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Reflection from #CJ15: Moving beyond ‘hyperlocal’ hating & towards a healthier Community Journalism debate…

Another one of epic ‘jotting down every thought in my head whilst in Japan’ writing retreat posts. 

After 16 hours of train travel on Tuesday (Glasgow to Doncaster, Doncaster to Cardiff), I got a full 18 hours in Cardiff to take part in Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ) conference entitled “What’s next for Community Journalism?” – a free event that was sponsored by NESTA and the programme featured a range of presentations and showcase sessions from various specialists and projects around the UK.

To skip to the chase, I always feel like “disgruntled from Glasgow” on the twitter hashtag when I’ve participated in events like this, especially when the term ‘hyperlocal’ is used interchangeably with other forms of community media, citizen media, alternative media, local journalism, public journalism, citizen journalism, community news and so on.

I’ve wanted to write why I appear to dislike so much about it- but then follow it up with what I do like and how I am going to take forward some of the observations forward in my own work. If you can bare with me whilst I get things off my chest, I promise that I can turn this neg energy into something productive (can you tell I’m in Japan right now? #zen)


Having followed and participated in a lot of the discussions from the hyperlocal ‘school of thought from when it started to emerge frequently on Twitter around 2008-2009, I’ve reached the stage where I roll my eyes and actively baulk at the term, not because I think it isn’t a worthwhile method of providing local news nor do I wish to belittle the work that people are doing.

I do not enjoy feeling this critical, it makes me feel uncomfortable (it always has) – especially as there is great work being supported and promoted through initiatives that predominately use the term ‘hyperlocal’ in reference to community journalism.

But perhaps it is the sheer dominance of the term without feeling there is a safe space to critically unpacking it – both as a term and as a model for local news.

And it is for this reason I dislike it.

Not the practice itself. I dislike how it is used. Language is important. And if it is presented interchangeably as term to cover a number of things by those presenting, with a presumed meaning and often positioned as a business model for provision of local media within a economic and technological context it can block out potential for variations of approaches.

You can see this in my comments when I took part in C4CJ’s MOOC FutureLearn course on Community Journalism last year, always banging on about need to be clear when articulating definitions, I wrote about politics of hyperlocal for C4CJ’s blog around the same time.

Also I am really uncomfortable with the idea that monitizing community-generated content is the way forward. And what I mean by that is the Westminster notion of ‘localism’ where we will all get behind the community newspaper, providing content for free and generating just enough money (£500 p/m seems to be the amount cited) so that one person can quit their job to be the editor full-time. Maybe. We aren’t sure. But there are little bit of money floating around. So there is hope. But economic sustainability is the issue. And a lot of money is for the technology, not the people. So perhaps you can a little bit of money to develop a widget and that’ll help for a while. And then advertising will pay for the rest.

To me, it just seems a bit counter intuitive, media is still seen in that way as a-political commodity (like selling a bottle of pop) rather than a core function and powerful tool within a democratic society.

Similarly, I feel that at these events that websites and forms of community media shown that are included in lists and maps if they are seen to look or behave ‘hyperlocal’ – where as many may fall within other categories and/or follow alternative economic practice.

That’s fine if you are at an event entitled “What is the future of the hyperlocal?” but we were at “What is the future for community journalism?” – a question, not a statement – and with no space for questions after the speakers on the day-  with the programme they had, I felt that there was little room for anything else but hyperlocal.

Jon Hickman’s explains why this might be the case on his post reflecting on the conference – and I agree that in order to participate within that space, we’d have to agree that hyperlocal is the model that we need to accept as the future of community journalism.

Or at least that was the impression I get. Especially when I attend events where the main ‘hyperlocal’ funders are present – Carnegie Trust’s Neighbourhood News, Nesta’s Destination Local and AHRC’s Connected Communities.

They make events like this possible – and it is fantastic that this is the case. They have the case studies that they funded, they have core themes identified through their funding portfolio, and they have to show demonstrable impact of how their support has helped those who were in receipt and justification for investment.

But just because the funders are present, I don’t think we should shy away from asking critical questions or throw a curveball into the mix, it is a healthy reflection for the environment and it may provide some insight that allows for learning, collaboration and developments that are not restricted to one core term.

It is a difficult one.

The room was full of various representatives from community journalism background: journalists, academics, community activists. Although the event was free not everyone could raise the funds to get to Cardiff – my University, through my PhD supervisor, paid for my hotel and travel from Glasgow. I joked that behind every community journalism project is an academic with a media background – myself included.

I know (anecdotally) through my experience, many examples of community journalism that do not fit the hyperlocal model, do not want to fit the hyperlocal model, do not know what hyperlocal even is (we need to remember that, me wabbling on about hyperlocal to other people outside of this very niche space often results a very confused look), folk who have given up being a community journalist all together because expectations were too high, exploitation of good will, not reaching the communities they are representing (but reaching a lot of people from outside, looking for examples of online community journalism) – or just burning out.

I, for one, don’t want to see the enthusiasm for community journalism disappear – but I also don’t want to see the emergence of a dominant model of self-defined innovative practice silo itself and the rest of potential for community based media into one homogenised lump.

But me having a moan about what irritates me about the tiniest of tiny emerging research/practice field is counter-productive. And isolates me from the current community – and as much as I feel I can claim ‘impact’ outside of ‘community journalism’ circles through dissemination various means, there seems to be no way to crack this lack of critical engagement with the term.


So that’s the painful bit over.

Now onto the positive, productive approach.


I’ve recognised that I need to spend more time within an academic context unpacking these terms for myself. On last week’s solo publication retreat, the focus of my work has been to develop an abstract for an academic journal with regard to defining the terms and the opportunities and challenges of different approaches that I’ve identified through my own practice as both a media practice researcher and as a community media development worker.

Of course, I am going to argue that more empirical work is required (😬) but the purpose of this paper is go beyond recycling the same frustrations that I have over and over again in this blog. I just feel that I have just been going circular – rather than seeing it as an opportunity to build on the debate from where I do actually have both experience and access to publication routes.

This is about making community journalism both economically and socially sustainable. And surprisingly, rather than harking that all community-based initiatives should be free from the evils of capitalism, technological determinism and teh profit monies, I feel that you do need a good business model that will ensure that your form of community journalism can survive. It cannot survive on good will and fresh air – but I guess the benefits of the hyperlocal (from my understanding) is that it bigs up the use of online technology and ‘free-at-access’ tools to develop. Saving on costly overheads like a studio or a printing press.

Just sometimes that technology can overpower other parts, ‘the community’ — and this what I thought was missing on Wednesday, and at a few other events I’ve been to in the past along the same lines.

What is and/or is there social responsibilities of community journalism?

I personally believe that this is the element that makes it what it is – and not just another form of public journalism, delivered by freelance journalists who have left previous roles in established media – either through disillusion, redundancies or interest in alternative forms of media production. Because there is a lot of that. And that’s fine.

In Susan Forde’s book (2011) “Challenging the News: The Journalism of Alternative and Community Media,” she writes about public journalism as a form of social responsibility for providing news that benefits the social good.

Indeed, the motivations of all three of the funders I spoke about above talk about as a core focus of their funding provision – but I think the distinct challenge of thinking about community journalism (rather than public journalism, provided as a service from established media providers in response to corporate forms of media) as a form of practice is to make that move beyond the surface discussions about low-cost, easy access digital platforms provided by innovative media technology, combined with the transformations in the media landscape (much of what Dan Gillmor reiterated on the day with his keynote) and starts thinking about its role in wider civic society and empowerment of individuals and community groups.

I’d argue that the lower threshold to access to digital tools and increasingly focus on digital and media literacies skills should actually mean we have no excuse but to increase media participation beyond those who identify as being ‘a journalist’ – that we shouldn’t expect community journalism simply as a service provided by employed journalists, on behalf of the community, for the community – but something that allows participation on various degrees. With community journalism, you can’t separate between the journalist and the community they serve, they are one and both the same thing. Therefore encouraging a roomful of people who run a form of community media to go out and find a way to make money from content produced by a volunteer is problematic unless unpacked further.

And I think this is a challenge for those who have perhaps worked in journalism before coming to either academia and/or the community journalism space – because it means that the definition and identity of the journalist comes into question. And as a ‘non-journalist’, you can feel a little in awe and/or intimidated by the presence of those who are and/or have been. That awe/intimidated feeling is where power exists – and it is fine, depending how you use it.

I guess in my own approach, I do try to focus more on demystifying processes so people can begin to represent themselves on their own terms. It’s easier to type than it is to do in practice – and I’m constantly checking myself to make sure I do just that – it is hard, I know. Furthermore, training community groups to produce their own content of reasonable quality takes time – and this doesn’t alway lead to hits on the website (from within the community) or certain number of completed, suitable articles.

Nor can you ensure that you will get regular stories published on the website. However, I feel it can be a starting point in terms of how community-led journalism can begin – and that a journalist working within a community setting can find more than one way to interact and engagement within that space.

Therefore, I feel you need a combination of hyperlocal (journalist-led), project-thematic initiatives (funder/stakeholder-led) and media empowerment/community development (community-led) to be acknowledged as a starting point to begin a discussion around the function and future of community journalism – and within that you drill down details areas such as technology, media practice, ethics, legal, journalism practice.

I’m now working on an 8000 word journal unpacking some of these ideas in further detail but also reflecting on my own practice once we start developing the Digital Chronicle in East Edinburgh. I’ve booked in another writing retreat in January to conclude the first draft. See this as my ‘messy first draft’ that I want to make available to those who are interested.

 

Much of the above is really just a starting point to begin formulating ideas and jotting down (public) notes on the phenomena. It was great to hear that the team at C4CJ were keen to come to Scotland to visit groups and organisations who could be identified/identify as community journalism – and I’d love to help make that happen. I’m interested in there is a notable difference with things like our government structures and different policy focus.

 

Similarly, I am interested in other people’s thoughts. So please comment below and let me know what you think.

Ok, the jet-lag cometh.