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What next for community journalism?

Damian Radcliffe

is professor of journalism, Univ of Oregon @damianradcliffe

A new report by Damian Radcliffe on the state of hyperlocal media and community journalism is launched today. Here, he gives us a preview of some of the key findings:

More than 150 journalists, researchers and policy-makers in Cardiff will today ponder the question ‘What next for community journalism and hyperlocal media?’

To help them, they’ll hear perspectives from UK practitioners, a keynote from the US author and academic Dan Gillmor and highlights from my report on the emerging evidence base in the UK. Three years ago, I wrote a report on this nascent sector; the new study, supported by Cardiff University and the innovation agency Nesta, provides a synthesis of the main developments since then.

It’s been a busy three and-a-half years. Initiatives have included the BBC’s conference on Connecting Communities and the corporation’s current consultation on working with hyperlocals, Nesta’s Destination Local programme, the Carnegie UK Trust’s Neighbourhood News initiative, as well as the Cardiff University led Creative Citizens project, its Mooc on community journalism and the launch of the Centre for Community Journalism

It’s a sector which feels as if it has started to gain traction with both opinion formers and audiences. Ofcom has found that one in five now say that online is their most important local news medium, and one in 10 use local community websites or apps at least weekly (up from 7% in 2013). 

With traditional local media channels continuing to feel the financial heat, hyperlocal and community journalism can play an important role in plugging knowledge and information gaps to help communities remained informed and ensure they continue to have a voice.

What we know now: Five key facts

Research efforts in the past few years have given us new insights into hyperlocal audiences, markets and publishers. As a result, we now know:

  1. There are more than 400 active hyperlocal websites in the UK, compared with 1,045 local papers
  2. Consumption of hyperlocal content is on the rise, with information about community events, services, local weather and traffic being the most valued by audiences
  3. Seventy-two per cent of hyperlocal publishers have joined in or supported a local campaign in the past two years. Forty-two per cent have started their own campaigns, and nearly half of the UK’s online hyperlocal publishers engage in some form of investigative reporting
  4. Eight-four per cent of site owners have journalistic training or experience working in the mainstream media
  5. Although most local news sites are self-funded, 13 per cent of hyperlocal websites generate more than £500 per month, and a growing number of practitioners are “professionalising” the sector by looking to do this as a full-time occupation.

Where we go from here

These findings have shed valuable light on the civic, public and journalistic value of the work done by hyperlocal outlets. Yet at the same time the sector feels like it’s at a crossroads. Many of the same old issues around sustainability, discoverability and recognition remain.

Moreover, although there has been investment in the sector, much of this has been one-off. According to the Media Standards Trust, investment was less than £5m in the UK over the past three years. In contrast, the US has seen more than $400m invested in the past two years to promote sustainability and innovation in local media.

Financial intervention on a larger scale in the UK may therefore be needed to help grow and sustain the sector alongside a broader range of support mechanisms from industry and policy-makers. 

Achievable solutions include:

  1. Offering hyperlocal publishers the opportunity to sell credited content to the BBC (see the BBC’s announcement about local news reporters on Monday this week)
  2. Encouraging technology companies such as Google to support community news providers by making their content more discoverable
  3. Providing accreditation and recognition from the NUJ
  4. Urgent clarification by politicians and regulators on the new press regulation regime and how this may affect community news providers
  5. Ensuring hyperlocal publishers are included as suppliers for statutory notices (which amount to between £45m and £50m advertising spend a year) and local health campaigns.

We also need to see continued research into the evolution of this sector - including its total size, financial value and successful business models - so that this can continue to inform industry, practitioners and policy-makers.

Without these remedies I’ve a strange feeling I’ll be telling much the same story in another three years’ time, and that would represent a realmissed opportunity for all concerned.

Damian Radcliffe is an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies (Jomec). He moves to the States later this week to become the Carolyn S Chambers professor in journalism at the University of Oregon, but will continue to share his thoughts on this blog in the coming months.