Politics, technology and the media are all pointing to the local
leads on digital democracy and communications at the Local Government Information Unit. Twitter: @robandale
On 24 May, I am due to speak at the College of Journalism's Connecting Communities conference about how local councils and councillors have reacted to the emergence of community media.
But, before looking at the 'how', I want to ask why current momentum suggests that citizen-led content will continue to grow.
The decline in traditional local media has been and is being well reported. Less well covered is the growth and opportunities in politics, technology and the media that are fuelling the ambition, energy and belief of these early practitioners.
First, politics: one of the central pieces of legislation of the Coalition government is the Localism Act. The intention is to push as much power as possible away from Whitehall and back to the Town Hall - and local people, charities, voluntary organisations, community groups and parents.
It's about developing a more varied, diverse, almost certainly messier, public services landscape; but one that appreciates that different people and different communities want to do things differently.
Then, in technology, the current momentum online is about connecting with place - where we are right now and what we're doing. Smartphones allow us to check in on-the-move (Foursquare); record whatever we see in front of us (Bambuser); and communicate that across a plethora of social (Facebook) and professional (LinkedIn) networks.
With declining production costs, the growth in public wifi access and the impending roll-out of 4G, this is only going to grow in use, and so in significance.
Lastly, consider what's happening in the media. Back in March 2010, The Guardian launched three local blogs - in Leeds, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Sadly, they were wound down. The Guardian's Meg Pickard explains here why the project was "not sustainable in its present form".
Wimbledon People website screenshot
But the national-to-local mantle has now being taken up by Northcliffe Media. It now has more than 120 LocalPeople websites (such as Wimbledon People, above) and claims they are "accessed regularly by over 20% of the town's online population". I've been told by a Northcliffe representative that the company is now selling franchise versions of these sites to people who fancy their chances of making some money from this branch of community media.
The BBC has appointed a senior journalist, based in Birmingham, to investigate forging better links with hyperlocals.
This week Ofcom has invited bidders to submit applications for 12-year licences to run local TV services in 21 cities and towns. Along similar lines, independent charity NESTA has just launched a programme to work with ten organisations with £55,000 each to develop better ways of using geographical data in hyperlocal websites.
So what we're seeing is a top-down trend: the top proactively going to meet the grassroots; the central seeking out the local; the big working with the small.
Around the periphery of this politics/technology/media Venn diagram there is still some suspicion and unease, but at the centre there is growing understanding, trust and respect.
And in the centre there are some excellent examples of how local councils and politicians can help new media flourish. They range from councillors running online surgeries on hyperlocal websites to bloggers being invited to press briefings. One council is now looking for wiggle room in the law that will allow it to stop posting statutory notices in local newspapers and publish all that information in community media instead.
It is stories and possibilities like these that I'd like to explore more at the Connected Communities event.
Rob Dale (@robandale) leads on digital democracy and communications at the Local Government Information Unit. A former journalism student, he has a keen interest in the relationship between local government and local media.
The BBC College of Journalism is holding a major conference at the BBC's new offices at MediaCityUK, Salford, on 24 May. It will look at the relationship between mainstream media and communities on a local, global and cultural level. You can register for the Connecting Communities conference - #BBCScc - here, or follow the event on this website.