The future of local news?

Brockley Nick here...

Yesterday, The Guardian ran an interview with its Editor Alan Rusbridger, in which he called for public money to safeguard local news reporting by the Press Association.

Among the comments in response to the article were a couple of posts by people who held up Brockley Central as an alternative model for the future of local reporting. That was very nice of them, though it did cause me a moment of panic as I realised that anyone seeking out Brockley Central to see what the light at the end of the tunnel looked like would be presented with a frothy piece about love in Lewisham and two articles about a reality TV show. So I quickly bashed out a piece I’d been meaning to get around to about the Rail Utilisation Strategy – much more Reithian.

It’s not the first time that I’ve seen references to this website as an example of how local news is migrating online and I’m certainly proud to see it referred to in this context. However, no-one’s ever asked me whether I agree with the suggestion that it’s a viable model for the future of local news. So, since one of the key functions of the blogosphere is to provide a vehicle for people to express views that no-one is actually interested in hearing, here is my analysis.

Are sites like Brockley Central the future of local news? Yes and no.

Some of the best reporting of local news undoubtedly comes from sites like Tory Troll and 853blog. For my part, I hope that Brockley Central does a lot of things right:

  • It corrects a market failure – there is very little coverage of Brockley provided by local commercial outlets. It’s a small place, where not a lot of what is traditionally considered “news” actually happens. But people live here and care passionately about what happens outside their front door and Brockley Central covers a lot of the things that aren’t news but which affect our daily lives nonetheless.
  • It is a product of the community, in a way that local newspapers are not. Kate, Jon and I all have homes in Brockley, which means that we can provide local insights that you couldn’t reasonably expect of a newspaper journalist. More importantly, the stories themselves are sourced from local people with whom we often have a direct relationship and who feel a sense of ownership of the site. We encourage and participate in debate on the site more than any newspaper and we editorialise because we have a personal stake in the issues. This has its drawbacks of course, which I will come on to.
  • Tonally, I think we have hit upon a formula which many people respond to. Brockley Central tries – above all – to be a constructive and positive voice in community affairs. The site is sometimes critical of the local authorities, local businesses and even local people. But we try to avoid the sensationalism that has devalued so much public debate – not everyone is “corrupt” or “meddling” or “incompetent”, not everything is a “fiasco” or a “sham” or a “disgrace”. And there is more to local life than who has been stabbed or what ribbon has been cut this week. Most of the things that are wrong in Brockley are the result of unforeseen consequences, or sins of omission, rather than commission. Brockley Central tries to give a voice to those who have a positive solution to the issues, rather than those who like a good moan. This approach has been vital, because hyper-local reporting involves talking about people’s friends and neighbours and debates could quickly become poisonous. Rusbridger's plan would ensure that the media continues to act as a safeguard against local corruption - but that is not the only role of local news - at least as important is that it should unite communties. PA won't do that.
  • For a local news blog, Brockley Central has built a critical mass of readers and commentators. This has created a virtuous circle, because returning readers are guaranteed something new every time. The trick has been regular updates and some viral marketing.

There is currently plenty of debate taking place about the future of the newspaper industry, the role of blogs in the provision of news and the viability of local news provision - I’m even helping to organise one myself, at the 2009 c&binet forum – but I don’t expect to be invited to take part in any of those discussions for one reason in particular – money.

If we want to talk seriously about building a comprehensive network of websites without the need for direct public subsidy, then they have to generate enough money to incentivise them, we cannot rely on volunteers.

A network of Brockley Centrals would require thousands of individuals with the ability and the time to run them. The daily grind of writing, moderating, researching and dealing with the occasional complaint is hard work and occasionally demoralising – relying on public spiritedness is not enough.

Sites like Brockley Central, 853blog and Greenwich Phantom have spontaneously evolved from the primordial stew of media people living in South East London – the coverage achieved in this part of the country is the exception, not the rule.

Even in cases like mine, where I am lucky to enjoy the support of an understanding employer (Edelman) and some motivated collaborators, the coverage is skewed towards my personal tastes and preferences. I try to cover a range of interests, but there are a range of subjects that matter greatly to others, which I am just not equipped to cover, such as social care provision and crime.

Without a sustainable business model, the hyper-local network will remain patchy and inadequate, with any given site vulnerable to the possibility of its writer walking in front of a bus or simply moving house.

The other big challenge to the development of the hyper-local blogosphere was pointed out by David Aaronovitch at a recent Editorial Intelligence debate: without the resources of media groups behind them, bloggers are extremely vulnerable to the legal system. Even the vague threat of legal action can be extremely stressful and enough to deter many people.

So sites like Brockley Central, in their current form, are not the complete answer and cannot replicate the service currently provided by PA.

But that does not mean that direct subsidy to journalists or media groups is the right approach either and I think sites like this do represent an opportunity.

The New Deal of the Mind is an NGO founded by the journalist Martin Bright, who researched the US government’s fiscal response to the Great Depression. He found that alongside road building programmes, there was a public programme to document the culture of the USA at that time, which left a lasting historical legacy and gave birth to a brilliant generation of writers and journalists. The New Deal of the Mind argues that new opportunities should be created in the creative industries, to give young people – facing the worst job prospects for a generation – the chance to do something socially valuable, while developing skills that will benefit them in future years.

The creation of a network of hyper-local websites would be the 21st century equivalent of the cultural record that the New Deal created. It could be facilitated in the following ways:

  • Legal support for accredited bloggers. Some bloggers could be given basic legal training and access to legal advice and – if necessary – legal fees. The fund could be public or paid for by a charity interested in safeguarding free speech.
  • A recruitment drive, co-ordinated through an organisation like New Deal of the Mind, working with local colleges and universities. People could be given simple advice on how to run a service like this for their local community. [In the early stages of the network’s creation, the writers could even be supported by a version of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which Bright writes about today].

With a network of scale in place, a sustainable business model becomes a less remote prospect. Perhaps not one that will create full-time jobs, but one which could constitute part of a writer’s portfolio career.

With some public intervention, but without direct subsidy for failing businesses, a new model could emerge. And it could start in south east London.


Tyrwhitt Michael said...

Does this article hold the record as the longest one you have ever written on here, Nick?

Brockley Nick said...

Yes, sorry about that.

T1 said...

Hmmm. I'm sure I recognise one of those commenters ;o)

I think Rusbridger's got it pretty wrong, journalism is a funny mix of vocation, astute story choice and working damn hard to make sure someone will pay for something.

Local newspapers, in the form we know them, worked financially because they sold readers to advertisers. With a decline in both they no longer work so well.

The decline is largely because of the internet, and so it is hardly surprising that's where local news is going. For all the reasons we can find here.

But we're in transition - still - from one state to the other. Money is slower than readers. Monetising content is difficult.

However, Rusbridger's democracy and accountability argument is weak. Many local newspapers did little investigative work, instead focusing on who got married or died, taking pictures of as many kids as they could, and listing all those done for burglary etc for the pruriant interest of locals.

I struggle to mourn the passing of this product, and certainly don't consider this worth subsidising.

T1 said...

Oh, and if Rusbridger really cared about it, why doesn't the newspaper (spared from financial constraints by its lucrative deals with private equity etc) help work with localities on hyper-local output?

And it would be silly not to mention the Guardian's been laying off swathes of local reporters in recent months.

Anonymous said...

bit of a long article Nick - I'm avoiding it like I avoid 'the moral maze' on Radio 4

Anonymous said...

And they've cut freelancer's rates...

One of the most important things one learns at 'journalism school' more so than learning how to construct an article, is the law, aka how to cover one's gluteus maximus with regards to libel. Now granted you are not a journalist but to avoid the stress that legal threats may take upon you a media law course may prove useful it's also useful to have McNae's Essential Law for Journalists to hand.

Hugh said...

News is only important if it says 'Sport' at the top of the page.

T1 said...

my current employers actually might be interested in helping out. I'll enquire.

Brockley Nick said...

Anon - the advantage it has over the Moral Maze is that it does not contain Melanie Phillips. But fair enough

Anonymous said...

Is that the 'Daily Sport' ?

And does it have news?

Anonymous said...

I always stop reading just before the Sport. Love the section though - soft, strong and thoroughly absorbent.

Anonymous said...

I'm fast losing any respect I had for The Guardian there's so much rubbish in that paper these days. Frankly it is a tragedy in terms of a fall from a heightened position. It is more of a "Viewspaper" than a newspaper and some of the opinion pieces are such b*ll*cks it's unbelievable. But then if most of your writers come from just two rarefied institutions an insightful handle on the lives and concerns of ordinary is not likely to be your forte.

Crofton Parker said...

Seems a good excuse for what I've been meaning to get around to for ages: give a round of applause for Nick and the other BC troops. Brockley Central is a great local resource because of just - what is it - four people and their extremely hard work and generous attitude. And their ability to embrace all local things, joyous and bizarre as well as the serious issues.

I think a lot of blogs, set up with a similar purpose, would just become dull huff-puffery simply because the moderators would only get around to writing when they were really fired up about some local issue. And then the site becomes predictable - and just like a predictable local paper, or even predictable national (eg the Indy) it will then haemorrhage readers and doom itself.

I work in papers and the balance achieved on this site is the kind of balance the most successful papers aim for - serious AND fun, and always worth opening up. Long live as many stories about Love In Lewisham and Reality TV as about conservation zones and road issues. Those who run this site are really gifted - and that gift is something that can't be shared around on a business model.

Tyrwhitt Michael said...

Crofton how's your brother Nosey these days?


Sorry couldn't resist livening up a dull Friday afternoon

Fried Chicken is ok with Guardian writers. said...

Busted the Guardian readers/mung bean eating (anti- kfc) link.

In a revelation that will shock local stereotype lovers. The Guardian has allowed one of its writers to extol the culinary delights of fried chicken. The story follows...

So stick that up your hose pipe and smoke it HH!

Crofton Parker said...

Tyrwhitt, thank you, Nosey is well. Goretex has a cold.

Richard Elliot said...

I think Blogs, particularly excellent ones like BC, can contribute to the local news. Especially when they are:
1. Updated regularly.
2. Have researched and accurate articles.
3. Have the support of the community.
4. Have a campaigning element.
To name only a few.

However, I don't think they will fully replace local news, because:
1. They rely on the enthusiasm of small group of writers, once they get bored or move away, a blog is likely to fall.
2. A proper news service has to worry about bias, slander and a whole mindfield of legal issues.
3. Blogs generally don't make any money, so can't pay staff, advertise or for hosting, forums, moderation etc..

Monkeyboy said...

Occasionally Brockley Central can degenerate into a childish slanging match of the ‘my dad could beat your dad’ kind. I admit that, on occasion, even I resort to a cheap shot. I think we could all learn something from this

The mungsters and the Mail readers CAN all get along, it’s a beautiful thing.

I said...

Only occasionally, Monkeyboy?

I'm more interested in who'd be considered the snake here, and who the hamster..

Tressillian James said...

The hamster looks petrified to me - reckon if he could, he'd be out of there

Anonymous said...

"Like many other foodies I have a problem with the moral implications of KFC's chicken meat"

Ugh, mung bean eater...

drakefell debaser said...

The hamster better prey the zoo doesn't run out of food.

Tamsin said...

I know snakes have to eat, but how could one pick up anything as cute and cuddly as a hamster and put it into a snake's cage (alive) to be the next meal? I felt bad enough picking out stick-insects for the purpose when looking after the window-cleaner's tarantula.

Tamsin said...

But back to the subject - congratulations to BC and all concerned in making it what it is. I certainly visit regularly to find out what is going on.

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Anonymous said...

Is there a name for these a***holes who post entries on random blogs to try and sell stuff? Blogjackers? I know it doesn't happen too often on here, but it's a bit tedious, nevertheless.

Tamsin said...

Well, they do helpfully revive old threads. I had forgotten the hamster and the snake - or that I meant to send the link to a friend of mine...

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