I’ve just seen a very informative and cogently communicated presentation by Dr Andy Williams, given during one module of the Future Learn/Cardiff University Community Journalism course I’m currently attending.
In it, he gives an overview of some initial research into British hyperlocal. The conclusions are fascinating. The news and content developed by such hyperlocals ranges from “dog poo” and issues of “minor” licensing and planning decisions to reporting on local council and party-political activity.
It’s interesting, though, that consistently left out of the frame are political but non-party actors such as trades unionists and local – presumably often single-issue – activists. (Fracking comes immediately to mind in our area but I’m sure there are many more across the country.)
It’s almost as if hyperlocal is currently daring to dip its toes into the waters of entrenched structures but fears – perhaps intuitively, yet even so quite widely – of going too far in any attempt, however limited, to dismantle them.
Perhaps the problem, too, is one of verification: without many resources to doublecheck, many hyperlocals will prefer to publish what “authorities” have said.
This, obviously, leads to a churnalism we shouldn’t promote.
What’s the alternative?
Well. I wonder. And if hyperlocal became a proactively and more obviously campaigning medium of communication? The divide exists in the traditional mainstream. We only have to look at newspapers like the Mirror and the Guardian to realise that mainstream doesn’t have to mean always swimming with the current; whilst, at the other end of the political spectrum, even the Daily Mails and the Telegraphs have their campaigning moments – in some cases perfectly honourable ones.
Not all newspapers have followed this line of attack, however.
On the launch of the recent #keepitintheground campaign, the Guardian‘s editor, Alan Rusbridger, underlined the following truism of such a journalism (the bold is mine):
The usual rule of newspaper campaigns is that you don’t start one unless you know you’re going to win it. This one will almost certainly be won in time: the physics is unarguable. But we are launching our campaign today in the firm belief that it will force the issue now into the boardrooms and inboxes of people who have billions of dollars at their disposal.
Perhaps, again a tad intuitively, hyperlocals have all had this at the back of their minds: a local politics is inevitably a local fiefdom, where local power apportions local benefit. It’s difficult to be an unadulterated @shitchester for very long; in some way or other, then, disruptive media (whether Twitter accounts or full-blown websites) will eventually, quite despite their better instincts, become tamed in small ways: even, it has to be said, becoming part of the entrenched establishment they once took such glorious delight in taking potshots at.
This is not necessarily an irremediably bad thing: the flux and flow of institutional change is one of the virtues of a renewing democracy.
Which is what leads me to wonder the following: what if, in hyperlocal, we are witnessing the seeds of the downfall of local political parties?
Just think what might happen if hyperlocal became as campaigning as per our dearly beloved Citizen Kane.
Not exactly inventing the stories, mind; more, digging fearlessly away at them. Located outside entrenched party-political discourse and institutions, and with a much more fragmented, single-issue dynamic.
What, even, if some of the hyperlocals that began to be set up were focussed on one issue – and existed only whilst that issue was too hot for others to handle?
The low costs of online publishing would allow such an approach to spread rapidly.
So if people got involved – either in the above ad hoc way or by actively participating around the community hubs that good hyperlocal websites and environments clearly are (dealing effectively and quickly with all the issues that ranged from “dog poo” and licensing applications various (rigged or otherwise) to something as fundamentally serious as the gross mismanagement of local administrations) – what would there be left for local political parties to aggregate their supporters, voters and activists around?
What dynamic of urgency could be used any more to lever the diminishing crowd of party-political followers to continue to wear their badges of courage?
If, instead of phoning up the council to take away the languishing rat-attracting rubbish, we got into the far more efficient habit of tweeting a short message onto our hyperlocal local website and pulled together a group of self-interested volunteers that very evening, what actually – for many services – would be the point of all those politicians; of all those sometimes rather uncivil servants?
Aren’t we right to explore the possibility that hyperlocal, far from simply sounding the death knell of mainstream local media, could actually detach from already distant political parties the right to be exclusively heard and acted upon in everything local we currently make noises around?
A final thought.
I’m not sure that mainstream local media’s decline is necessarily a done and dusted thing. If they bit their very particular bullets, downsized honourably, followed the example of competent hyperlocal, with all their knowhow and current tech, they could easily re-emerge from the ashes of current practice.
Whether people in the business are interested in going this far – or even are able to perceive the opportunity – I don’t know. But if the potential of setting up a clearly campaigning hyperlocal network, across the country as I am suggesting here, doesn’t enthuse any of those newspaper editors and journalists currently suffering the attentions of their businesses’ greedy shareholders and unyielding accountants’ end-of-year – even end-of-times! – scenarios, perhaps these editors and journalists have forgotten not how to run a newspaper but why …