Ever the networker, I was particularly looking forward to ‘What Next for Community Journalism?‘ (on September 9th 2015, organised by Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism, supported by Nesta) as I knew I would see lots of familiar faces from the world of hyperlocal media and perhaps get to meet some new ones. I wasn’t disappointed and the organisers should be praised for bringing together an impressive mix of practitioners, academics and policy-makers.

This was really a show-and-tell event, pitched as a summit. Its organisation (27 presentations, no breakouts) meant that there was little space for networking which was a shame as it’ll likely be a while until such a diverse group is gathered again. Only one of the planned ‘workshop’ sessions happened and even that was curtailed.c4cj

Nonetheless, the event proved that ‘hyperlocal’ continues to be a buoyant space of both collaboration and difference between technologists, entrepreneurs, investors, community journalists, academics and policy-makers.

For technologists and entrepreneurs there’s still the promise that ‘digital’ can help deliver financial returns and scaleable businesses. It better, else the Technology Strategy Board’s investment of £2.4m in UK businesses seeking returns in this area will be money poorly spent (caveat: I played a mentoring role in the ‘sandpit’ event for this funding so I’m kinda hoping they succeed).

For those practising community journalism, whether or not they enjoy the tag ‘hyperlocalist’, there’s evidence of innovative practice. On the Wight are partnering with Tony Hirst (from the Open University) to trial a form of auto-generated accountability journalism.

Meanwhile, a strand on investigative journalism threw up some interesting examples (Darryl Chamberlain of 853Blog is pretty nifty with his FOIs, even FOIing the wine list from a swanky council dinner ‘for added colour for the story’) but also revealed that perhaps advertising isn’t the only way to sustain this form of journalism. Adam Cantwell-Corn of The Bristol Cable revealed a subscription model helps fund their investigative journalism.

For academics interested in how journalism might be sustained in a digital age, hyperlocal must seem a curious space; caught as it is between a nascent start-up culture and a ‘doing it for the good of community’ culture. My own analysis of the data we produced in the Creative Citizens project revealed the ways in which hyperlocal producers explain away their tendency to self-exploit their labour by drawing on a community discourse.

But in this particular academic space we have fine people such as Clare Cook from UCLAN, Francois Nel from Reuter’s Institute and Judith Townend from City University. Clare and Judith presented findings from projects they are working that in turn look at business models in hyperlocal and at the role of the charity sector in supporting journalism. Francois gave an amusing analysis of his own ‘summit’ event on the future of journalism enterprise earlier in the year which he argued failed to come up with effective answers to the vexed question of sustainability.

Another academic, this time lurking in the audience, was Kristy Hess. My most effective networking of the day came via a lunchtime chat with Kristy. She’s at Deakin University in Australia and has written about local newspapers and more recently about hyperlocal. Indeed I was re-reading her excellent journal article ‘Hip to be Hyper: The subculture of excessively local news‘ (2015) on the journey to the conference.

Kristy, like myself to a degree, is interested in what other understandings we can bring to a study of hyperlocal. Journalism Studies tends to focus on the role it might play in addressing the democratic deficit but she argues that; “there is a need to take a step back and view hyperlocal not as a product or object, but as a cultural phenomenon” (Hess 2015: 13).

She goes on to make the case that: “studying hyperlocal news through a cultural lens shifts the focus from politics, business models and economic sustainability that tend to dominate the literature in this space, to help identify the aspects of social and cultural life that mainstream media do not or cannot fill, generating valuable perspectives on the future of news and the importance of excessively local in this globalized world. (Hess 2015: 14).

I’m with her on that, and our lunchtime chat was a discussion of the possibilities that emerge from this position.

The event was top and tailed with the thoughts of Dan Gilmoor. He remains optimistic about the potential for technology to facilitate the citizen voice, yet downbeat about the role of the big tech companies in the digital landscape. But the day didn’t belong to him, it belonged instead to the many practitioners who took time to simply show-and-tell. There was almost too much to take in and the many print publications on display in the foyer showed that the UK now has a vibrant small media scene across offline and online that will no doubt continue to keep all interested parties busy for some time to come.

Other write-ups of the day:

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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