‘This is an emergency. Act now, or local news will die’ said Polly Toynbee’s headline writer in one of the alarmist pieces about the fate of local news in the past month. As readers will know I see a rosy future for hyperlocal or ultralocal news in volunteer-run community websites. And am hopefully close to a contract with 4IP and a regional funder to help people set up such sites. But the shroud waving press coverage has either missed or distorted some important points covered below.
Of all the pieces written the best was this by Stephen Moss – he starts to get under the skin of what can be done locally and doesn’t have rose tinted view of local papers. Moss suggests that if in his case study, Long Eaton people who can write and create a website can link up with people who hunt out content then:
‘I’m convinced the town would have a journalistic vehicle far more powerful than the old stripped-down, clapped-out Long Eaton Advertiser. Local advertisers and well-wishers would flock to it; maybe the government could start an Arts Council-type fund to facilitate local news-gathering. And then Long Eaton could say it was in at the rebirth not just of local journalism, but of a revitalised civic life.’
There have been many media transitions before, this is just another one. The transitions from print to radio in the 1930s, from radio to TV in the 1950s-70s and from static to rolling news in the 1990s. In no case did the preceding media disappear, it just adapted and learned to live alongside the new medium that eventually stole much of the limelight. People thrived who adapted their skills from one medium to the next. The world did not end, it just changed. Along the way the odd publication fell – the Picture Post had little place in a TV age. That is where we are now, publications whose model is from a previous media age are suffering – and the new media are exposing the weirdness of older business practices, such as the curious complicity of the Lobby.
Public sector intervention in the market must leave editorial neutral – it is hard to see how paying money to newspapers can be done neutrally, whether through advertising or grant. Polly Toynbee’s piece on this was worrying. The big, unspoken threat to local pluralism and democratic voice now is local papers becoming even more dependent upon revenue from local authorities – they are already dangerously dependent upon council advertising for say street works etc. It is likely that even this local revenue stream will soon shift to the internet, as the official notices in the wonderfully semantic London Gazette have. Councils striving the meet the new National Indicators for empowerment and popular perception of their services, measured by survey will be tempted to splurge on paid for editorial, many are running their own papers already. This is bad for democracy. Ian Jack’s piece here captures nicely the democratic tensions that are emerging:
‘Local newspapers often reproduce the press releases of local authorities unchecked and unchallenged as the cheapest way to acknowledge new information; written by former local journalists, its style fits perfectly with the paper’s. Journalism is quietly migrating with journalists to the public sector, enabling (according to the NUJ) newspaper owners to make even bigger cuts. Slattery quotes an NUJ official, Miles Barter, wondering why “the poor council taxpayers of Burnley and Accrington” should subsidise the shareholders of newspaper chains such as Johnston Press and Newsquest.‘
Deep dive investigative reporting will change to a new distributed model reflecting wider internet practice. A journalist or a team cross subsidised by the clothing ads in the celebrity section will fade out further. Long burn investigative stories will be done via collaborative online networks maybe in different countries. The Sunlight Foundation work on collaborative investigations is an early indicator – pile the data up and then everyone can have a go at investigating. Why can’t analysis of 1.5million MPs expense forms be outsourced to India? The hair splittingly detailed work of bloggers during the US election points the way. As the pockets of new media outlets deepen they may subsidise some investigative work, in much the way that brash new TV channels rarely do public service at launch but come around to it later.
Broadcast television companies and people are not well suited to the grass roots web and hyperlocal stuff. The recent angst by the print media has obscured continuing distress about ‘local’ TV news. Video is a helpful adjunct to local news and campaigning but mixed media web environment allows you to see that for the majority of stuff video is too time consuming – text and photos rule. But watching the telly people on the local news front is a bit like disco dad on the dancefloor. In the UK the ‘balance’ criteria on TV news aren’t well suited to hyperlocal reporting. BBCAction network and then their very odd, rejected local video proposals all suffered from top down control, rather than bottom up empowerment. ITV has never recovered its online momentum after buying Friendsreunited at precisely the wrong time. For telly, it seems very hard to unlearn a lifetime of increasing ‘production values’ and bureaucratic overhead of broadcast news, with intrinsic high costs.
One of the reasons i am working with 4IP is that they can see the weaknesses of the traditional telly model. The web is about Dogme video at most – the evolution of dance has v low production values but several hundred million views. If you see someone approaching video for a website with an HD camera and a lighting rig, they are probably the wrong person.
And i did all this without mentioning Clay Shirky. More to follow on advertising.