20
Oct 14

How to rebuild local news: a spaghetti-throwing competition!

The dolorous laments over the ruin of journalism have many variations. Many grieve for what they see as the collapse of “accountability” journalism or investigative reporting. Given the quantities of attention and philanthropic money boosting the revival of difficult, long form investigations (at least in the US), I think it hard to argue that this is the worst problem journalism faces*.

By contrast, little attention or commentary is devoted to the slide in the coverage of arts, culture and rigorous longform argument. Arts sections and their critics (at least in the UK) are being cut and squeezed; few people seem to notice.

But the collapse which make all these issues look minor is the hollowing out and implosion of local reporting, a disaster only fitfully noticed by metropolitan media persons. In the UK, between 2005 and 2010 the revenue of the four leading local newspaper companies  fell between 23% and 53%. The Media Reform Coalition calculates that out of 406 local government areas in Britain, 100 have no local daily newspaper at all and 143 have a single title with a monopoly.

I’ve taken these figures from a new report by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust with the clunking title “Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality”. Moore manages the difficult trick of laying out the crisis and proposing help which does not involve public subsidy for journalism – a solution with obvious disadvantages. (Shorter version of his argument here).

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24
Apr 12

BBC News and what the future looks like from the top floor

I listened to a briefing recently by a senior person at BBC News. I heard it on background, so I can’t name the individual but you can take it that this person knows a lot about a newsgathering operation which employs, worldwide, 6000 people. The world’s largest, so far. A few snippets:

  • Chinese state broadcasting is set to become the world’s biggest newsgatherer. We don’t know when. In parts of Africa, people don’t see the Chinese as having any agenda or slant. The BBC is sometimes seen as having a post-colonial British agenda.
  • In Britain, approval of the BBC diminishes the further you go from London.
  • The BBC cuts programme is known as “Delivering Quality First” or “DQF”. In the newsroom this is rendered as “Duck Quick or you’re F*****.”
  • We may be cutting back on two on-screen presenters on the news channel but we’re re-appointing political reporters at local radio stations. In local politics coverage, papers are “nowhere”.
  • The first five bi-lingual (i.e. not English mother tongue) correspondents reporting across the network are just about to start work.
  • The audience is pretty bored with the primary campaign in the US presidential. We kid ourselves about the level of interest. The Radio 4 audience is actually pretty hostile to the US.
  • We have a dilemma about local coverage: the BBC Trust stopped plans to do that. We’re not in a good place.
  • When the Leveson Inquiry began, the BBC began its own internal investigation. Pretty uncomfortable having your own records gone through. As far as I know, the Daily Mirror haven’t yet done their own inquiry.

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20
Apr 12

Local newspapers: sentiment, logic and the experiments of the future

Johnston Press’s new boss Ashley Highfield set off a row which will erupt again and again in the coming years when he announced that the company is turning some its daily local papers into weeklies. Local papers are so long-standing and (mostly) loved that we find clear thinking very hard.

There is no general, worldwide “crisis” of journalism or even of newspapers. Newspapers are declining in North America and Europe but not in South America; they’re doing fine in Asia (numbers here). There are countries where journalists are badly treated and physically under threat, but that’s not new. The convulsions of the phone-hacking scandal are so far confined to Britain.

There is a crisis affecting journalism in the US and Europe, but it is worth being clear-eyed about exactly what it is. It is the ruin of the business model for printed daily papers in which news is cross-subsidised by advertising income which is leveraged on circulation numbers. That way of doing things is in trouble. That decline in circulation and income is a deep, long trend.

The lines on the graphs have been drifting down for years. As one of the analysts at the Enders consultancy pointed out (£) in the wake of Johnston Press cutbacks, the circulations of local papers have been going down for 40 years: this is nothing surprising or new. A graph of the total aggregate circulations of all British national papers across the whole of the 20th century shows that the combined sales peak for all of those papers was in the 1940s (see slide 5 here). The internet may have made the headaches of newspaper publishers much worse, but the rot started well before the web was ever thought of. Finding a new way of financing news matters even more than phone-hacking and the Leveson Inquiry.

One of the most basic foundation ideas of the newspaper was its separation from the state. Free news media choose to live out in the cold of open economies. When the society, economy or technology changes, the media must change. Digital communications alters all three and turns a lot upside down. Information doesn’t require capital to move; news no longer goes one-to-many but one-to-one; printing isn’t required. And so on. The history of news reveals endless experimentation amid chaos and fast-changing conditions. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that news media in Europe and America enjoyed a stable, institutionalised era which gave journalists the impression that secure employment in large organisations was the norm. Historically, it isn’t.

There was a piece last weekend in the Sunday Times magazine (£) which captured the paradox of much gloomy pessimism about newspapers sitting side by side with experimentation. The paper’s writer Tim Rayment assembled many grim statistics recording the falls in circulation, jobs and reach. To illustrate the problems he had gone back to Cleethorpes, the north-eastern town in which he had been a cub reporter. The local paper was having a tough time, to be sure. But Cleethorpes has a new fledgling weekly paper challenging the incumbent and a local news blogger, who annoys and provokes the powers that be in the town. So the risk of decline was there – but so were the seeds of future change. Something is lost in the transition chaos. But new energy is released as well.

Update 23.4.12: (lengthy) defence of the value of local papers via a survey of what the major British owners are up to by the knowledgeable Liz Gerard and interview with me about pressures on local papers on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House yesterday (item starts 32 minutes in).

 

 

 


22
Nov 10

Online hyperlocal: power shifts coming

At the conference of Dutch-speaking investigative journalists a few days ago I listened to a presentation by Vadim Lavrusik of the social media advice portal mashable.com and I began to see what a profound change the new hyperlocal news sites might, in time, effect.

Lavrusik namechecked a series of sites in the US doing effective accountability journalism by mobilising communities. He mentioned the Talking Points Memo Muckraker section (slogan: “they have the muck; we have the rakes”), a survey of condom outlets in Colorado, tbd.com and the “stink map” for Columbia, South Carolina. Tbd.com, which covers parts of Washington DC and northern Virginia had appealed for information on escalators that weren’t working in the metro system and they accelerated repairs by generating public pressure.

Local online journalism isn’t quite as developed in Britain as in the US, but there’s no doubt that it’s growing (example here). In all the places where local printed news is losing money or prominence, we’re at the start of what will come to be a big shift in the way local politics works.

As you can see if you look a few of Vadim Lavrusik’s examples, the first thing that happens is that power starts to flow towards people who are adept at using the new sources of power. In this case that means groups or individuals who are smart with new media and social media, who can mobilise campaigns which use information in new and agile ways. Local authorities, not usually famed for their nimbleness, are sitting targets for this new style of Twitter and Facebook activism.

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28
Sep 10

The meaning of local

Martin Moore reflects on what “local” means when we’re talking about news media, concluding that if new start-ups replace the news organisations of the past they will have be grown from ground-level communities. Carving out a piece of territory, sending news to it and then hoping that you create a community as a result doesn’t work.

Everything in that post makes sense and I’d just add this perspective. Present-day local news media may look like businesses aiming at slices of physical territory or at selected “demographics”. But that isn’t how most local news began life. A community already existed and wanted to improve its common life: knowing things quicker, knowing where to shop for stuff, the tide tables or the football team’s score.

In the 19th century, the great growth era of local papers, cities were forging new identities and creating new bonds with new civic institutions whose doings made material for editors and publishers whose ambitions went beyond the parish. Cities in the 21st century, for dozens of reasons, aren’t the same places as they were then. The era when papers could be the romantic chroniclers of new urban life has gone. (For a taste of this in an American context see this Q&A with the writer Richard Rodriguez about San Francisco).

Town and cities made economic sense as well. Any city of 100,000 inhabitants or more could sustain an evening paper and usually did so for more than a century. Not any longer. Classified ads for houses, jobs and cars – once the bread and butter income for regional papers – moved faster than any advertising to the internet.

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01
Sep 10

Nase Adresa shuts: sad moment

At the very moment that a promising experiment in hyperlocal journalism in the Czech Republic seemed set to spread all over the country, the original investors have sold the company and the small town papers and websites are to be shut.

Best version of the story is at Editorsweblog. Some background from this blog here.

What was unusual about the Nase Adresa (literally “our address”) network was not that it did hyperlocal startups. There are, happily, thousands of those all over the world – although they remain relatively rare in central Europe. The x-factor in Nase Adresa’s recipe was the unusual  balance between local and national.

The little news rooms, located in coffee shops, generated most of the material for printed weeklies and websites in communities of usually between 10,000 and 30,000 people. But they were not on their own. The company, PPF, had invested in and raised sponsorship for a “Futuroom” in Prague to which the local reporters could turn for help.

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