In My Opinion: Lauren Pennycook: Harvesting hidden hyperlocals

WITH an estimated net loss of more than 180 local newspapers in the UK since 2005, gaps in local newspaper coverage have been identified in regions such as London, the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside.

But is it the case that for every local newspaper closure, a local news vacuum automatically emerges?

Or does equating local newspapers with local news misunderstand how we consume local news in an increasingly digital world?

Are there, in fact, alternative, but equally independent and reputable sources of local news in our communities?

And if so, how do we find them?

The recent report by the Centre for Community Journalism and Nesta gives an excellent overview of the UK hyperlocal sector.

It describes the content produced, business models used, and the community impact hyperlocals can have.

Ultimately, however, the report makes it clear that it is difficult to speak about the sector in general terms.

The hyperlocal news landscape in the UK and Ireland is patchy, with higher concentrations of online news sites in some areas – for example, Birmingham – but very few known sites in others such as Northern Ireland.

There is also no representative body for the sector, which is wide-ranging in terms of the language used, the desire to monetise activities, and extent of the direct involvement of members of the community served.

But with the launch of revamped hyperlocal directory, Local Web List, the Carnegie UK Trust and Talk About Local have sought to help tackle a common problem cited by large numbers of hyperlocals across the sector – visibility.

The Trust commissioned Talk About Local to develop Local Web List from its predecessor, Openly Local, and to update the number of sites listed to over 500 across the UK and Ireland.

In hosting details of hyperlocals in one directory, we hope to increase the visibility of the sites to citizens, mainstream media outlets and fellow practitioners.

The directory can be searched by jurisdiction, local authority area, and keyword to make it easier for hyperlocal news groups to link up with each other for advice and support, for citizens to identify hyperlocal news sites delivering good-quality news in their community, and for mainstream media outlets to reach out to hyperlocals on their local knowledge and content.

In short, it aims to support the considerable potential of hyperlocal news in contributing to local media plurality.

It’s true that hyperlocals, for the most part, are largely led by volunteers and that the majority of sites are self-funded. But don’t underestimate the scale and scope of the activities of many in the sector, the involvement of trained journalists, or the desire to do more.

Our new case studies of the activities of five innovative hyperlocal news providers in the UK demonstrate rich content, impressive traffic numbers, and high levels of community engagement.

To generate traffic of up to 3,000 visitors a day in a town with a population of 5,000, as in the case of My Turriff, or to initiate and support community campaigns, as The Charlton Champion does, on a voluntary basis demonstrates dedication to providing a local news service with a strong community function.

To work in partnership with the local BBC radio station and local newspaper to organise and live stream a debate between General Election candidates, as The Lincolnite did earlier this year, and to innovate by using WhatsApp to reach audiences with breaking news stories, as OnTheWight has, demonstrates a drive to inform local residents.

And to commit to investigative reporting, as The Bristol Cable has done, demonstrates exactly the kind of work, holding those with powerful interests to account, that is the hallmark of good quality journalism.

So, with this revamped hyperlocal map, we also hope to provide a compass to reputable, independent local news organisations.

The BBC has already begun using the database to identify hyperlocal partners as they roll out their Local Live external ‘linking’ initiative, with hyperlocals in Coventry and Warwickshire the latest local news groups to benefit from potential partnership opportunities.

So while these sources of local news may not be available in the local newsagents, the recent BBC consultation on how it can work with hyperlocal providers more and the 69 per cent of UK internet users who have visited websites or downloaded apps for news about or events in their local community, demonstrate the power and potential of the sector.

By developing Local Web List and highlighting case studies of innovative hyperlocals in the UK, we hope to add to the evidence base which shows that the sector provides all the functions of local news in the digital age – dispersed, disrupted and grassroots driven.

Lauren Pennycook is policy officer at the Carnegie UK Trust.