This is the penultimate 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.
· Hyperlocal publishers are often unable to access funds or non-financial resources that other local media outlets can. This needs to be addressed.
· Publishers need to be equipped with the skills to prosper in the current internet age. This includes SEO, audience analysis and provision of video and mobile tailored content.
· The impact of the current – and proposed – regulatory framework on hyperlocals is confusing and needs urgent clarification.
· Hyperlocal publishers need to be able to share learning and innovation and have a way of organising collective representation and voice to unlock opportunities and tackle barriers.
Some of the challenges facing the future and sustainability of the hyperlocal sector in the UK are well known. These include many of the issues already touched in this paper, such as funding, discoverability and the importance of partnerships with larger media providers. However, there are also emerging areas that also require consideration by publishers, policy makers and researchers.
Securing the financial future
“Making it pay” remains the biggest challenge for most publishers. Not everyone is interested in commercialising their approach, but those who are will often find this an uphill struggle.
In markets such as the USA grant funding has helped to ensure a greater level of sustainability for some publishers. It has also inspired new approaches, business models and technologies. Blending sustainability, with mechanisms to drive innovation, would bring multiple benefits to the UK sector.
Access to local media funding
Hyperlocal publishers could benefit from access to unallocated funds set aside for L-DTPS[i] as well as efforts to reform the publication of statutory notices.[ii] Both of these endeavours have established the precedent for innovation and a fresh approach. Involving hyperlocal media in this mix could provide tangible financial benefits to the sector.
As the Media Standards Trust notes: “Though no aggregate figures are available it has been estimated that this [statutory notices in local newspapers on traffic, planning, alcohol licensing etc] equates to £45 million to £50 million a year.“[iii] Meanwhile financial support for the UK’s new Local TV network is £40 million for the first three years.[iv]
Unlike other sectors such as newspapers or commercial radio, this emerging sector does not have a trade body in the UK.
“As the hyperlocal industry continues to grow and mature, it may find it beneficial to have a body which can provide publishers with a voice, and which can lead on work with government, policy makers and regulators.
Given the ‘cottage industry’ nature of hyperlocal media – with many practitioners working in silos – this body could also help share best practice and promote cross-sector debate and discussion…..
Funding such a body will probably not be easy, but the potential merits of such an organisation mean the idea is worth exploring. Having a more cohesive, unified, voice may be needed if hyperlocal media is to move to the next level.”[v]
Some steps have been made in this space, with groups coming together to response to Ofcom consultations and a joint letter to the new Secretary of State, but these efforts remain embryonic. Further analysis of efforts such as LION Publishers, a US association of Local Independent Online News Publishers, could also yield useful insights[vi] that the UK can benefit from.
Access to local political events and discussions
The last UK Government made a number of statements about opening up Council meetings in England to hyperlocal publishers and citizen reporters.[vii] These moves – along with efforts to close “Town Hall Pravdas”[viii] – appeared genuine, but the reality on the ground has often been more challenging.[ix] No such initiatives have been introduced in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Despite the great local reporting undertaken by many hyperlocal outlets – including coverage of Council or planning meetings, election counts and hustings – access and accreditation can still be a challenge. Hyperlocal reporters are often the only media present at some of these events. As a result, support from policy makers and the NUJ in promoting equal access would be welcome.
To regulate, or not to regulate
The new, post-Leveson regulatory world is a potentially complicated one for hyperlocals.[x] But it’s also an area that they need to engage with, given changes in the libel laws later this year which David Wolfe, chair of the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), has said will make it “even easier” for people to take news publishers to court.[xi]
It’s a complex arena, with C4CJ and others, seeking to get to grips with the implications of forthcoming legal and regulatory changes, who they will affect, the problems that might raise, as well as the potential benefits available to publishers as a result of joining a regulator.[xii]
Key issues to consider include: determining if you are a “relevant publisher”[xiii] understanding the possible protections afforded by The Crime and Courts Act 2013 – such as the independent arbitration of complaints which previously may have ended up in court – and deciding whether to “opt-in” and join a regulatory body, even if you are potentially exempt.
Although it looks as though there may be benefits to publishers from this new regime, the regulatory burden – in terms of expense and time – may be off-putting for both existing publishers and those interested in setting up their own site.[xiv] As a result, more work urgently needs to be done to provide clarity and awareness in the coming months around this vitally important issue.
Increasingly access to content is being controlled by a number of major technological gatekeepers; such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. There are concerns about the implications of this for journalism[xv] and advertising revenues, particularly at a local level.
Nesta’s research has already shown the frequent dominance of national platforms as a source of local advertising[xvi] while the Media Standards Trust has talked of a “closing window of opportunity” for “intervention in local news and civic technology”. This is because “transnational new media behemoths are quickly colonising the space.”[xvii]
As Nesta notes, the biggest risk in this arena is “that advertising revenues which flow to them are leaving the UK’s content economy, reducing the sums available for investing in hyperlocal news and other socially valuable services.”[xviii]
The potential impact of this could be detrimental to both consumers and content creators alike.
10.1 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.[xix]
10.2 Access to even a small percentage of the £45 million to £50 million a year spent on statutory public notices[xx] could also have a demonstrable impact.
10.3 Clarity is needed from politicians and regulators, alongside a clear communications plan, to enable hyperlocal publishers to understand the new press regulation regime and how it impacts on them.
10.4 NUJ accreditation and recognition would boost the standing of the sector and provide much needed support to independent local news publishers.
[iii] Professor Steven Barnett, evidence to House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, Inquiry on Media Plurality, 18-06-13. http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/communications/Mediaplurality/ucCOMMS180613ev2.pdf
[ix] https://davidhiggerson.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/councils-and-hyperlocal-bloggers-its-the-council-system-which-needs-changing-not-how-people-are-allowed-to-cover-them/ and http://podnosh.com/blog/2013/06/14/can-i-video-my-local-council-meetings/
[x] See both this post and the comments below: http://podnosh.com/blog/2015/07/13/do-hyperlocal-websites-fall-foul-of-leveson-and-the-new-press-regulator-and-libel-laws/