The big news regarding the latter has been the Guardian Local experiment closing. I say experiment for two reasons. The first being that it was a great step into the unknown by a national newspaper organisation, and alone amongst its peers in doing so. Secondly that it always did feel like an experiment rather than a fully fledged part of Guardian output. That’s in no way a swipe at the beatbloggers or Sarah Hartley who managed them. All of them did great things for local communities in their short time at the helm, and I think the Guardian have been foolish to let them go. What I’m getting at is that in order for hyperlocal to fully prosper, it needs investment.
I don’t believe that it’s impossible for big media to “do” hyperlocal. If it can’t we’ll find out soon with Patch’s new direction. I just think that a lot of people seem to be coming at it from the wrong direction. The journalists vs bloggers debate is still being had (by both “sides”), when there should be no debate. Whether you consider yourself a blog or a news website, you’re defined by the content you produce. What the debate stops is any meaningful progress in the hyperlocal scene.
Besides potential, support and pragmatism, what do all ideas require to succeed? Money. It’s how startups survive, and it’s how some flourish into bigger companies. Hyperlocals need money. Unlike over the pond, we don’t have many wealthy individuals who are interested in seeing new forms of journalism thrive. So big media has a huge role to play in this – they’re the ones with the investment power.
The counter argument to this often runs thusly; big media doesn’t “get” it, that hyperlocals work best when they’re independent and “grassroots” and that anything that has a corporate whiff about it should be duly avoided.
This is a simplistic argument. Were Guardian Cardiff, Leeds and Edinburgh so loved by their communities because of who they were owned by? No. They were loved because of the strength of their output and individual journalists who bothered to get stuck in and collaborate with areas of the community. Not once did the Guardian stamp play a part in this (though it may have helped encourage guest writers).
Yet it feels like the Guardian failed to invest properly in its experiment. A relatively short venture, with monetisation focused entirely around advertising. All this while Guardianistas Meg Pickard, Matt Wells and others jet off stateside to have another go at cracking America.
I think that quite a few hyperlocal bloggers have a chip on their shoulders about keeping things fully independent. That’s admirable, but no business model has emerged yet and the movement has now been running for several years. Some don’t care about making money – and that’s fine. But if it’s to be taken seriously as a part of the new journalism landscape it needs investment. While that hinges on those with money seeing it as something viable, it also requires hyperlocal bloggers to be willing to receive that investment and partner with bigger companies.
Blog Preston received funding because it didn’t just apply for it on its own – we partnered with two charities and a university project. Each partner supplied an expertise and was willing to work with others involved but also understood the importance of allowing a community to tell its own story.
And that’s what it all ultimately comes back to. Hyperlocal is in many ways the purest form of “users know more than we do” journalism. Its proponents have such a direct connection with their localities that it embodies the type of journalism that I’m most passionate about – one driven by the ideas, views and wants of a community, rather than a few journalists.
Sarah Hartley’s group of beatbloggers knew this more than anyone, but were ultimately let down by not being part of the Guardian’s grand plan. It’ll never be clear exactly what the situation or plan with Guardian Local was, but what is clear is that hyperlocal publishers need to seek funding, and quickly. They may just have to bite the bullet and (whisper it), admit they need support from big media.