Cardiff Uni’s Mooc plus Nesta guide a shot in the arm for hyperlocal

Cross post from the BBC College of Journalism.

Richard Sambrook

For followers of the UK’s emerging hyperlocal and community media scene the past couple of weeks have seen a couple of interesting developments.

The first was the launch of a free online course in community journalism by Cardiff University (disclaimer: I was part of the team which produced it). Part of the wider move by many educational establishments to create online modules (often referred to as Mooc’s or ‘massive open online courses’) which transcend geographic boundaries and limits to student numbers, the course is a global first, and something of an experiment for the university.

Over a five-week period students will cover essential skills for digital journalism – such as accuracy and verification, media law and ethics – as well as questions of sustainability and how to manage online communities.

Arguably this range of content means that even established journalists can potentially learn something new from it, benefitting from insights provided by both Cardiff’s tutors and other participants.

“We’ve been blown away by the response,” Richard Sambrook (above), professor of journalism and director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, told me.

Noting that in the first 36 hours the course had already seen participants from more than 50 countries and more than 2,000 comments, this suggests that the demand for this type of ultra-local content is universal. Although their markets may be very different, this evidence suggests that publishers in Africa, Asia and China often face many of the same challenges as content creators in the US, UK and Europe.

Building on the University’s recent experience of studying – and supporting – hyperlocal outlets, this pilot project is already “helping us [Cardiff] to engage a global audience with our expertise and to build a network of people motivated to learn more about this fast-growing sector of the media”, Sambrook says.

Students also get the opportunity to “network with more than 7,000 people around the world interested in the subject”, while learning “some of the fundamental principles of good journalism practice”.

The course, which is run in partnership with FutureLearn, lasts five weeks. But if you’ve missed the start don’t worry. Reassuringly, Sambrook has already pledged that the “materials will stay up longer than that to enable people to work through the modules at their own pace”.

Find out more.

The second hyperlocal learning tool of note to emerge in the past couple of weeks is A Survivors’ Guide to Hyperlocal Media which was published by the innovation agency Nesta as part of its ongoing Destination Local initiative.

Produced in partnership with the successful North London website Kentishtowner, the 35-page document offers insights into how to become a trusted local voice, while also addressing important questions such as how to balance editorial aspirations with the need for business development.

Founding editor Stephen Emms and co-editor Tom Kihl, for example, achieve this by ensuring they stick to a strict editorial deadline of 1pm each day for new content and their daily email to subscribers. This “means the afternoon is free to work on the business side of the company, as well as engage in correspondence with readers, contributors and other interested parties”, they write.

For those interested in how to monestise their fledging hyperlocal offer, the guide provides a number of insights, with opportunities such as reverse publishing, sponsorship, e-commerce (Kentishtowner has a nice online shop), subscriptions and member-only events all being touched on.

Arguably, readers coming to the guide expecting a detailed playbook for addressing these areas – or other hyperlocal concerns such as managing complex (and at times frosty) relationships with local authorities – might be disappointed.

This isn’t intended as a criticism of the document itself; more a reflection of the fact that I found the title something of a misnomer. Given the name of the report, I was expecting more detail about how the team addressed these key survival issues, rather than the predominant emphasis on what they did.

As a result, efforts such as the establishment of Below the River, “a South London-focused website with a broader geographical remit than Kentishtowner”, aren’t given the room to breathe that they deserve. This case study alone could probably merit a 30-plus page report, especially given the important conclusion by the authors that “scale is clearly the only way to make the [hyperlocal] project truly sustainable”.

Hopefully the story behind this expansion, as well as step-by-step guides to key issues such as managing challenging relationships or recruiting sales staff, will all be explored in more detail sometime soon.

In the meantime, I do recommend the guide as a good – and very readable – blueprint for publishers to consult pre-launch; or if they want to grow and diversify their business. As such, it is a strong addition to the emerging portfolio of material about hyperlocal media which practitioners can learn from.

When coupled with the material provided in Cardiff University’s Mooc – as well as further research produced by Nesta, J-Lab, the Knight Foundation and others – publishers increasingly have at their disposal a critical mass of data and analysis which they can use to develop their hyperlocal proposition.

There’s no one-stop shop for this content yet, but, as my mother taught me, nothing worth doing is ever easy.

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