The case for regulation of hyperlocal media

This is an extract from a thinkpiece I authored recently – “Hey! Regulator! Leave those Hyperlocals alone!” – which was published by The Democratic Society as part of a wider report on Media Regulation & Democracy.

The arguments below build on an earlier post and adds some new ideas and thoughts about potential benefits for the hyperlocal sector *if* it were to be regulated.

As my full contribution for DemSoc shows, this is not the side of the fence I fall down on, but I do believe that some of the ideas outlined below merit further consideration, and that many of the benefits of regulation outlined below can be delivered without the need for regulatory recourse.

Solutions to the need for legal protection / support for this emerging sector are needed, and whilst I have offered a few suggestions below, I would welcome other thoughts and contributions on this topic.

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Part Two: the case for regulation

When I wrote the original blog article which formed the basis of this contribution,  I also spent considerable time considering the reasons for regulation. Then, as now, I struggled somewhat – both in terms of the mechanisms for enforcement, as well as the potential benefits.

For the former, I considered the option of income thresholds – that sites above a certain income would need to be regulated – and in turn whether sites might opt in to be regulated by the PCC or some other body. Finally, I also wondered if there was merit in the industry coming together and devising its own system of self-regulation.

The latter provoked some discussion, and I am grateful in particular to William Perrin, Philip John, Judith Townend and Mike Rawlins for their thoughts and contributions.

Of these, I think the three strongest arguments for regulation are around protection, credibility and parity for hyperlocal publishers.

All of these are desirable outcomes, but I am yet to be convinced that they way to achieve them is through regulation or indeed self-regulation. Rather, they require attitudinal changes and shifts more than anything else from big media, the NUJ and in some cases media consumers.

Again, taking each of these areas in turn:

1.            Legal standing and support

Potentially the biggest benefit of regulation for the sector is that it may make it easier to unlock union and legal support. At present most hyperlocal writers are unrecognised by the NUJ and – in contrast to their traditional media peers – they do not enjoy the backing of a large legal department.

Legal support is an area the hyperlocal sector would benefit from. The day will come when a hyperlocal practitioner loses their home due to a legal dispute stemming from content on their site.  Sadly, it may take such an incident for this issue to be given the consideration it deserves.

We need to find a means to redress this, as the level of legal support for the citizen journalist/reporter is often minimal, if indeed there is any at all.

To counteract this, in the US, J-Lab and the Knight Foundation ran a Legal Risk Blog for American citizen journalists, bloggers and social network users. Different media laws mean that its usefulness as a tool for UK practitioners is limited, although the site is not without value.

One way this could work in the UK would be to encourage big media groups – perhaps through a regulatory lever – to provide a certain amount of pro-bono legal support to hyperlocal outlets.

Alternatively they may have to pay a small levy to a central legal fund, which could either ensure 24/7 legal support for hyperlocal practitioners, or support a financial pool to draw on when the litigation starts. Such an idea is not without risk of abuse, but if we are to encourage better relationships between community media outlets players and traditional media, providing meaningful support between the sectors in this way would be one way of doing it.

2.            Credibility

Rightly or wrongly, there can be misconceptions amongst consumers and traditional media alike about the content and accuracy of hyperlocal content. Being part of a regulatory regime may help to change that, but I am skeptical. Many regulated bodies – across media, finance and other industries – are severely lacking in credibility at present. As are their regulators.

Moreover, Ofcom research shows that many media consumers are already confused and ill-informed about regulation and funding. So being part of a regulatory regime will not necessarily change public perceptions. Or indeed those held by old media.

More effective measures could simply be cosmetic. Lichfield Blog for example renamed itself Lichfield Live, because it became “hard to escape the fact that having ‘blog’ in our name was causing problems with how we were perceived”.

Some of the Lichfield team have also posited the idea of self-regulation, with hyperlocal players signing up to an agreed “Code of Conduct”, in part to boost credibility.  I can see the merit of such a code, and such an approach could be especially useful for new sites in giving them best practice and a set of standards to aspire to, but I am not sure that it will make much of a difference in the credibility stakes.

That does not mean however that hyperlocals should not do it, and there would be a merit to having agreed and shared text on issues such as fairness and complaint handling, but the benefits of this approach are, in my view, of more benefit for practitioners, than big media partners and audiences.

Instead, I would argue that activities such as public visibility – reporting from, or organizing local events – or making your content available offline as well as online, may be much more effective at boosting credibility and changing perceptions than being part of any new regulatory body.

3. Creating a level playing field

The underlying consideration here is how to establish a more level playing field, particularly in terms of legal protection and credibility.  For some commentators, the only way to do this is by bringing hyperlocal media into any post-Leveson regulatory regime.

That may be so, but I think this argument is fallacious and that these objectives can be achieved through other non-regulatory means. Examples of credible, respected hyperlocal websites abound (see: http://kingscrossenvironment.com/ , http://parwich.org/ , http://pitsnpots.co.uk/ , http://www.london-se1.co.uk  and http://ventnorblog.com/  as just some examples). As, increasingly, do examples of creative partnerships between this sector and traditional media.

Regulation also risks having accidental consequences, from stifling innovation and driving small scale hyperlocal practitioners out of business, through to creating a two tier hyperlocal sector, with some outlets being regulated (perhaps due to their size, scale and or platform) whilst others are not (e.g. those on Facebook).

Far from creating a level playing field therefore, such a scenario risks widening gaps, not reducing them.

Concluding Thoughts

I argued earlier that a number of factors – the open internet philosophy; the inapplicability of historic rules of regulation; practicalities of enforcement; the role of Citizen/Community Journalism; and innovation – were all good reasons, both individually and collectively, against statutory regulation.

Similarly, I remain unconvinced at the viability of self-regulation, or that it is the means to deliver outcomes such as enhanced protection or credibility.

In my experience most hyperlocal outlets take questions of balance and accuracy very seriously and where they have an editorial agenda it is usually pretty clear.

Just because you are unregulated, does not mean that your standards are any lower.  Nor will being regulated suddenly mean that the public will view you content differently, that relationships with traditional media will transform overnight, or that late night telephone calls from aggrieved Press Officers will cease.

Instead, we need to recognize that hyperlocal publishers are an increasingly important part of our media ecosystem. They can, and do, on occasion provide great content for other media outlets – acting as a local wire service. Hyperlocal outlets can also be a great way for traditional media to find new voices and talent, whilst for audiences they can help plug gaps in content provision – or provide a new level of ultralocal reporting.

Nurturing and supporting the industry should be the aim of policy makers.  And it does not need regulation to make this happen.  Key challenges such as finding ways to develop partnerships, or unlocking legal training and support for hyperlocal publishers, can all happen without the need for regulatory intervention or frameworks.

Let’s see if we can make it happen.

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