The first local 'unconference' shows local news is alive and kicking in News and EventsEmail to a friend
07 October 2009
Almost 100 people left their bedrooms, home offices and local community halls for talkaboutlocal's inaugural unconference this weekend. Some attendees in Stoke-on-Trent are professional journalists, starting out on their own against a backdrop of local and regional press lay-offs and closures, some have a political cause to fight while others quite simply want to give a voice to a community not well-served by a newspaper industry retracting and centralising.
Definitive numbers of these hyperlocal sites are hard to come by but the website www.nutshell.org.uk has already listed more than 50.
The event organiser, William Perrin, from TalkAboutLocal.org says: "People have always wanted to get involved to make things better and suddenly they can do it for themselves. The web 2.0 tools provide platforms that are incredibly easy to use, without any real cost."
A lack of local news provision is one of the reasons Hannah Waldram got involved. The 23-year-old Cardiff University journalism graduate found herself jobless and back home in the Midlands, so in August she set up bournvillevillage.com.
"I had an idea of providing some sort of local news service a while back because we have never had a local newspaper in my area. Because it's my local community, I feel quite strongly about it."
It's a similar story heading north into Staffordshire where journalism lecturer Ross Hawkes set up his Lichfield blog in the city that Trinity Mirror closed local newspaper – the Lichfield Post.
What started out as a personal project to rant about local things that bothered him has grown to be a community news service that attracts about 10,000 unique users a month. It's run on a not-for-profit basis with volunteers submitting their own stories.
"Some critics say this isn't journalism but it was never solely about journalism, but almost trying to recapture that traditional newspaper role – there wasn't anybody covering the lost dogs, weddings and things that people want to know about.
With almost 300 recruits busy creating blogs, newspapers, radio and a television station, Gary Copitch and his team of community reporters at People's Voice Media, sees his project as a way of empowering communities. "We are not in the media game, or the IT game. We are interested in developing and improving communities and we see technology and social media as the tools for that.
"With mainstream media you get journalists who go into a community to find out stories, whereas we are trying to nurture networks and relationships in communities to bring those stories out."
But where does this leave those mainstream media journalists, the paid professionals facing the challenges of reduced newsroom resources as the major news organisations re-shape for the changing world?
Some, such as the Evening Standard's Andrew Gilligan have joined in. Gilligan said he agreed to write a weekly column for Greenwich.co.uk because there was a gap in the market. "With the decline of the local press (our two local newspapers, published from Streatham and Orpington, are no longer really local), those in charge of the area operated without much scrutiny and made some fairly bad decisions.
"The website may already have improved this – it closely scrutinised plans to redevelop Greenwich market; it became a focus for opposition to the plans; it probably contributed to the council's unexpected decision to reject the scheme. I'd strongly encourage any other journalist who feels strongly about the place they live to do the same."
Back in the city which hosted this weekend's landmark event, Richard Bowyer, the deputy editor of the evening newspaper, Northcliffe's Stoke Sentinel, said the professional journalists now worked in partnership with bloggers such as those on local website PitsnPots.co.uk.
"We were nervous at first, unsure what the relationship would be but we need to be part of the conversation that's going on in our communities and we would have hundreds of reporters to get to the nitty gritty that these people do. It's mutually beneficial. If we ignore them it would be a detriment to the whole community."
But the town hall which PitsnPots set up to scrutinise has been less welcoming. Stoke Council's head of PR and communications, Dan Barton, explained that bloggers would not be invited to briefings and are excluded from sitting at the press table in the council chamber.
"Opinion should be encouraged but we do draw a distinction between what is news otherwise we are in danger of de-valuing the role of journalists," he said.
The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) is currently updating its guide to include the rise of social media networks but looks unlikely to change the definition of who gets treated as a journalist. A spokeswomen said: "We can say anecdotally that we would encourage councils to treat only accredited journalists as journalists. And treat citizen journalists as citizens. But that does not stop citizen journalists making enquiries in the normal way … And there is no reason why media releases cannot be available to everyone as they are public documents."
In common with those mentioned here, Mike Rawlins and the two others who run PitsnPots gain no profit from their sites, in fact many pay to keep them running. Some blogs and websites are offering advertising to local traders as a way of offsetting their costs. Journalist and local football site owner Rick Waghorn has developed a local advertising tool, Addiply, which many hyperlocal sites are now experimenting with.
Two dozen local websites have subscribed and are selling space to the type of advertisers often considered too small for mainstream organisations.
He said: "No one is anywhere near to making a living off this. Funding will be a jigsaw of many pieces, not one single account service. One of the goals we have set ourselves is to cover people's hosting costs so these not-for-profits can actually become not-for-loss".