Richard Sambrook

The difference is, unlike newspapers, they are growing from the ground up, with very few resources, and seeking to attract an audience by being very locally focused. Many fail – because the enthusiastic voluntary founders flag, or it simply becomes too time consuming or expensive to maintain. Most cannot yet fully replace what’s been lost from the local news landscape.

 

So today, in many communities, instead of having reporters in every council meeting and court hearing, talking to local businesses and societies and finding out what matters to residents they have syndicated homogenous features, and “listicles” taken off the web designed to drive “clicks”. I generalise, but not by much.

 

Does this matter if we can find what we want online? In many ways, no, it’s the price of progress. But in some ways, yes it does matter.

 

Firstly, there is what is called the democratic deficit. If no-one reports the decisions and debates of your local council, it is harder to know what is going on or to hold local councillors to account. Similarly, if courts are not reported, justice is not seen to be done. This, many believe, accounts for lower voter turnouts and increasing political alienation. If you can’t find out what’s going on, it’s hard to take part.

 

Secondly, there’s the sense of community. Online commercial sites do not offer the same connection to a locality. Something is lost if you substitute an umbrella website for the character of the “local rag.”

 

Hyperlocal sites hold out some hope for the future. It will take time for them to develop the character or attract the affection many feel for their local paper – let alone fill that democratic deficit. But the growth and success of these communities is proof of that need we all have to belong somewhere.

 

Market photo: Hannah Wyles

 

How to live well

Health, wealth and happiness on our stretch of the Thames

Richard Sambrook

Professor of Journalism,

Cardiff University

Being local matters.

If you can’t find out what’s going on, it’s hard to take part.

 

Local publications are at the heart of the community, preserving culture, educating and celebrating all things local.

Much more importantly, they sow the seeds of real understanding and real democracy in an era when both need upholding.

 

We all like to belong somewhere. Even in these times of 24/7 global communications, a sense of local community is important to people. While social media may have taken the place of ‘over the fence’ chat there is no substitute for news and information about the immediate area in which you live. Except it’s getting more difficult to find.

 

There is an old maxim about news-worthiness that says 1000 people dead on the other side of the world is worth 100 people in a neighbouring country is worth 10 people up the road is equal to a broken leg to the man next door. Brutal perhaps, but true.

 

Which is why local newspapers have always been held in affection and regarded differently from the lofty national press. The “local rag” could be relied upon to understand your community, stand up for it, and tell you what you needed to know - from council decisions, court appearances, and local fetes, to the successes and failures of your local team and school sports days. And if you had something to buy or sell, the local paper classified ads were the place to go. But no longer.

 

Today, we go to eBay or Gumtree or a local ‘Up Your Street’ or ‘Freeecycle’ site. And we spend more time on Facebook than on our local newspaper website. Which is why local newspapers are not what they used to be.

 

They have found themselves caught in a commercial nosedive with advertising revenues falling, and costs having to be cut as a consequence. And as newsrooms are hollowed out, there is often less local content to make the paper worth buying, meaning circulation falls and the spiral continues downwards.

 

There are some exceptions. Small privately owned newspapers are faring better than those owned by public companies and corporations. Why? Because private owners can accept lower revenues and can act more nimbly than big organisations when commercial circumstances change. Those owned by public corporations have shareholders demanding double digit revenues year after year which can only be delivered by annual cuts to editorial overheads.

 

But don’t despair – there are signs of new life in the hyperlocal, community sites springing up on the internet. Like Twickerati for the Twickenham and Richmond area, these sites are adopting many of the functions once performed by the local press. Some are just Facebook groups – most are independent websites. Some are run by volunteers and some are attempting to cover their costs with advertising or sponsorship. Some have become so successful they have moved off the web and into print – completing the circle. All good news.

 

 

©RiverTribe Magazine 2017