news:rewired Hyperlocal and community

I’ve spent the day at the very excellent news:rewired conference organised by the good folks at journalism.co.uk. Lot’s of interesting people and discussions. But I found one thing very frustrating. (actually I found it infuriating and apparently went a shade of purple not often seen)

It seems that some of the breakout sessions descended in to ‘arguments’ generated around an issue which can be best summed up as the “but they are not journalists” argument. The afternoon session on hyperlocal I sat in on certainly fell victem.

We had the whole gamut of arguments including a number of the old favourites, my personal fave was “someone holding a camera is not a photographer”. Erm…yes they are but…I found it frustrating because I thought we had moved on from this. By the time we got to the ‘close the BBC and local newspapers will thrive’ stage  I lost my patience and   my contribution reflects that.  But I realise that was naive and a little unfair.

Given the painful restructuring in the industry at the moment it’s perfectly understandable that people will be looking at where the pinch is. Adam Tinworth made a good point to me that in terms of the stages of loss at least they had moved on to anger from denial. But I realised that it’s not really fair of me to dismiss that out of hand. I should have sat on my hands.

What did become clear to me is a growing divergence in the way hyperlocal and community are being defined and applied. Let me expand.

For me hyperlocal is now best defined by outfits like the Lichfield blog, represented at the session by Philip John. It’s content built on social capital. People are involved because it means something to them other than just a job or brand. Money is second to social status or altruistic motivation.

In contrast we could say that (in the context of the future of journalism) community is a strategy employed by media organisations and the journalists within them to engage with audience. Money is a defining commodity here in terms of starting it and sustaining it. Whether it’s to use that community to newsgather/crowdsource or to bolster the brand.

Both have economies of scale.

A hyperlocal site can only be so big. It will eventually get to a point where it demands more time and resources than volunteers can sustain. The economics of altruism only stretch so far. They can be be satisfied with ‘big enough’ or look at alternatives. Communities can, perversely, be too big to manage for large organisations, they cost too much for little return. In the context of profit and investment the economics don’t work

Both are different.

This inherent difference of motivation and a definition of the economic (investment and return) is becoming increasingly clear (and more so in the debate today) and in that a truth is evident. Hyperlocal websites are not a solution for media organisations who are struggling. You can not fill the gap that hyperlocal sites are starting to fill. A good community strategy may work but your core motivations make it different.

But just as hyperlocal is not the solution it’s also not the cause of the problems.

The truth is that the shift is creating a lot of friction (it’s perhaps bad taste to refer to shifting tectonic plates) and I think thats what created a lot of the ‘grief’ in the sessions.

There was a lot of criticism of hyperlocal as undermining/stealing/destroying journalism; you know the arguments. Likewise the crowd sourcing session seemed to descend in to sa similar semantic debate. As Adam reports:

There’s an undercurrent of hostility to the very idea of calling these contributors to crowd-sourced journalism “journalists” in any way – and that it’s under-mining credibility. In answer, people are suggestion that people can become journalists for single events – one time they happen to be at the right place at the right time.

But growing difference between parish pump websites and the local media, between community and audience, suggests that even discussing hyperlocal and community together is, perhaps, a mistake at a journalism conference.

The motivations, models and practice, it seems from the tone of the debate, are just too different.

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16 Replies to “news:rewired Hyperlocal and community”

  1. Some good points Andy and as you know my big concern is the sustainabilty of hyperlocal sites.

    For all the talk of the journalist as an entrpreneur,there seemed little appetite yesterday to try and solve the basic problem of how to make money.

    Instead it was worrying that the debates descended into arguments about the role of the citizen journalist(which should have been put to bed now) and the role of the BBC (over which we have little or no control)

    The likes of Lichfield blog and Josh Halliday’s SR2 are great examples of hyperlocal innovation but to be sustainable they need to find a way of attracting certain and regular revenue streams )I think I am slipping into my former profession here) but it’s an important consideration.

    The question I asked in the session about whether hyperlocal could survive on volunteers and dedicated individuals was answered spot on by Philip John (ie no way)

    I start to get a bit angry at many of these conferences as a roomful of media people seem to get wrapped up in minute detail whilst failing to address the bigger piucture

  2. Thanks for the comment Nigel.

    I agree that a plan to make hyperlocal sustainable is really important. Scale seems to be the contributing factor. The sites seem to reach that tipping point where they are more like jobs (managing people, resources) and need a financial model to support them. The CIC model mentioned in the session sounded like a good ‘next step’ for many but even as a ‘charity’ ltd you still need to act like a business – business plan, financials etc. So I think your point about wanting more discussion about the money is a really good point.

    My frustration (and where I was going with the post) was that this was clouded by the involvement of big media who where confusing the conversation with blame and rhetoric that really had nothing to do with hyperlocal as many in the room saw it.

  3. I hate to agree with you Andy (only joking…) but the debate over whether over whether someone who holds a camera is a photographer or not drives me mental.

    As a video journalist, I find myself at the very nub of the issue. Some might say I’m not a cameraman, not a photographer, or not a reporter… so what am I? I am still required to do all three jobs and put a lot of effort into making sure I do the best job I possibly can. I do not want to blow my own trumpet, but I think I do a damn good job. Today was a case in point. I finished filming at RAF Shawbury (where I was working alongside national TV crews). On the way back, I came across a lorry, which had crashed into a house. Immediately, my job required me to report (by interviewing and sending quotes to reporters at the office), while capturing some great images.

    Three jobs in just a couple of hours… and I love it!!!

  4. To some people a lot of this is also quite new, which I think may be the source of the ongoing conversation about definitions. I get asked often what hyperlocal itself is and I literally laugh everytime because it’s so hard to answer. That doesn’t matter though, what matters is what we do.

    That’s why I still talk about these things (such as in the context of news:rewired) but at the same time I’m doing something about it – encouraging collaboration on revenue generation for hyperlocals, starting a hub to talk about and share experiences in hyperlocal and even planning my own ‘practical’ conference to get some real outcomes.

    I thought it was a good session, better than most I’ve been in and all the contributions were really good. It’s good to get a little heated sometimes.

  5. Hi Andy,

    Good blog.
    ‘Twas me who posed the question about the BBC which drew your rapier-like response ( a pun on swordplay, not a criticism).
    It is a difficult question which often draws a passionate response but it was a shame I left it so late in the day to pose it when we were running out of time.
    My question was intended to be ‘is it right and proper and fair competition that the BBC provides online content for free’? I am not fighting the corner for local newspapers – they are largely responsible for their own demise. Neither am I demanding an end to free content online – organisations like The Lichfield Blog and the local village news site I help manage in Oxfordshire are a vital part of the web’s increasing democratisation of the media across the world.
    However, I wonder what part the BBC is playing in democracy online. While the online service is free (and there has been no discernable increase in licence fee despite the amazing quality of the site) what chance do other news organisations national, local and print, broadcast and online of introducing a paywall?
    Ultimately all news organisations are suffering and making online pay is the only way we can successfully protect the variety of media we have.
    I do not understand why the BBC’s news and sport websites are covered by the licence fee (although I use both all the time as they are superb). If the organisation wanted to release a free newspaper I am sure it would not be allowed yet for some reason it is allowed to treat online as an extension of broadcast media. I think a lot of what was covered at rewired showed that it is a medium in its own right.
    I have few answers just questions and sought out your blog to pose a question more eloquently than I managed on Thursday.

    Malcolm Bradbrook

  6. Hi Malcom

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. My response to your question was borne out of frustration for the general tone/direction the discussion was taking. Your question just got the brunt of it. As I said in the post, I should have sat on my hands. I’m sorry you got the brunt of that.

    I think we have to break the BBC issue and the general idea of a level playing field in to two areas. The idea that a publicly funded organisation should play against commercial organisations is one that does deserve some investigation and investigation on its impact. But I think that’s different from the idea that this is to ‘blame’ for a lack of plurality in the media we access online.

    Paywalls are not the only solution and the problem is not just the cost of online. The problems go deeper (and offline) and are mostly pre-web. We could look at the inherent problems that the freesheet model highlighted. We could look at the cover price battle in print that devalued the product and educated an audience to pay less. Lots of things that happened way before the web. That’s before we even begin to look at the mistakes made in the way that organisations have engaged and invested in the web.

    The solutions are many and varied but the vast majority are nothing to do with BBC. As another commentator in the session noted, the BBC actually doesn’t have that great a local presence. Their local efforts are either to regional to impact on the local media market or cover it with a national news focus. ie a national news story just happens to be on your patch.

    The truth is that regional media is behind the game. They invested in areas that didn’t include the journalism. Now there is a big job to do. In the morning troubleshooting session I heard stats(from hitwise) saying that searches for local news and content are up but traffic to local media sites had stagnated. That sounds like an opportunity missed (and I’m pretty sure it isn’t the BBC getting that traffic)

  7. Hi Andy,

    All good points and I agree with you to a large extent about the regional media – you only have to see the route the Brighton Argus took eight years ago in abandoning local news in favour of Big Brother etc for the London commuters to see that there is some confused thinking out there.

    You talk to the top people at Northcliffe, Newsquest and Trinity for example and they say the right things but look at their websites and you can see the message isn’t getting out.

    I also agree the BBC doesn’t have that great a local presence – although that is something they are trying to address.

    My concern is on the media as a whole. While the paywall is not the only way to monetise online, it is the most immediate and other solutions are quite a long way down the line. I fear that by that time that may happens papers like the Independent, Guardian, Express and Telegraph and broadcasters like Channel 4 and ITV will have been so damaged that we will be left with a direct choice of BBC or Murdoch and as a rsult democracy in the media will suffer.

    Malcolm

  8. An interesting read, thanks.

    A couple of thoughts from the perspective of someone who runs a hyperlocal site [www.alderleyedge.com] that has no professional or trained journalists involved…

    The essence of a hyperlocal site is community – not journalism!

    Regarding the quality of writing produced by sites such as ours, I may be biased, but I think it compares very favourably with the local newspaper. You nit the nail on the head with your comment “People are involved because it means something to them” and to that end more care is taken over what is published.

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