Tackling the democratic deficit

This is the seventh extract from Where are we now? UK hyperlocal media and community journalism in 2015  a new report commissioned by the Centre for Community Journalism and supported by Cardiff University and Nesta.

Key Points

● Hyperlocal media helps to hold local bodies to account. They do this through covering political issues, campaigns and investigative reporting.

● The advent of bottom-up hyperlocal services may help to offset job losses and content gaps from traditional media.

● Hyperlocal sites can encourage participation from audiences who otherwise might feel disenfranchised from the political process or previously disengaged.

The media plays a vital role in holding political bodies to account and encouraging an informed citizenry. This function is especially important at a time of cuts to services, the continued devolution of powers at a national and city/local level, and important debates such as the in/out EU referendum.

Yet, the majority of citizens are increasingly disengaged with the political process. Although there are exceptions – such as the Scottish Referendum for independence in 2014 – voter turnout since 2001 has consistently been below previous levels.[i] This is matched by reduced numbers of political party memberships[ii] and the public continuing to hold politicians in low esteem.[iii]

Providing a new tier of local reporting

Hyperlocal media can address some of these local reporting needs this “at a time when traditional local media providers continue to find themselves under financial pressure”[iv].

Of course hyperlocal publishers also find themselves under pressure, often financially and in turns of time. But they can, nonetheless, provide valuable content and engage audiences who are not your typical local media consumer.  Of The Lincolnite’s audience, for example, 40 per cent are under 30 years old[v] and the site has 70,000 followers on social media in an area of 100,000 people.

Sometimes the lines between this reporting and campaigning can become a little blurred. But this combination has often been necessary in order to engage audiences with important local issues. Sites like Broughton Spurtle in North Edinburgh, through their more localised output, have sought “to stir the neighbourhood up a little bit, to try and get people interested and proactive about issues such as politics, planning and the local environment.”[vi]

Removing barriers to participation

Media analyst Claire Enders told the Leveson Inquiry that 40 per cent of jobs in the UK regional press have gone over a five year period[vii] and these losses continue on a regular basis.[viii] This results in citizens having reduced access to local information and diminished accountability mechanisms.

Ofcom’s Internet Citizens Report 2014 found that 12 per cent of online users have contacted their local Councillor or MP, with only 3 per cent doing so on a quarterly basis.[ix]

This suggests that intermediaries continue to matter.

Hyperlocal publishers can help remove barriers to participation and engaging audiences where they already are; through the use of embedded widgets such as FixMyStreet, alongside the opportunity to put questions to your local councillor.

“We keep a rolling survey of our users at FixMyStreet, and consistently, over 50% say that they’ve never contacted their council before – so FixMyStreet is opening new channels, and empowering people.”[x]

On Facebook the Port Talbot Magnet provides a space where locals can create and publish their own news, as well as content produced by the PTM team. “The result is a more organic participatory shaping of the community’s news ecology from the bottom up, rather than one dominated by individual professional journalists and traditional one-to-many modes of publication.”[xi]

2015 General and Local Elections

The potential of hyperlocal media[xii] was evident during the 2015 general election.[xiii] Trinity-Mirror’s David Higgerson, writing on his personal blog, provided an excellent round-up of examples of hyperlocal election coverage. [xiv] This included:

Other examples of General Election coverage from hyperlocal publishers included:

Perhaps the most high profile event during this period was a partnership between The Lincolnite and BBC Radio Lincolnshire and The Lincolnshire Echo. This resulted in The Lincoln Debate,[xv] in which all of the 2015 General Election parliamentary candidates for Lincoln participated. The event was streamed live on The Lincolnite and Lincolnshire Echo websites; local radio; and online on BBC Radio Lincolnshire, uploaded to YouTube[xvi] and linked to in online columns and analysis.

Plurality of voices

Outside of these election periods both mainstream and hyperlocal media tend to provide reduced coverage to a range of different voices. Mainstream local news increasingly relies more on official sources and PR as a result of their being fewer journalists on the ground.[xvii]

Some hyperlocal outlets have a good relationship with local Councils. Others often by-pass them in the story process as they feel that Council press offices are increasingly just PR machines.

“When asked whether he balances his critical coverage of Tower Hamlets Council with quotes from relevant officers he (Mark Baynes of Love Wapping) told us:

I don’t see why I should, as a resident, ring the town hall up or anybody else … Because I know all they’re going to give me is the usual bullshit. So what’s the point? And they’ve got a huge media machine … I don’t see, to be quite honest, why any hyperlocal should. Because if you look at it in the broader context of media and communications in our society: if Tower Hamlets wants to get on TV, they can get on TV. They can send a press release to the East London Advertiser [the local weekly newspaper] … and they literally print the press release.”[xviii]

Improving relationships between hyperlocal publishers and local authorities may help address concerns about the declining number of sources used in local media, although neither party is necessary clamouring for any change in dynamic. This may mean that these types of concerns are more academic and theoretical, rather than a reflection of the continuing day-to-day reality for publishers and public bodies alike.

Recommendations

6.1  The loss of traditional media, particularly newspapers, may impact voter turnout and political engagement. More research needs to be undertaken in this area,[xix] to see if there is a direct link between media not spots and turnout and what difference hyperlocal can/cannot make.

6.2  Hyperlocal outlets should be further included in academic analysis of local media content (.e.g. plurality of voice, original reporting, number of sources spoken to etc.)

6.3  Case studies showcasing the work produced by hyperlocals during the 2015 election period would better inform practitioners and policymakers about the value of this output.

6.4  The sector could benefit from the creation of more plugins like the FixMyStreet widget, which they can deploy directly on their site.

[i] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

[ii] Keen, Richard. 2015 www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05125.pdf

[iii] https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3504/Politicians-trusted-less-than-estate-agents-bankers-and-journalists.aspx

[iv] http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/cmr/cmr12/CMR_UK_2012.pdf

[v] Carnegie UK Trust case studies report (forthcoming)

[vi] Dovey, Jon, Giota Alevizou and Andy Williams Citizenship, Value and Digital Culture, (forthcoming)

[vii] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140122145147/http:/www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/fourth-submission-by-media-standards-trust.pdf

[viii] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/trinity-mirror-looks-for-further-job-cuts-10349639.html and https://www.nuj.org.uk/news/roll-call-of-newspaper-closures-and-job-losses/

[ix] http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/telecoms-research/Internet_Citizens_Report_14.pdf

[x] https://www.mysociety.org/files/2015/03/UseFixMyStreet.pdf

[xi] Zamenopoulos, Theodore, Katerina Alexiou, Giota Alevizou, Caroline Chapain, Shawn Sobers and Andy Williams. Varieties of Creative Citizenship (forthcoming).

[xii] C4CJ provided a useful guide for community journalists on how to cover the election: http://www.communityjournalism.co.uk/news/guide-to-covering-the-general-election-for-community-journalists/

[xiii] http://www.communityjournalism.co.uk/blog/2015/05/07/five-ways-hyperlocals-have-covered-the-general-election-2015/

[xiv] https://davidhiggerson.wordpress.com/2015/05/17/general-election-2015-learning-from-hyperlocal-sites-across-the-uk/

[xv] http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2015/05/watch-back-the-lincoln-debate/

[xvi] http://www.communityjournalism.co.uk/blog/2015/05/06/hyperlocal-teams-up-with-the-bbc-and-local-newspaper-for-general-election-debate/

[xvii] http://mediastandardstrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Positive-Plurality-policy-paper-9-10-14.pdf

[xviii] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/21670811.2014.965932

[xix] Analysis of the 2007 closure of The Cincinnati Post, by Princeton economics Professor Sam Schulhofer-Wohl was determined to have resulted in lower voter participation. Schulhofer-Wohl, Sam, and Miguel Garrido. Do newspapers matter? Evidence from the closure of the Cincinnati Post. No. 236. Discussion papers in economics/Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, 2009. Available at:: http://www.scribd.com/doc/13360606/Do-Newspapers-Matter

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