Looking the wrong way down the telescope

There is a future for news – a sustainable and once-again profitable future with the prospect of expanding and improving journalism by taking it deeper into our communities with increased relevance, engagement, accountability and efficiency.

That’s the view of uber J-blogger Jeff Jarvis who, when not asking “what would google do”, is asking (along with his students at CUNY) “what happens to journalism in a city when its last daily newspaper dies?”. According to Jeff’s article in the Guardian, what happens is that the local community could step in and fill the gap with something new and, most importantly, profitable.

Bottom line: after three years, we project that a blogger could hire editorial staff and advertising help – citizen salespeople who help support the citizen journalists – and net $148,000 out of $332,000 revenue. That’s a conservative estimate when you consider that a community weekly paper in such a town probably earns between $2m-$5m.

There are more facts and figures of amounts that, even with the exchange rate as it is, are pretty eye-popping.

In a comment, I questioned if there was enough of a culture of hyper local in the UK to sustain the ‘ecosystem’

Given that most of the metro blogging and hyperlocal networks in the US are driven by/motivated by/focused on politics, you also have to wonder if the legislative structure in the UK would effectively stop the kind of ecosystem you are talking about at a county, or at a push, city, level.

That prompted a response from the Guardians Kevin Anderson who noted that very little of the ‘hyperlocal’ stuff is to do with politics. Pointing to an older post he mused that there was still “much to learn from two-yr old report on hyperlocal” which, for him, underlined a key problem news organisations had.

One of the most common mistakes that news organisations make when it comes to community is trying to build participation strategies around an extremely narrow, overly-professionalised definition of news.

I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Maybe the media does look the wrong way down the telescope at this issue. But I still think there are questions to be asked about the roll of news in the ecosystem and the role the community has to play.

Is there room for a Preston City Chronicle?
Is there room for a Preston City Chronicle?

Much of the tone of the debate around the ‘death of the traditional media’ is framed by the general consensus that we need to know what is going on in the community around us – it’s our democratic duty. That may not be the fun stuff. It may be the hard stuff, when the community fails. It may be the dull stuff like the endless council meetings.

The argument goes that, whatever it is, we need it and as newspapers die the gap needs to be filled. It’s in that context that many of the best examples of hyperlocal journalism seem to exist. The oft cited Ann Arbour Chronicle is a great example. The frontpage is all politics and metro news and the civic watchdog roll is one that is part of their daily routine.

But that brings me back to my comment and few (of many, many) questions.

  • If sites like the Ann Arbour Chronicle are the model for a successful hyperlocal news service, will the model travel? Does it work in Ann Arbour because of the city and the way the public administration work in the US?
  • What would need to change in the UK for it to work? More open government, less ‘big media’ or a more politically motivated electorate?
  • Should we be trying to make it work at all?

Open09 seems like the perfect opportunity to ask those questions.

This article first appeared on the Open09 blog.

2 Replies to “Looking the wrong way down the telescope”

  1. I think the key thing is the ‘definition’ of what news is. If you stick to the narrow pre-defined definition then an online hyper-local site will struggle, but if it includes basic stuff like community events, photos, videos, parish notices and stuff like that then it becomes viable.

    It depends how local you want hyper-local to go. I think that to be profitable it needs to be a reasonable size town so there is enough advertising and stuff going on to sustain it.

    What I’ve been doing with Blog Preston (shameless plug! http://www.blogpreston.co.uk) shows that you can have a vibrant online community journalism based site, with some meaty hard stuff and some more PR/events driven stuff thrown in to the mix. There definitely is a market for quality local content.

    Below this top level of town/city blogs you will always get the more ‘parish news’ style blogs which still have a big role to play in highlighting local issues and getting people involved – in a way that the old A4 newsletter once a quarter used to and probably still does in a lot of UK towns/villages.

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