What next for community journalism?

This post was first published on the BBC College of Journalism website.

More than 150 journalists, researchers and policy-makers in Cardiff will today ponder the question ‘What next for community journalism and hyperlocal media?’

To help them, they’ll hear perspectives from UK practitioners, a keynote from the US author and academic Dan Gillmor and highlights from my report on the emerging evidence base in the UK. Three years ago, I wrote a report on this nascent sector; the new study, supported by Cardiff University and the innovation agency Nesta, provides a synthesis of the main developments since then.

Recent Developments

It’s been a busy three and-a-half years. Initiatives have included the BBC’s conference on Connecting Communities and the corporation’s current consultation on working with hyperlocals, Nesta’s Destination Local programme, the Carnegie UK Trust’s Neighbourhood News initiative, as well as the Cardiff University led Creative Citizens project, its Mooc on community journalism and the launch of the Centre for Community Journalism.

It’s a sector which feels as if it has started to gain traction with both opinion formers and audiences. Ofcom has found that one in five now say that online is their most important local news medium, and one in 10 use local community websites or apps at least weekly (up from 7% in 2013).

With traditional local media channels continuing to feel the financial heat, hyperlocal and community journalism can play an important role in plugging knowledge and information gaps to help communities remained informed and ensure they continue to have a voice.

What we know now: Five key facts

Research efforts in the past few years have given us new insights into hyperlocal audiences, markets and publishers. As a result, we now know:

  1. There are more than 400 active hyperlocal websites in the UK, compared with 1,045 local papers
  2. Consumption of hyperlocal content is on the rise, with information about community events, services, local weather and traffic being the most valued by audiences
  3. Seventy-two per cent of hyperlocal publishers have joined in or supported a local campaign in the past two years. Forty-two per cent have started their own campaigns, and nearly half of the UK’s online hyperlocal publishers engage in some form of investigative reporting
  4. Eight-four per cent of site owners have journalistic training or experience working in the mainstream media
  5. Although most local news sites are self-funded, 13 per cent of hyperlocal websites generate more than £500 per month, and a growing number of practitioners are “professionalising” the sector by looking to do this as a full-time occupation.

Where we go from here

These findings have shed valuable light on the civic, public and journalistic value of the work done by hyperlocal outlets. Yet at the same time the sector feels like it’s at a crossroads. Many of the same old issues around sustainability, discoverability and recognition remain.

Moreover, although there has been investment in the sector, much of this has been one-off. According to the Media Standards Trust, investment was less than £5m in the UK over the past three years. In contrast, the US has seen more than $400m invested in the past two years to promote sustainability and innovation in local media.

Financial intervention on a larger scale in the UK may therefore be needed to help grow and sustain the sector alongside a broader range of support mechanisms from industry and policy-makers.

Achievable solutions include:

  1. Offering hyperlocal publishers the opportunity to sell credited content to the BBC (see the BBC’s announcement about local news reporters on Monday this week)
  2. Encouraging technology companies such as Google to support community news providers by making their content more discoverable
  3. Providing accreditation and recognition from the NUJ
  4. Urgent clarification by politicians and regulators on the new press regulation regime and how this may affect community news providers
  5. Ensuring hyperlocal publishers are included as suppliers for statutory notices (which amount to between £45m and £50m advertising spend a year) and local health campaigns.

We also need to see continued research into the evolution of this sector – including its total size, financial value and successful business models – so that this can continue to inform industry, practitioners and policy-makers.

Without these remedies I’ve a strange feeling I’ll be telling much the same story in another three years’ time, and that would represent a realmissed opportunity for all concerned.

Damian Radcliffe is an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies (Jomec). He moves to the States later this week to become the Carolyn S Chambers professor in journalism at the University of Oregon, but will continue to share his thoughts on this blog in the coming months.

2 responses to “What next for community journalism?

  1. Damien
    I sent you a message after the conference. .. essentially I’m puzzled as to why there is such emphasis on digital – which most participants accept makes no money – while there was virtually no attention paid to the thriving hyperlocal print world which makes money and provides employment . In fact, of the 35 recommendations for sustainability, not one included adopting a print model. Print may not be the only answer but it’s surely one of the answers in this sector.
    Rich Coulter
    Publisher and co-founder of Local Voice Network which runs nine hyperlocal publications in the Bristol area

  2. Hi Richard,

    I cannot comment on the conference agenda itself, only on my paper, which was designed to provide an analysis of the key findings from academic and industry research into this space in the past three and a half years. These don’t feature print as much as perhaps they might.

    Therefore, I would agree that the resilience and resurgence of print – either as a standalone service or part of a wider portfolio – needs more exploration. Hopefully new work being undertaken by Clare Cook which is specifically looking at business models (an area which has not been explored in depth before,) will redress this.

    Print certainly has a role in reaching non-digital audiences, building your brand and offline recognition, and digital averse advertisers.

    In the report I mentioned, albeit briefly examples such as your work, Hackney Citizen, HU17.net and the Carnegie UK Trust’s support for a print edition of Port Talbot Magnet, but I readily admit that a lot more could be said about this. (And I’ve emailed you links to some pieces that I’ve written on this topic for the BBC and journalism.co.uk exploring this specifically in the past couple of years. You can also see it in the 2009 Ofcom report on Local and Regional Media which I contributed to.)

    Of the 30 recommendations made in my report a great many of them are applicable to print-first publications and others with print as part of their portfolio, although I could have made that more explicit.

    Areas such as media plurality, tackling the democratic deficit and my call for a more detailed content analysis of local media should all take local/community print into account as a part of the UK’s media ecology. Like you, I would welcome more analysis from academics and policy makers into this, that I didn’t cover it as much as perhaps I should is a reflection of the wider literature in this space and the knowledge gaps which need to be filled.

    As you say, print is not the only answer, but for some publishers it may be a viable financial model, or one which helps to underpin a wider portfolio. Either way, it’s great to see that print is not dead yet. Long may that be the case.

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