Where are we now? New hyperlocal media report from C4CJ and Nesta
On 9 September, Nesta and Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ) launched a new report and aligned event. Here I write my reflections - and answer one of the big questions - from the day and as to what hyperlocal media publishers can take away from the report.
The event What next for community journalism? was held at the university and brought together more than 150 hyperlocal publishers, community journalists, academics, representatives from Ofcom and the BBC and other strategic bodies. Never before in the UK has there been an event where so many independent, hyperlocal publishers have had the opportunity to come together – for many, meeting for the first time – to showcase what they do and how they do it, their successes, discuss important issues, and learn about the current trends and opportunities in this seemingly nascent sector.
I say seemingly, because it’s a word that many still use to describe this portion of the UK media landscape. A few years back when Nesta and other strategic organisations had started to support hyperlocal media, it was the go-to adjective. Hyperlocal media services were very much emerging and the people publishing the content were, in many ways, understated and perhaps even a little inexperienced. It’s not to say that now, in 2015, everyone publishing hyperlocal news and information is an expert (whatever that means) and have mastered the art of running a hyperlocal media service. Far from the truth.
But what has changed significantly during the past few years is the hyperlocal media story, and what couldn’t be closer to the truth is how much positive, inspiring and innovative work is taking place. The conversations we’re having are now not simply about identifying the supply and demand, and the challenges. Nor are we merely trying to get our heads around different propositions for service models (such as Nesta’s objectives when we support our 10 phase one projects back in 2012). In scouring the #CJ15 hashtag from our event on Twitter, examples of language used evidence the sector’s progress:
On the day we were honoured to have director of the Knight Centre for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University Dan Gillmor as our keynote. Dan is not only one of the most engaging, wise and switched on people working to support independent journalism, he’s also one of the most humble and generous. Generous with his praise and compassion towards the many hyperlocal publishers in the audience, with snippets such as, ‘It’s hard. I admire you so much for doing it, so don’t stop’. He’s like the ultimate fairy godfather of the hyperlocal media world – his mere presence makes you feel reassured, that you’re on the right track and that ‘everything will be ok’…as long as you’re savvy.
Savvy is most certainly a word I would use to describe many hyperlocal publishers – not least those that are able to sustain their service and those who are able to make it pay. Though of course, even with many services being very well established, and though in some respects the sector is progressive, more needs to be done. By practitioners, wider industry and policy makers alike. There is no golden ticket to making a hyperlocal media service sustainable or resilient for the long term, and there is so much more knowledge sharing, learning and innovation that needs to happen.
My top take away to the publishers in the audience was to make time to read the research. Exploit the resources available and consider the recommendations to make better decisions and develop your own service. Organisations such as Nesta, Cardiff University, Carnegie UK Trust, Talk About Local, Birmingham City University and UCLan have published so much research into the sector. The objective of the research is not just to widen our own understanding but to share knowledge and learning with others working in the space.
Key recommendation for practitioners are also outlined in our Where are we now? UK hyperlocal media and community journalism in 2015 report. Below is some food for thought, and of course I recommend all hyperlocal publishers – however you define yourself - read the report for much more insight:
Pg 11 - Identifying the societal impact of campaigns
- As a hyperlocal publisher, do you measure the impact of local campaigns that either you run or that your local community runs and you report on? And how do you demonstrate the positive role your service is having in creating positive impact or engaging the right people?
Pg 14 - Benefitting from social media and focusing activity on Facebook
- Go where people are and where they are is social media, and particularly Facebook. Do you have actively engage on social media and are you utilising different channels to their full potential – as a listening device to pick up on intelligence from your local community – as much as to post content or links to your website? This is particularly relevant for engaging young people, as Purpose’s 2014 report Exploring Online Democratic Platforms for Young People to Effect Positive Change highlights, "You must meet young people where they are; you can’t expect them to come to you".
- Do you experiment with different social media channels or video to ensure your ongoing relevance to local audiences, and to engage with different groups in your local community?
Pg 23 – Deploying civic engagement plugins
- Fix My Street, the Cycle Hackney app, Budget Simulator, 38 Degrees and Change.org, are just a handful of platforms that have been created with the objective of making it easier for local communities to challenge the status quo and engage with and hold authority to account. As Dan Gillmor said at our event, “If you’re not using tool such as Fix My street, then why not?”
- Platforms within the sharing (or collaborative) economy also help to empower local people, and are another great resource to tap into, to facilitate local conversations and surface content…and even to support your own service. Streetbank, Skillshare, FoodCycle, Casserole Club, and GitHub open-source software are some examples.
Pg 27 - Discoverability and underestimating the role of digital skills
- Content might be king but do you really know who’s reading it and how far a reach it has? Understanding the technical side of your service and ‘back end’ of your website, such as SEO, geo-tagging content, audience analytics, and mobile is increasingly becoming just as important as pushing out content…and relying on a hunch that it’s reaching your audience.
- Being discovered by and keeping audiences engaged doesn’t only have to happen online. Face-to-face connections, such as hosting Meetups, and creating print publications are both powerful ways that local audiences can find and engage with you.
On a final note, I’ll say thank you to everyone who came to the event. We really appreciate all of the engagement, comments and feedback on Twitter, on and after the day. Other roundups can be found via Damian Radcliffe and C4CJ. And participants, remember to feedback via the survey that was emailed from C4CJ, so for any future events we can make it even bigger and better.
Why focus on digital?
We’ve had a few questions on the back of the event as to why there was a focus on digital services. Our focus on digital doesn't disregard print publications from the hyperlocal media landscape – many services that Nesta has supported and continues to directly support, publish across a range of mediums including print. Our ‘digital first, not digital exclusive’ approach comes from our remit to support digital arts and media. As per our 2012 Here and Now: Uk hyperlocal media today report, we define hyperlocal media as “online news or content services pertaining to a town, village, single postcode or other small, geographically defined community in the UK”. This definition isn’t meant to be ‘one size fits all’, as hyperlocal and community mean different things to different people. But it’s a baseline to help us describe the types of independent, community-based publishers that are creating public value.