Community journalism in the UK: the emerging evidence base

This post was first published by the Centre for Community Journalism to support a one-day ideas exchange, hsted earlier in this month in partnership with Nesta, on the topic: ‘What next for community journalism?’

The event included the launch of my new report Where are we now? UK hyperlocal media and community journalism in 2015, which was commissioned by Cardiff University and the innovation agency Nesta. 

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I’ve been writing about community journalism and hyperlocal media in the UK since 2009. At that time it was seen as a rather niche topic and something of a hobby-horse, but that perception is gradually changing.

Audience research from Ofcom has consistently shown the emerging importance of this sector and its ability to give communities a voice whilst also engaging in traditional journalistic pursuits such as reporting on local events, running campaigns and holding authority to account.

Opportunities in this emerging space abound, and as a result in the past few years we’ve seen investment in this arena from Nesta, Innovate UK (the body formerly known as the Technology Strategy Board) and the Carnegie UK Trust, as well as extensive academic research from Cardiff, Birmingham City and Westminster Universities.

These efforts have accompanied by support for practitioners from the Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ) at Cardiff University and Talk About Local, alongside wider moves from the BBC and others (although in the commercial space often on a more piecemeal basis) to work more closely with this sector.

Taking Stock

Many of these developments are very recent, giving us a newfound understanding about the state of hyperlocal media in the UK.Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 11.37.15

In particular, detailed studies by academics have given us hard numbers about the output of the sector, whilst specialist industry insights commissioned by Nesta have dug deep into previously unchartered territories such as audience needs and local advertising markets.

These individual studies have all added considerably to our knowledge base, but often their findings sit in silos.

So it was against this backdrop that Cardiff University and Nesta commissioned a new report which provides a synthesis of everything we’ve learned about the sector in the last three and a half years.

5 key facts

Among the findings that we have now, recent research has shown us that:

  1. There are more than 400 active hyperlocal websites in the UK, compared with 1,045 local papers.
  1. 48 per cent of site owners have journalistic training or experience working in the mainstream media.
  1. Although most of these local news sites are self-funded, 13 per cent of hyperlocal websites generate more than £500 per month, and there is a growing cohort of practitioners who are “professionalising” the sector by looking to do this as a full-time occupation.
  1. 72 per cent of hyperlocal publishers have joined in or supported a local campaign in the last two years. 42 per cent have started their own campaigns, and nearly half of the UK’s online hyperlocal publishers engage in some form of investigative reporting.
  1. Consumption of hyperlocal content is on the rise. Ofcom reported last year that one in five say that online is their most important local news medium; and that one in ten use local community websites or apps at least weekly (up from 7% in 2013). Functional information about community events, services, local weather and traffic, are the information genres most valued by audiences. 

Moving forward

At a time when many traditional local media channels remain under pressure, the civic, public and journalistic value provided by hyperlocal outlets is more important than ever. That’s why this report also outlines a series of recommendations to further grow and embed community journalism in the UK.

Many of these conclusions were touched on in my 2012 landscape report about this sector; which perhaps reflects the fact that progress in this space has been slower than I anticipated. Many of the issues I flagged as early as 2009 – in terms of sustainability, discoverability and recognition – remain.

Yet we now have an evidence base which should act as a catalyst to encourage industry and policy makers to change their perceptions and approach towards this sector. Small changes could potentially make a big difference.

Our new report includes 30 specific – and realistic – recommendations, including:

  1. Offering hyperlocal publishers the opportunity to sell credited content to the BBC
  1. Ensuring hyperlocal publishers are considered as suppliers for statutory notices (which amount to £45 – £50 million advertising spend a year) and local health campaigns
  1. Encouraging large technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter to support community news providers by making their content more discoverable
  1. Calling on the NUJ to provide accreditation and recognition to publishers
  1. Urgent clarification from politicians and regulators on the new press regulation regime and its potential impact on community news providers

These potential remedies, which include both financial and non-financial support, can all contribute to growing and sustaining this sector. Coupled with further on-going research into the hyperlocal industry, the foundations for the next stage in this sector’s evolution are firmly in place.

I look forward to seeing them being built upon.

Download Where are we now? UK hyperlocal media and community journalism in 2015

Damian Radcliffe is an analyst, researcher, journalist and an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies (JOMEC). He is recently took on a new role as the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon.

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