I recently had the pleasure of attending the ‘What Next for Community Journalism?’ event held by Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (Storify of the event here). Since it is a topic with which I am not much familiar I attended with a degree of trepidation and, indeed, found myself surrounded by a number of journalists, both of the ‘traditional’ and community variety (the distinction between which came to be much more blurred by the end of the day), and lots of talk of business models, meta data and coding.
Wales, and Cardiff/Caerdydd, was well-represented with Wrexham.com, Tongwynlais.com, Port Talbot MagNet, Grangetown Community Action and my own Llandaff North/Ystum Taf community in the shape of Llandaff North Post among others in attendance.
There were several English and Scottish-based hyperlocal news sites in presence and the keynote address came from Dan Gillmoor an esteemed American journalism academic and commentator. It was pleasing to see a Communities First area present in the form of North Merthyr cluster where a Cardiff University hyperlocal journalism project with young people operates. And there was also on show a copy of the Butetown, Grangetown and Riverside Communities First newsletter
The day was fascinating, in fact I was a little punch-drunk by the end of it. There’s a live and fluid regulatory landscape that hyperlocals need to aware of; against a backdrop of profits of as little as £100 a month (and seldom above £500), the financing and staffing of hyperlocal news is fraught; there is research into different business models in Europe and elsewhere in the UK; there was a plea for input to an effort to merely count how many hyperlocals exist in the UK; and there were two terrific examples, from Bristol and Greenwich, of investigative hyperlocal journalism. The former in particular pricked my interest as it is a member co-operative and one case study it highlighted was of an investigation into working conditions in Bristol’s catering sector, a sector in which many of the co-operative’s members had had poor experiences.
The thought occurred to me that sound community development principles underpinned this particular venture: collectivising to challenge power imbalances and effect positive change. That the Bristol Cable does so with a satirical and entertaining style only served to enhance its appeal.
If I have a criticism of the conference it was the extent to which it creates the impression that hyperlocal news only exists in English.
There was only the very briefest, blink-and-you-missed-it of references to Pobl Caerdydd and given that the Papurau Bro culture in Wales is so long-established – and judging by this directory in relatively rude health – this is a shame.
Equally, the American examples of hyperlocals cited in Gilmoor’s address were all English-medium with no suggestion that there are any hyperlocals in Spanish, minority or immigrant languages. There was a lot of reference to hyperlocal journalism’s proximity, tuned-inness and responsiveness to ‘community’ and ‘communities’.
But communities aren’t homogenous, and though I have no doubt that hyperlocals operate largely in English, if, as was stated, the principles of hyperlocal journalism are identical to traditional journalism – thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and independence – but with added transparency, it is only ‘fair’ and ‘accurate’ that the non-English speaking elements within communities, particularly urban ones (which were overwhelmingly those in attendance and/or profiled), are given room on the hyperlocal platform.
If this linguistic issue was one that occurred to me during the conference, another that I brought with me to the event but which was not explored – and is related to the notion of heterogeneous communities – is the extent to which hyperlocal news replicates ‘traditional’ media in its exploitative and pejorative coverage of disadvantaged communities; and the extent to which hyperlocal news offers such communities the opportunity to reclaim their ‘news agenda’ and express and describe the issues that affect them. I wasn’t alone
The term ‘poverty porn’ has entered popular lexicon to refer to television programmes such as Benefits Street and Britain’s Hardest Grafter (a proposed BBC programme which aims to pit low-paid workers against each other to “show their worth”; answers on a postcard if you can spot the public service aspect here…) which exploit and degrade people living in poverty. The programmes dehumanise poor people and serve their struggles with poverty up for and as entertainment; it is a sad but very real dystopia. In Wales, Sky broadcasted A Town Like Merthyr which portrayed it as a benefit-dependent, work-shy town. It was a further dark day for journalism when headlines such as those below suggested men in Merthyr Tydfil/Merthyr Tudful had a lower life expectancy than Haiti or Iraq:
Screen grab from Fullfact.org
Health professionals, authors of the report and politicians all rubbished the headlines and pointed out that the media had not only misrepresented the statistics, but had misunderstood them (assuming that they had read them at all).
As the Director of Public Health at the Cwm Taf Health Board told Fullfacts.org:
the figure that has been picked up in the press actually refers to the male healthy life expectancy (i.e. the average period for which a man can expect to retain their good health). This is obviously much lower than the total life expectancy.
The full Fullfacts.org exposé is well worth a read. I am sure there would be few, if any, delegates at the community journalism conference who would suggest Sky, the Daily Mail or Mirror are bastions of tasteful and ethical journalism, but I cite these only in order to highlight how disadvantaged communities are often written about but are seldom their own authors.
If hyperlocals replicate ‘mainstream’ media in exploiting and misrepresenting disadvantaged communities and writing pejoratively about them, then the fact they are more local is no justification. Should hyperlocals not consider issues affecting disadvantaged communities such as lower levels of literacy, digital and financial exclusion, and poor broadband or mobile infrastructure they will only serve to further entrench information deficits and further exclude people from civil, democratic and community life. If affluent communities with hyperlocals only read hyperlocal news from affluent communities, it will serve to obscure and conceal poverty in neighbouring communities.
It was clear in the conference how much volunteer energy, effort, passion and expense is expended on people’s hyperlocal enterprises and it is a big ask of volunteers to consider outreach and engagement work in disadvantaged communities and with under-represented groups in order to encourage readership and contributions by them. The community development sector should consider it the prime advocate for, brokers with and facilitators of disadvantaged communities’ involvement with hyperlocals; which in turn will benefit from a greater plurality of news and voices. Communities First should identify local community news outlets and develop relationships and practical arrangements with them. It is not a simple gap to plug should they not exist coterminously or contiguously with Communities First and/or disadvantaged communities; and arguably community development workers should not be setting up hyperlocals for disadvantaged communities. All credit to Cardiff University then for establishing community journalism projects in and crucially with areas of disadvantage in Wales (such as in Grangetown and north Merthyr).
The Bristol Cable’s investigation on behalf of low-paid catering workers was a terrific example of how under-represented or seldom-heard groups can be given a voice by community journalism. But that the conference failed to address the issue of engagement with and by disadvantaged communities in any greater detail was a slight disappointment for me; but this is not to detract from an excellent event overall.