in the absence of a local mainstream press, will democracy suffer or grow?

The Guardian publishes an interesting piece today on a declining local mainstream press, and the implications this has for democratic scrutiny above all.

An example from the report in question:

[Local] sources of news are fast disappearing. According to the National Union of Journalists, 150 local titles have closed since 2008, as the country’s big four local media groups – Trinity Mirror, Newsquest, Local World and Johnston Press – cut costs in the face of declining advertising revenue. Last November, Trinity Mirror closed seven papers including the Reading Post and Surrey Herald.

And:

“There’s a real democratic value in having a local newspaper,” said Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust. “It’s not just that it allows the community to know what’s going on. It’s also that the presence of a journalist who turns up to council meetings makes local politicians more accountable and keeps tabs on their behaviour.

The consequences being:

“As these papers close – or as they’re hollowed out, closing local offices and running news gathering from a hub in a city miles from people’s lives – we’re gradually creating a serious democratic deficit. The number of professional journalists reporting on local news has plummeted in the last decade. There are now areas of the UK where there is virtually no professional news reporting at all.”

In its place, we get the burgeoning examples of #hyperlocal which this blog has been exploring over the past couple of months.  Often volunteer-run, their dynamics are curiously familiar for a person like myself, involved in generally unpaid blogging since 2003.  It’s unclear to me, at least at the moment, exactly what the motivations which drive an individual to participate in such activities are, but they probably include some of the following:

  • a real and existing engagement with one’s communities – a desire to do something for others
  • a natural desire to explore new activities
  • a natural desire to upskill in and learn how to use powerful, cheap-to-implement communication tools
  • approaching #hyperlocal environments first as an extension of Facebooking, tweeting and other socially networked activities, and then looking to naturally develop them into something closer to home; something over which one might have more control
  • the thought – at the back of one’s mind perhaps – that acquiring ability in such areas of work could lead to future openings in other fields
  • the thought that, without such #hyperlocal platforms, society will be all the poorer

Now one might have thought that the local mainstream press would be bleating about the encroachment of #hyperlocal as a repeat of what the free-to-read and write blogosphere has done to online content over the past decade.  But it doesn’t seem to really be the case.  Whilst we do have apparently large #hyperlocals coexisting alongside more traditional websites, they don’t seem to be the prime reason driving the mainstream out of existence.  In a sense, #hyperlocal – instead of generating an industrial pit of a model out of which few businesses could operate – is filling a content vacuum which is less and less useful, even if it were to continue.

In my own area, Chester, the main newspaper – which has a considerable online presence – is hardly even-handed as far as local political allegiances are concerned; I would, as a result, argue that local democracy is – has traditionally been – poorly served by our local press.  Investigative journalism, the most expensive kind, has in no way been its priority.  I’m sure the pattern is repeated in many other local fiefdoms.

Which begs the question: will democracy suffer or grow as the local mainstream press says goodbye?

It’s an interesting question, and it deserves to be more fully considered.

I raised it in my last post on the #hyperlocals which run the risk of becoming #hyper-elites.  Even if #hyperlocal does take up – voluntarily or otherwise – the slack from what I would argue was already a pretty ineffective and prejudice-prone local journalism, scrutiny-wise in particular, who’s to then say it would guarantee a plural and investigative alternative?

I don’t think it’s necessarily a done deal.  Much as the Big Society was constructed to benefit those semi-retired conservative souls with time and resource on their hands to attend committees, functions, dinners and galas galore, so a replacing #hyperlocal could allow local elites to re-establish their elites quite easily.  Except instead of using paid journalists to get their messages across, they could easily manage and manipulate volunteers into forming part of a fairly unhappy plan to direct and channel a locality’s opinion in quite significant ways.

Of course, the Guardian is right to highlight the opportunities and examples which it does – especially in those areas of note where, whether local mainstream or #hyperlocal, good has been manifestly achieved.

But if you are going to tell me that local volunteer groups are to replace an already biased and consequently ineffective local mainstream, and that – in places where democracy is already hindered by such bias – this will mean out of such a culture democratic instincts will spring forth, I might call into question your judgement – and perhaps your sense of realism.

Democracy needs scrutiny, yes.

But scrutiny isn’t enough.  We need more.  We need a backdrop.

We need good people prepared to do good politics; prepared to work hard to maintain good community relations; and prepared to operate in a good faith sorely lacking in many places at the moment.

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