Getting serious about hyperlocal, part 2: Journalism

While the conversation continues around legal issues, burning issue number two in my mind is the quality of hyperlocal content. I’m very fortunate that at the helm of The Lichfield Blog is former journalist and current journalism lecturer, Ross Hawkes. I’ve learnt a lot from Ross, mainly that as hyperlocal looks to play a part in local media, it needs to be underpinned by that traditional role of the local journalist. Knowing legally what can and can’t be reported, ensuring that coverage is, as far as possible, un-biased and that those involved in a story are given the right to reply. And there’s much more.

As I see it, new hyperlocal sites springing up in response to disappearing newspapers need a basic journalistic foundation if they are to provide real quality. Those so-called ‘citizen journalists’ need those skills if they are to provide a really valuable, quality alternative or replacement service. At the same time there are journalists sitting at home having been made redundant (and plenty who haven’t) who are looking at hyperlocal and thinking it’s a train they need to catch.

For the citizens, I reckon it’d be good to provide them with a bit of training in the importance of checking facts and the right to reply. This could include some legal training and making sure they have a copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. Some journalists might need a helping hand in figuring out online news gathering and social media, especially if they come from a very traditional media background.

Again, a hyperlocal alliance might be a way of providing this. It could act as a training and support hub for anyone interested in or running a hyperlocal. Those without the necessary skills can gain them and those with skills can improve upon them and support others. Like a collaborative support network, a big hyperlocal media surgery in the cloud.

Following the excellent discussion on Rhubarb Radio‘s Sunday Local with Birmingham Post editor, Marc Reeves and epic visionary Andrew Brightwell, the cogs started turning about existing local media. First I thought, could existing local media take advantage of all this enthusiasm coming from communities and deliver basic journalism training (especially on legal issues) in exchange for stories? It’s the news onion, again. The bloggers would effectively act as independent journalists, with their own site but as freelancers for local media. Thoughts very welcome on this one…

The way I see it, journalists are being made redundant by local media left, right and center. It may save some money short-term but long term, they’re lowering the quality of their output at the hyperlocal level. That’s why sites like The Lichfield Blog are springing up. Now, to my mind one of two things will happen moving forward; a) journalists will independently fill that gap left by existing local media and eventually send them out of business or b) citizens will fill the gap and local media will have to embrace them and actually use their content out of a lack of resource to get stories themselves. Okay, or c) a bit of both. I’ll be honest, my preference is with ‘a’ – why let all that talent go to waste?!

Either way, the same skills that we benefit from when reading the local paper are going to be needed, as well as some new ones. Who provides the training? Again I ask could we collectively provide the necessary training? How do we fund that? Who does it? How is it delivered? Or do you even agree that those skills are needed? We need to figure it out if hyperlocal is going to make a real difference.

Again, I’ve started a journalism discussion on the hyperlocal alliance group and comments are welcome here or on Twitter with the #HLA hashtag.

7 thoughts on “Getting serious about hyperlocal, part 2: Journalism”

  1. I follow your blog, you make some interesting points but I think in many ways you’re coming at things from the wrong angle. You see things from the perspective of the journalist rather than the community which is why you hold up ideas such as unbiased reporting. I don’t want to start referencing Foucault but I see the concept as being impossible. The community and sections within it all have a perspective, the only way to be unbiased is to say nothing or at least nothing of any substance.

    I also question whether hyperlocal is anything new, other than the internet platform. Paper equivalents have existed as long as newspapers have existed, longer in fact. And still exist. It’s all a simple matter of people with something to say using the means at their disposal to say it.

    Your view of the legal implications is also very conservative. I understand that you find the UKs libel laws to be oppressive. Simply avoid them altogether, easily done in these days of top up non identifiable master cards. Very simple and costs less than the new price of the book you linked to. Of course this all depends on what sort of content you’re putting up, come up on the radar of SB and it doesn’t count for a thing. It scuppers the efforts any NWNF libel lawyer, “teflon Kev” and his redwatch site is testament to this. Parliament haven’t managed to shut him down yet.

  2. I’m glad someone still understands the value of journalism training. I think bloggers are journalists – albeit often untrained ones (although there are plenty of professionals who haven’t been trained either). What is interesting is that increasingly bloggers are keen to talk to people like me (who’ve got some experience and some training) because they want to be closer to the traditional concept of a reporter. I introduce that word (reporter), because it appears there might be some need for that at a local level.

    At hashbrum.co.uk, the local news experiment a few of us are running in Birmingham, we’re looking at what a few of us can do to add value to the many very good blogs that are already out there. I hope that work will give people more of an idea of the kind of future you’re talking about.

  3. Rob – I understand what you say about the community but to serve the community well you need to be unbiased. Some of the work you’re doing at Class Crisis is good – such as the New Minster House investigation. That, in essence, is investigative journalist. You’ve made yourself a journalist anyway, but long term, to actually provide a good service to the community you need that journalistic integrity that ‘J-school’ teaches as standard. These are the basic skills such as the right to reply and what can be reported.

    You’re right about paper equivalents – they have been around for a while, as have online equivalents (I’m thinking for a start about Ventnor blog that’s been around for four years) but there is a much bigger movement now. The state of the newspaper is coming to a head now and the next twelve months will be crucial. That’s why we’re talking about it now.

    As for your comment about libel law, you obviously have very little understanding about the impact they can have. Just look into the background and aftermath of the Guardian/Trafigura case and you’ll see.

    Andrew – That’s interesting that you’ve been approached. It also makes me think – in the context of Rob’s comment – that many bloggers don’t see themselves as journalists or reporters so we may struggle to give them the skills they need to do a good job long term. Hash Brum is a really exciting move, and I’m hoping a lot will come from it, including that future.

  4. I never thought of the New Minster House post as being journalism or even related to it but I can see where you’re coming from.

    I’m still not convinced about unbiased reporting though – no newspaper does it. They all grind their own axes. Read about asylum seekers in the Daily Hate for example and then in the Independent or Guardian – same two words, entirely different pictures painted. The Mirror and The Sun both reported the postal strike but could have been writing about completely different events.

    Trafigura was nothing to do with libel at all, why do you think it was? An injunction had been sought, it was a contempt of court/parliamentary reporting issue. As I said before it is very easy to make a libel action against ruinously expensive to pursue for most individuals. How many hyperlocals are likely to have Carter- Ruck after them?

  5. Just because no newspaper does it, doesn’t mean that we can’t. A lot of thought is going into what the newspapers aren’t doing right at the moment and I strongly believe that complete impartiality is one of them. We try to gather all the facts and then let the community decided how they feel about it, rather than offering an opinion ourselves. And we give the comments area as a way for the community to discuss that with each other.

    True, Trafigura wasn’t a great example. The Libel Reform Campaign has some better examples.

  6. I wasn’t thinking of specific examples of things happening now in hyperlocals but the general concept of being unbiased.

    If you want to use the LB as an example take any article there that isn’t just a fact – dog found, car crashed etc. and look at something like a comment from a councilor. Can a claim to impartiality really be made if that is simply reproduced without putting it into some kind of context? Yes, the community can comment but the main article, the thing put forward by LB is the councilors argument which has more prominence than any comment. If the background isn’t researched then is it even journalism or simply free content from a person with a public profile?

    Start authorising comments- so for example someone can be called a Leninist revolutionay Spartist boater when in fact they are none of those things and when they refute the statement the comment is not authorised – there’s no grounds to claim impartiality it at all.

  7. We’re not doing (much) investigative journalism at the moment though, we’re just reporting what’s going on. That’s why you get the councillor’s quotes and nothing else because we’re just informing and letting you connect the dots. If we had more resource we could do that, but we just don’t I’m afraid. We’re always open to new contributors though!

    As for your comment this morning, it wasn’t approved because it didn’t relate to the post itself. The comments section is not a platform for character assassinations of fellow commenters, and we’ll be policing them more heavily in future.

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