Hyperlocal is deserving of its hype


Hyperlocal journalism isn’t new, but it deserves our continued attention as a large and growing part of the UK media landscape, according to Dave Harte

Trinity Mirror’s Birmingham Mail is one media outlet that has successfully partnered with hyperlocal blogs to enhance its coverage. Photograph: birminghammail.co.uk
It’s growing year on year. I know because I’ve been counting it.
In fact there’s a growing army of journalists and untrained citizens blogging about the places they live in who aren’t affiliated with any professional media operation but whose contribution to the public sphere increasingly can’t be ignored.
As a researcher on the Media, Community and the Creative Citizenproject (funded through the Research Council’s Connected Communitiesprogramme) I’ve been trying to look at the relationship between people blogging about their local areas and the notion of creative citizenship. Specifically, how we might recognise and value small creative acts, such as contributing to a blog, as a useful, valuable aspect of citizenship in the UK.

During its relatively short life, hyperlocal has been variously lauded by those community activists who see the utilisation of digital technologies as a new tool for maintaining community cohesion and keeping power held to account; and derided by so-called “proper” journalists who dismiss this area as an inadequate, amateur-run replacement for a declining local press.
What it actually appears to be is a diverse, dynamic area of practice. It utilises a wide range of web platforms, with some sites often changing platform and design without notice, with the practitioners, as much as we know about them, coming from a variety of professional and non-professional backgrounds.
I’ve run a news-style blog about the place I live in Bournville, Birmingham for the last three years, writing about 350 stories myself. My journalistic training extends to one term at university and a brief stint at the student union newspaper. Many of my hyperlocal contemporaries have less training than that, if any at all, yet I inherited the Bournville blog from the Guardian’s Hannah Waldram whose early work in setting it up was key to helping her progress into mainstream journalism.
Until recently we had no real sense of the volume of news produced by hyperlocal. An existing database told us how many sites there were (just over 600 and growing) but not how active the sites were. Our project set out to tackle that gap.
What we found was the volume of material produced by hyperlocals is impressive. During a sample period of 11 days in May 2012 there were a total of 3,819 news stories produced from 313 sites. During weekday daytimes they were collectively responsible for producing a news story once every two minutes.
Some sites produce very little, perhaps a story once a week or less.Others manage a much higher output showing that hyperlocal has a very long tail. The collective output may feel high but the coverage your particular area gets may be little if any. Despite the decline in local press – 242 newspapers closed between 2005 and 2011 – there are still just over a 1,000 regional daily or weekly newspapers in the UK.
Nevertheless, our research (which just focused on sites producing individual stories rather than those often very active and valuable sites focused around discussion forums) was enough to convince Ofcom to include a chapter about hyperlocal in their 2012 Communications Market Review. They noted that the sector was “evolving rapidly” and therefore is acting to “broaden the range of local media content available to citizens and consumers at a time when traditional local media providers continue to find themselves under financial pressure”.
Ofcom’s interest in hyperlocal as part of a “local media ecosystem” is worth noting. It might be interpreted as signalling a lack of conviction in the role that the local TV initiative can play in filling the gap left behind by the double whammy of the closure of local newspapers and ITV’s retreat from their public service obligation to produce local news. Perhaps sensing Ofcom’s interest, at least one successful local TV bidder (City TV in Birmingham), explicitly references connecting to existing hyperlocal websites.
In Birmingham there’s an existing though rather loose agreement, in place for over two years now, between hyperlocal publishers and the Trinity Mirror’s Birmingham Mail title that has republished stories found on local blogs as part of its Communities pages. In return the blogs get access if they require it to the Mirror’s image archive.
The relationship works well because the Birmingham hyperlocals don’t seem to be driven by a desire to create economic value from their endeavours. It might be that they’re driven by a desire to raise their social rather than economic capital but whatever the reason, their output remains prodigious and often innovative.
In this sense it could be argued hyperlocal represents a kind of volunteer army of journalists, trained and untrained, eager to contribute and with the potential to change the supply chain for local news. Hyperlocal practitioners are highly networked online, often far better networked than local journalists. Not just between themselves but with local government workers, the police, other public institutions, and of course citizens who live on their patch.
Our research has also examined the content of hyperlocal sites, analysing nearly 2,000 individual news stories. Our findings suggest that the sites are good at speaking the language of community participation but perhaps lack the harder political edge of some of the regional press (though we found many fewer funny animal stories in hyperlocal than you’d imagine).
Yet it would be wrong to frame a comparison with mainstream media purely in terms of who is more hard-nosed than who. The key question is what is the value of the contribution that hyperlocals make? Is the value more civic than journalistic? More creative than economic?
recent article listed “hyperlocal” as one of those buzzwords it hoped to see the back of in 2013. They might be right; it’s certainly a term that has little public recognition. Yet even that rather curmudgeonly US-centric review admitted that the most interesting developments were coming not from the mainstream media’s often failed interventions in this space but from below where the “stuff that actually merits the term has never been more worthy of your attention”. This is what we’re finding in the UK; and there’s more of it that you think.
Dave Harte is a senior lecturer in media and communication atBirmingham City University.
To get more articles like this sent direct to your inbox, sign up for free membership of the Guardian Media Network. This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *