A thousand flowers bloom in local journalism: But how many will survive? #localjournalism

Thursday 26 June 2014, 16:06

Charles Miller Charles Miller edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for BBC History and Business. Twitter: @chblm

Controversial: Jasper Westaway at the Revival of Local Journalism conference Controversial: Jasper Westaway at the Revival of Local Journalism conference If there are problems with local journalism, they're not caused by any lack of interest, either from consumers or producers.

Ian Murray, editor of the Southampton Echo and president of the Society of Editors, reminded the BBC’s conference on The Revival of Local Journalism that the local press is still read by 30 million people a week. That’s half the population (and therefore more than half the available market). If they're not reading the paper, people are checking social media or hyperlocal websites to keep in touch with what's going on near them. 

On the producing side, a thousand flowers are blooming, or at least trying to find some light. Chairman Mao's actual phrase is more apposite: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.”

Many schools of thought were contending at the Salford conference: they included new entrants into the world of local communications, only some of whom call themselves journalists, only some of whom intend to make money from their activities, and not all of whom even have media as their main business.

A tweet from Tesco A tweet from Tesco This must be the first time a supermarket has been approached to send a speaker to a BBC journalism conference. Tom Hoskin, group media relations director for Tesco, admitted that big centralised bureaucracies are not usually good at communicating at a local level. Tesco’s approach is to cede its natural “command and control” instincts to individual store managers and “community champions”.

The big change of course is that social media ‘cuts out the middle man’ of local media. Tesco’s Twitter account (185,000 followers) can both speak directly to customers and allow them to talk to it - at no cost to Tesco except the time of those who operate the account.

Then there’s Facebook, Google and other businesses which provide the channels of communication swirling around local journalism, maybe helping it, maybe undermining it.

Twitter and Google had been asked to address the conference. For Google, Peter Barron, head of communications for Europe and the Middle East, offered a brief personal history of his encounters with social media, beginning with his efforts as editor of the BBC’s Newsnight to capitalise on his audience’s ability to make and share videos on YouTube. Jeremy Paxman was unimpressed. When required by Barron to promote Newsnight’s YouTube initiative, he ended the programme one night with a snarling reference to “our editor’s pathetic pleas for you to send us your home movies”. Needless to say, after that, as Barron recalled, “the entries started to flood in”.

Today, as a staffer at Google, owner of YouTube, Barron is in the business of selling - or rather giving away - its media tools to journalists, instead of being a pioneering journalist using them. Unlike the other presentations and panels which were about policy, Barron’s and that of Joanna Geary, Twitter head of news partnerships UK, were more instructional.

Tribute to Rik Mayall in Hull Tribute to Rik Mayall in Hull Barron explained how Google Trends, for instance, could show that after the death of Rik Mayall searches for his name were higher than average in Hull. Why? Well, Hull was the constituency of Mayall’s fictional MP character Alan B’stard. Is that a local story? Well, yes it is actually.

Geary presented her ‘Twitter news compass’ to explain how Twitter can power all aspects of journalism, from finding stories to distributing them.

Not everyone was rejoicing about these free tools. In the final session of the day, Jasper Westaway, chief executive Borde.rs, a start-up business developing a news app, was both indignant at the sluggishness of local news operations in adapting to the new world, and at Google and Twitter for wanting “to crush their businesses”. He warned that “San Francisco is coming”: if it wasn’t the existing tech companies, new ones would soon appear and dominate local news by finding how to “crack the DNA of this problem”.

Barron and Geary, relaxing in the audience after their presentations, were thrust back into the debate to defend themselves. “We’re not trying to kill anybody really,” Barron insisted.

And Geary gave a heartfelt account of her journalistic credentials as a sign of good faith: she’d started work on a paper as “a twenty-something, starry-eyed journalist who believed in serving a community”. But journalism turned out to be less idealistic than she had hoped: the watchword from the newsdesk was “just bash it out”. It was the discovery of social media as a journalist that reconnected her to the community she’d always wanted to build and serve.

The day had started with James Harding, the BBC's director of news and current affairs, offering a constructive hand of friendship from the BBC to the commercial local news sector. He summed up at the end of the conference, quoting, with amusement, somebody’s Twitter characterisation of his message: “We want to nick your stories and still be your friends.” He said he’d already taken on board a suggestion from the day’s discussion: that the review he’d announced of the BBC’s relations with outside local news groups should include representatives of those groups.

The question of the UK media’s relations with big US tech businesses, which had raised the temperature of the debate before Harding’s up-sum, still hung in the air. However comfortably relations between the BBC and other media can be worked out, how can British media as a whole thrive in a world of ‘free’ services offered by US businesses? For all the sincere intentions of their UK staff like Barron and Geary, Google and Twitter exist to make money in the territories where they operate.

Whether you see that as promoting the blooming of more flowers or the wilting of existing ones probably depends on your place in the increasingly complex ecosystem of local journalism.    

Welcome to a new golden era: Charles Miller's blog from the first part of the conference

Jasper Westaway: Prosper in local news without predicting the future

Richard Coulter: Why you can’t sell local news and give it away at the same time?

William Perrin: Why doesn't the BBC let other people use its local output for free?


The Revival of Local Journalism



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    Comment number 1.

    I have a burning comment about journalism and news reporting in general, but I do not know where to go with it. Then I saw your blog and thought perhaps I could start here, and I apologize in advance if I am barking up the wrong tree. In almost all news today, why is there a need to report the perpetrator's religion, ethnicity, nationality etc, which only serve to fuel such inter-community tensions in a globalized world. The perpetrator commited the crimes on his/her own accord, not representing any community. In a globalized world, especially when local journalists report these, and then the world media picks it up, it could and usually lead to strife between communities that could snowball from a local crime to cross-border ethnic violence. Is it ok for a buddhist to murder a buddhist, but not ok for a muslim to murder a buddhist? Why is there a need to differentitate?


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