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.