners themselves.
This journey has led us, argued Andy, to a much clearer understanding of the ways in which hyperlocal frames community relations and contributes to a rejuvenated public sphere. Hyperlocals often do a comparable job to that of the local press that they have often ended up replacing, argued Andy, through campaigning on local issues, reporting corruption in local government or in business, and undertaking investigate journalism.
Andy was keen to impress upon us the precarious nature of such operations (many are not formally organised at all) but left us in no doubt that there are impressive examples in the UK of hyperlocal news operations acting as a real voice for local people and their concerns, countering the relative under-reporting of local government and everyday civic issues in mainstream media. He concluded by reminding us that as rich as hyperlocal is in cultural value, it’s relatively low in economic value, relying largely on volunteerism.
Jerome Turner from Birmingham City University guided us through the more qualitative aspects of the project’s research that involved projects in Cannock and Birmingham in the Midlands. Working with ‘Connect Cannock’ on a co-creation project resulted in the development of a printed newspaper version of an established news website.
The result was a rather playful intervention in a local media scene that had long since lost its mainstream daily newspaper. Its content was partly co-created with citizens via a Photowalk and the end result acted as a reminder to residents of the newspapers they used to have. This prompted one audience member to question the validity of this looking backwards to print, rather than seeking a more digital route to engagement.
This issue was to re-emerge in the panel discussion that involved two hyperlocals that had started newspapers in parallel to their digital versions. Both agreed that extending into print from a digital base was a sensible move given the reach that newspapers (both are issued free) can have into a community and the attractiveness to advertisers that follows from that. Zoe Jewell from Brixton Blog declared that “print is completely essential to our survival,” not just for economic reasons but as a route to drawing a wider audience back to the digital thereby reinforcing the value of the brand. Tom Kihl from Kentishtowner tries to situate his operation as a ‘Sunday Supplement’ rather than ‘front page’ but this turn away from a pure news agenda has allowed him to find a successful niche in the local media ecology.
Moving on to the role of education, Sara Moseley from Cardiff University discussed the Welsh hyperlocal scene and the interventions that the Centre for Community Journalism at the university have made to upskill and support such operations. Developing a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on community journalism revealed the international reach of this form of journalism with about 9000 community journalists participating in the course: “there’s a huge drive to share and join communities together” said Sara.
Kathryn Geels from Nesta outlined the Destination Local programme and cited examples of a hyperlocal (City Talking in Leeds) that was not just moving into print but collaborating with mainstream media to mutual benefit. Nesta’s interest in the sector is focused on the business and technology opportunities with the aim of bringing in further investment from the private sector. Nesta’s interests also extend to investigating how hyperlocal material can be more easily found in web searches and Kathryn raised interesting points about the role of government and Ofcom in supporting moves to get hyperlocal public service content better surfaced online.
Finally, Dr Luke McKernan from the British Library reminded us that at the beginning of the newspaper industry in the 17th century there was a similar blossoming of local news and short-lived operations that made a significant contribution to the public sphere. Luke’s concern is that much of the artefacts from that period are now lost, so how can we ensure that the hyperlocal content of the 21st century isn’t similarly lost? Reassuringly, the British Library has begun to archive hyperlocal sites on an ongoing basis. What it needs is reliable information of what is out there, a role that the Creative Citizens project can help play.
Overall this panel provided an illuminating insight into the ongoing research into hyperlocal but also allowed those with an interest in the practice, as well as practitioners themselves, to remind us that this flourishing of local news and information is worthy of further study and of further investment.