How can policy makers support UK hyperlocal media?

This post first appeared on the Carnegie UK Trust blog.

When I first started reporting on hyperlocal media in 2009 it was against a daily backdrop predicting the death of newspapers and clarion calls for public intervention to save this vital resource.

Since then, this hysteria has died down, although it’s clear that many of the structural challenges being faced by the local media sector have not gone away.

In January the Press Gazette reported that there had been a net reduction of 181 UK local newspapers since 2005, with a further 11 this year, whilst a leaked memo from Trinity Mirror shone a light on the commercial pressures many newspapers groups face and how this is influencing reporting on the ground.

Despite this, the UK’s industrious hyperlocal media sector continues to beaver away.

Unlike other media groups it doesn’t have a trade body, or large public corporations with ready access to politicians, to help make its case. As a result, despite the contribution it is making to UK journalism and our local communities can be easily overlooked.

The Song Remains The Same

Supporting hyperlocal media is never going to a top priority for John Whittingdale the new Secretary of State at DCMS. However, some intervention and support is likely to be necessary if the sector is to reach the next stage in its evolution.

I say that, because despite an increased level of interest in hyperlocal media from academics, politicians, tech innovators and NGOs, the fundamental challenges to growth remain. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they remain pretty much the same as they were back in 2009.

As a result, without a level of intervention and innovation in the policy arena, it’s likely to remain hyperlocal Groundhog Day for some time.

Remedies need not be complicated. Or expensive. But they do require commitment and support from policy makers and politicians alike.

Here are some suggestions based around funding, access and discoverability:

Funding

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the primary driver for many hyperlocal publishers. Although alongside the volunteer publishers there are also entrepreneurial players for whom this is their day job. Whichever camp you belong to, there’s no doubt that a small amount of funding and financial support for the sector could make a difference.

As Nesta’s Destination Local programme and the Carnegie UK Trust’s Neighbourhood News initiative have shown, small grants can be used to experiment, innovate and reach new audiences; whilst helping to alleviate some of the day-to-day financial pressures faced by those at the coal face.

The Community Radio Fund, which offers small- scale funding to hyperlocal radio stations, offers a potential model here. It doesn’t provide enough income to support the core business. But funds can be used strategically to help pay for important long-term roles such as a volunteer manager or fundraiser.

It’s an approach with parallels to last year’s successful crowdfunding efforts from A Little Bit of Stone and Brixton Blog, which paid for editorial support and provided some much needed breathing space for longer-term projects and the opportunity to engage in work requiring a longer lead-time and more investment (in terms of human capital) than would normally be possible.

Funding could also help to pay for insurance and training, both of which are potential challenges for hyperlocal publishers.

Access

The last Government made frequent, seemingly annual, statements talking about opening up Council meetings to hyperlocal publishers and citizen reporters. But despite these honorable intentions, the reality on the ground was often a lot more challenging. Despite the great local reporting undertaken by many hyperlocal outlets, including many cases where they are the only press present, access and accreditation remains an area where support from policy makers and the NUJ would be beneficial.

More substantially, hyperlocal publishers could benefit from access to unallocated funds set aside for Local TV operators as part of the last renegotiated license fee settlement, as well being able to participate in efforts to reform the publication of statutory notices.

This new tier of UK broadcasting has been a mixed success, but some of the policy interventions championed by DCMS – which included the BBC buying content from this nascent sector – are potentially just as beneficial, if not more so, to hyperlocal players. The opportunity to sell, credited, content to bbc.co.uk would potentially be a huge boon using a principle for buying local content which has already been established.

The BBC could also play a further role in opening up their historic archive so that hyperlocal publishers can make use of it. Unlike their commercial rivals who are seeking to monetise these assets, the BBC is unlikely to ever make money out of old local content. Yet, at the same time, local history and historical content is popular on hyperlocal media. Is there a perfect storm whereby this nationally owned content can be given a second life on these independent (and typically not for profit) online channels?

Discoverability

The visibility of hyperlocal content has long been a challenge for the sector. Evidence suggests that audiences, once they know it is there, are often loyal. The trick is to get on their radar in the first instance.

Major media companies have teams of people to deal with the changes to the algorithms used by Facebook, Google and other platforms. As a result, they’re able to play the SEO game to ensure that their content remains discoverable. Hyperlocal publishers do not enjoy the same technical or training resources, so risk missing out on these opportunities. Tech companies can play a role in supporting the sector by helping to make hyperlocal content more discoverable.

Again this is also an arena that the BBC can play a role in, by deep-linking to hyperlocal content as well as potentially purchasing and republishing this material. In doing this, the BBC will raise awareness of the wider local media ecosystem and help audiences to navigate the best local content; wherever it comes from. The BBC has made some positive noises in this space, but more could still be done.

Finally, the commercial media sector could also play a similar role in partnering with hyperlocal players to bring their content to a wider audience and to help fill gaps in their own original reporting base.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Hyperlocal services cover geographic areas – like the village of Parwich in Derbyshire – through to communities such as Port Talbot which have been deserted, or are too small to cover, by mainstream media. Even within areas still served by traditional outlets, ultra-local publishers are often providing a level of granularity that legacy operators never have. Tapping into this potential would be beneficial for both parties, as well as the communities that they serve.

Intervene or Stagnate? You decide…

Previous research has identified 408 active hyperlocal sites in the UK, but the real figure is likely to be much higher. The Carnegie UK Trust and Talk About Local are in the process of revising and updating a hyperlocal database for the UK, which will give us a much better picture of the true size of this sector. These sites provide civic and public value in undertaking a range of journalistic and community outputs; from holding authority to account, through to running campaigns and reporting on local events.

Yet, despite the ease with which anyone can now be a publisher, challenges still remain for anyone who wishes to scale their operation. These challenges include access, discoverability and funding, which are alien to well-resourced media groups and larger independent publishers.

If hyperlocal is to grow it is likely to need help. Small changes could unlock a step-change in audience awareness and allow publishers to feel more sure-footed. Without it, we’re likely to be having the same conversation in another six years, and the potential afforded by this sector will have gone unrealised.

At a time of continued pressures for traditional media and media plurality, coupled with increased devolution of political powers at a national, regional and local level, the need for hyperlocal media is greater than ever.

To fulfil this promise the sector cannot go it alone. It’s time for politicians, policy makers and public media players to give them a helping hand. The value derived from this activity could benefit everyone.

Damian Radcliffe (@damianradcliffe) is a freelance consultant, journalist and researcher. He is the author of Here and Now the UK’s first review of the hyperlocal media sector and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Culture and Media Studies, the UK’s oldest J-School. You can see examples of Damian’s research into hyperlocal media and community journalism on his portfolio website.

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