By Paul Breeden
Tuesday, January 16, 2013
I’VE SEEN the future – and it’s hyperlocal.
An exaggeration perhaps. But you’d understand my enthusiasm if you’d been at today’s conference on community journalism at Cardiff University, which filled me with optimism about journalists taking control of at least part of our depleted profession.
Almost 150 participants – some trained journalists, many NUJ members but also community writers, bloggers, academics and others – contributed to a riveting day exploring the growing field of hyperlocal journalism.
As explained by guest speaker Leighton Andrews, education minister in the Welsh Assembly, hyperlocal journalism is journalism, but more local.
Examples named by Jan Schaffer, director at J-Lab in the US, where media change has happened much faster than in the UK, include student-run, 365-day websites for communities in university towns, ‘watchdog’ websites scrutinising every state government, advocacy sites on subjects like sustainability and the arts, and hordes of indy start-ups, some with six-figure incomes and wealthy enough to pay health benefits.
One of the stars of the day was Bristol’s Richard Coulter, whose Voice network of individually-published monthly news magazines is expanding rapidly from its Filton beginnings and is providing a profitable model watched avidly by others.
Richard – backed by me and several others – urged the conference at Cardiff’s School of Journalism to focus on ventures that can make profits. Journalists often shy away from business, he said, but it is a vital part of the picture.
The Voice model pairs trained journalists with experienced sales executives, and prioritises monthly printed magazines ahead of content for the web and social media.
One of those Richard has advised is Port Talbot’s Magnet community website, set up as a co-operative by NUJ members.
NUJ Wales chair Ken Smith outlined how the Magnet has filled a void left when Northcliffe closed its paper in the town.
The Magnet is not yet making money but is planning a print edition that should bring in more revenue.
Others are ploughing their own fields.
Rob Taylor, a young internet entrepreneur, runs wrexham.com, which is on its way to profitability through carefully targeting web traffic to attract advertisers.
Richard Gurdon runs caerphillyobserver, an online title for the Welsh town which has more than 2,000 likes on Facebook. Already the title supports him and his young family through online advertising, some sponsored link-embedded stories and offering copywriting services on the side.
Richard finds himself picking up where his much-depleted print competitor now doesn’t tread – such as a well-supported protest meeting about the need for a hospital A&E department where he found himself the only reporter. He was unsurprisingly warmly received by the meeting.
Yet another model was presented by Tim Dickens, co-editor of Brixton Blog and Bugle, a South London website which is now also an independent newspaper thanks to a grant from the Journalism Foundation which helped pay for two part-time sales reps to sell adverts. This too is close to being a profitable concern –even though it has an ‘ethical advertising’ policy which turns away housing developers (seen as controversial in a gentrifying Brixton) and which outlaws ads from multinationals or big corporates like Macdonald’s or other firms which might take trade from local competitors.
The NUJ had a voice throughout the day. Steve Jones, a member of the union’s Wales Executive Council, encouraged hyperlocal journalists to join the union, partly as a way to learn about skills and standards, and perhaps get the coveted Press Card, the credential which opens doors for those recognised as professional journalists.
A discussion about the vulnerability of small news outlets to libel threats led to a call for the NUJ to provide legal support as a way of attracting members.
I explained that the union has never supported defamation cases due to the unpredictable costs. This is just one of the challenges for the NUJ in this changing landscape – but clearly a more comprehensive legal advice service, even advice on individual stories for a fee, would be a real attraction for prospective members.
Many of the community journalists present were not members of the union, perhaps hadn’t even hear of it and certainly weren’t sure that it could help them.
One said that he looked into joining the NUJ but decided that he didn’t fit into any of the membership categories (luckily this is something that is being looked at).
New unpublished research from the university’s new Centre for Community Journalism shows that current practice on hyperlocal websites is not always as good as it could be. The sites gave a good focus on otherwise-ignored local politics and community issues. But they often don’t present opposing views.
The research, previewed for the conference by Dr Andy Williams, found half the hyperlocal stories studied had no named source. Only one in five had more than one source, and only three per cent quoted opposing sources. A mark of lack of training, or indicator of an evolving market?
Nevertheless I’m sure this is a field that’s growing fast as traditional regional publishers shed jobs and fade away from many communities.
The NUJ can play a big role in encouraging proper standards in the field and acting as a forum to support these new ventures in responsible journalism. We may be dealing with the employers of the future – let’s encourage them to behave better than their old-school predecessors.
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