The value of hyperlocal news content

By Andrew Williams | 11th Jan 2013

This is a summary of what researchers at Cardiff and Birmingham City Universities found in an ongoing study of hyperlocal news websites to determine their value to local communities in the UK. It describes some headline findings rather than presenting a critical analysis, as the empirical work was only finished very recently. The research is also part of a much broader study into the value of citizen participation in communities which you can read about here [link: http://creativecitizens.co.uk/]. It’s funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and to guide our work we’ve partnered up with the excellent Talk About Local [link http://talkaboutlocal.org.uk/ ]and OFCOM [link: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/market-data/communications-market-reports/cmr12/market-context/UK-1.98]. This is just a part of the further research we plan to do into hyperlocal news over the coming year, which will include: an online survey of people who run these sites; lots of interviews with producers where we really try to understand this emerging form of news; and work with audiences to further help us understand what these sites bring to their communities.

The context and the academic literature:

The value of news often viewed through prism of its relationship to democracy (McNair 2009). Key to this is idea that democracy enables good government most effectively if citizens’ decisions are based on reliable information (Habermas, 1989; Chambers and Costain, 2001). Numerous studies have found the crisis in the UK news industry is endangering the local-ness, quality and independence of local news (Franklin 2006, Williams and Franklin 2007, O’Neill and O’Connor 2009). These studies find that as revenues fall and staff are cut, mainstream local news relies more and more on official sources and PR (meaning only a very narrow range of sources routinely cited), it also becomes less local in focus (as editions are cut, and use of cheap national news agency filler becomes more prevalent).This has led to concerns about the industry’s ability to play its democracy-enabling roles.

But the web, of course, has enabled a new generation of community-oriented news outlets often termed hyperlocal news (Bruns 2009, Metzgar et al 2011), which in the UK is little-understood but attracting sustained interest from the news industry and policy makers. This part of our study was designed to understand hyperlocal news’ value as an emergent cultural form.

More traditional, influential, public-sphere influenced, social roles for news are important pillars in our theoretical framework when measuring the civic value of hyperlocal news (for example, communities are still governed within the frameworks of representative local democracy). However we will also seek to measure the importance of hyperlocal news in relation to other, less traditionally rationalist and political indicators of “cultural” (Miller 2006) and “DIY citizenship” (Hartley 2011) with a view to testing and developing our own notion of creative citizenship.

What we did:

This content analysis of hyperlocal news in the UK pays particular attention to: sources (who gets to define hyperlocal news and in what ways); topics (what news is covered?); the “local-ness” of this news; the civic value of the news (in relation to coverage of politics, but also the role of this developing cultural form in fostering (or not) different forms of “citizenship” in communities). Content analysis is a research method that’s often used in studies of the media and journalism to analyse large amounts of news. As a research method it seeks to generalise, and so these results should be seen as indicative of broad trends in hyperlocal news in the UK in 2012. It’s also limited by its sample, which consists of posts published on the sites of members of the UK’s “Openly Local” hyperlocal news network during 11 days at the beginning of May 2012 (http://openlylocal.com/hyperlocal_sites) . This was a convenience sample which allowed us to generate indicative results without first mapping all of the UK’s community news sites, which means other hyperlocal outlets were not studied. Previous work carried out by Dave Harte at Birmingham City University in preparation for the OFCOM Communications Market Review quantified output from this sample, and found that 3819 posts were published on 313 active websites during this period. We coded every other story (odd numbers) in each site (more information on the sample can be found here: http://creativecitizens.co.uk/publications/).

What we found:

What kinds of site did we find?

One of the ways we decided to classify the sites we looked at related to whether they were independently run, attached to a traditional commercial news media “brand”, or used a platform provided by (or, for want of a better word “franchised” from) a larger news organisation such as Local World’s (then Northcliffe Media’s) Local People” websites. We found that 47% of the stories we looked at were from independent standalone sites, 12% were from sites which were part of an independent network of hyperlocal sites, 40% came from “franchise” hyperlocals, and 2% from community sites attached to mainstream commercial local/regional news websites (a rare example of these was the “Your Cardiff” section of Walesonline.co.uk)

What topics get covered?

In terms of the topics of news covered by hyperlocal publishers we found that the largest category of news in the sample related to local community activities. This is, on the whole, a very geographically-focused, community-oriented journalistic form, and this category includes stories about local non-political civil society groups (e.g. the WI, community groups, local clubs & societies) as well as stories about community events like local festivals. We also found a lot of stories about local councils and the services they provide local government, so we know that hyperlocal audiences are getting a lot of information which in principle could be of civic value. Indeed this would have been our largest category if we hadn’t separated out stories about planning, which also gets covered a lot, and falls under the remit of local government in the UK. This kind of coverage of local government contrasts somewhat with the UK’s mainstream local news media, which has scaled back its coverage of local politics in recent years. Other notably large categories included crime and business news entertainment, and the arts.

Who gets a voice?

Which people, or news sources, get quoted in the news has traditionally been an important indicator of social power in communities. Who gets to define news events can affect public opinion, bolster authority, and assign cultural meaning, and as such they’re an indicator of the kinds of civic and political value created by community journalism. We coded for all directly quoted sources, but also all examples of indirect reported speech, which we saw as important in case hyperlocal journalism practice differed substantially from mainstream commercial news journalism (which places a high level of importance on quotations as an indicator of transparency in sourcing, and as a way of enacting professional norms such as impartiality and objectivity). When we compare our findings with studies of mainstream local news there are some continuities, but also important differences. Like the commercial local news official sources in government, business, and the police are very important in hyperlocal news: politics at various levels accounts for around a quarter of all sources cited, with business and the police also being very influential. But a key difference is the role afforded to members of the general public and to representatives of local community groups in this emergent sector, which are both quoted a lot – much more than many studies of local newspapers have found. We expected to find more influence for members of the public actively organised in political struggle but political activists were very thin on the ground in this sample (fewer political activists were quoted than in a number of studies of UK mainstream local news).

Analogous to the power of news sources in the new media environment is the definitional power associated with the web link. The biggest category of website linked to in hyperlocal news is self-referential: almost one third of posts link to content on the same website, usually to previously published stories on a similar issue. After that we see similar patterns as we did with the sources. A note should be made here about the relatively few hyperlocal posts which link to the mainstream news media.

A plurality of views?

The total number of sources found in the sample overall was quite low, and signals a significant difference in journalism practice between these community news sites and the traditional local news. Just over half of stories cited any news sources, meaning that many didn’t contain explicit source input at all. Just as importantly only around a fifth of posts cited more than one source. Studies of traditional news have been very critical of such under-sourcing of the news, worrying that it leads to a lack of transparency for readers, a lack of plurality in the sources of information to which audiences are exposed, and a lack of opportunity for people to learn about conflicting perspectives on particular issues.

We also set out to track the different functions of secondary source intervention in news stories – in other words, when more than one person was quoted, what role was their quote playing? Overall it looks like the sourcing of UK hyperlocal news displays a remarkable level of consensus. In terms of the level of debate and the amounts of alternative viewpoints presented on any given story, this journalism, on the whole, seems to be quite uncritical. Most of the interventions of secondary sources added context and further information to that provided by the first source. Many were in broad agreement with primary sources, giving corroboratoryinformation. However, only a relatively small proportion of stories with secondary sources contained an expression of disagreement between sources. This further suggests that when it comes to sourcing, audiences are not being exposed to a wide range of alternative viewpoints in relation to the news they read. This under-sourcing, and lack of oppositional sourcing, are things we need to think about as we continue to interpret the importance of our findings.

The “local-ness” of hyperlocal news

One of the key complaints made about the decline of local mainstream news in the UK is that it is becoming increasingly less local in its orientation, but this is not a charge which can be levelled at hyperlocal news. We aimed to assess the “local-ness” of news on these websites. Firstly, we coded each source utterance for whether it was talking about the local area, and almost all of these citations had a local angle. This makes sense, of course, as gathering national news takes newsgathering resources, at the very least a subscription to UK news wires (resources which these small operations mainly lack). There was very little national news in the sample. Most posts were published because of something which happened at a local level. There were some stories of national or international significance, but almost exclusively they were covered with a local angle which would make the story more relevant to local audiences. This is also very encouraging in terms of the news’ role in fostering community cohesion, and perhaps also a local public sphere.

Encouraging informed citizenship?

We’ve seen clearly with our data on story topics and sources that readers of hyperlocal news are getting a large amount of information about politics, particularly the politics of local government. This relates to the news’ ability to foster informed citizenship in relation to politics. To investigate this further we looked for stories with any references to politics, and coded whether they had an angle which was explicitly locally relevant or not. Here we generated further indications of the strength of this kind of news when it comes to reporting about local politics. Around a third of stories make mention of politics, and most of these mentions relate to local politics. This is encouraging, especially because many of these sites exist in places where depleted local newspapers are operating on skeleton staffs, where they’ve already been closed down, or where there was never much mainstream media to speak of in the first place.

Encouraging active citizenship?

One of the things we also sought to determine is the extent to which this form of news encourages people to become active in their communities. In this research project we see hyperlocal blogging as itself a form of “creative citizenship” – an active form of community participation which involves people sourcing, gathering, writing, and building their own news. The format is native to the web, and practitioners are in the main comfortable with the everyday interactivity of social media. For this reason we expected to find quite a lot of calls in hyperlocal news blogs for members of the public to join in on the action – to participate in DIY, collaborative, or networked journalism. We were surprised not to find much of this at all. We coded for explicit encouragement of different kinds of citizen journalism activity (such as co-producing stories, submitting content of various forms, offering feedback, and generally “having their say”) but found that they were very seldom made.

We also cast our net wider and looked for explicit appeals to participate in other aspects of civic, community, or cultural life. Again, we see a heavy emphasis on non-political community self-organisation. Around one in ten posts contained calls to participate in or organise community events (celebrations, village fetes, club activities, etc). The next-biggest category was calls to pass on information about crimes or antisocial behaviour to various authorities. However, calls to participate in formal representative politics, or informal, protest-based, politics are quite rare. So the kinds of activism routinely promoted or fostered by these sites are quite apolitical and community-based. We also aimed to determine whether these calls involved action in the “real world” or whether they promoted virtual, primarily-online, acts of citizenship. Interestingly, for a digital news format which is very much of the web most of these calls to action, more than two thirds of them, involved real world activity, and only 30% of them called for web-based participation.

Uses of multimedia content and chances to interact

We looked for how these sites use multimedia content in their blog posts. We found lots of uses of images (around two thirds of posts include images), but not much else. Very few posts included video content, mapping, audio material and/or data visualisations. Whilst this sector is not quite as creative with multimedia content as one might expect, it’s very comfortable using social media plugins, and offering audiences the chance to distribute and share content. So whilst hyperlocalists seem not to routinely create multimedia content, the sector is very network-oriented when it comes to providing audiences with opportunities to distribute and share content that’s already been produced. Another element of the possibilities for audience interactivity presented by these sites involves opportunities to comment on blog posts. The overwhelming majority of articles allowed comments, of course, the main exceptions being some stories which deal with ongoing court cases which are particularly legally sensitive. Audiences took advantage of these opportunities in less than a third of cases, however. Around one in ten of the comment strings appended to blog posts involved one-way communication from audiences, and around the same proportion of posts led to conversations between audience members, or between audience members and the hyperlocal publishers.

The economic value of hyperlocal news

An important element of our overall research problem involves determining the economic value of hyperlocal publishing. This is a growing sector in a Most of our enquiries in this regard will be addressed by later elements of the research where we interview and survey producers of this kind of news, but here we did gather some data on the extent and nature of advertising on these websites. More than two thirds of posts were accompanied by advertising for local products, businesses or services, just over half had national advertising, and only around one in ten posts were accompanied by no advertising at all. This does not tell us a huge amount on its own, but it does indicate that

What next for this research?

Our next steps will be to sit down with our partners and begin to thrash out a design for our online survey and interviews with producers. If you work on a hyperlocal news service we’d love to hear from you, and we’d love it even more if you’d agree to participate in the research. If you’d like to know more please email me on williamsa28@cf.ac.uk.

 

Works cited:

Bruns, A. (2005) Gatewatching: collaborative online news production, New York: Peter Lang

Metzgar, E., Kurpius, D., Rowley, K. (2011) “Defining Hyperlocal Media: Proposing a framework for discussion”, New Media and Society, 13:5, pp.772-787

Chambers, S. and Costain, A. (eds.) (2001) Deliberation, Democracy, and the Media, London: Rowman and Littlefield

Franklin, B. (1986) “Public Relations, the Local Press and the Coverage of Local Government”, Local Government Studies, Summer, pp.25–33.

Habermas, J. (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press

Hartley, J. (2010) “Silly citizenship”, Critical Discourse Studies, 7:4, pp.233-248

McNair, B. (2009) “Journalism and Democracy”, in Wahl Jorgensen, K., and Hanitsch, T. (eds.) The Handbook of Journalism Studies, New York and London: Routledge, pp.237-249

Miller, T. (2006) Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitanism, consumerism, and television in a neoliberal age, Philadelphia: Temple University Press

O’Neill, D. and O’Conor, C. (2008) “The Passive Journalist; How Sources Dominate Local News”, Journalism Practice, 2:3, pp.487-500.

Williams, A. and Franklin, B (2007) Turning Around the Tanker: Implementing Trinity Mirror’s Online Strategy, Cardiff University, Available at: http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Media/documents/2007/03/13/Cardiff.Trinity.pdf (last accessed 28th Dec 2012)

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