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How can community journalism avoid the trickle down effect of distrust?

By Matt Abbott | 10th Feb 2017

where-has-it-gone-and-how-can-we-get-it-backIn a somewhat distasteful, yet predictably demagogic performance at the CIA’s headquarters last month, newly-elected President Donald Trump pontificated about the media: “They are some of the most dishonest human beings on Earth…”

No surprise really, given his declaration of war against the media.

A few days later, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, referred to the press as an “opposition party” saying it “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut.”

Here in the UK, disdain for the press is at an all-time high.

University students have recently voted on a campus ban of the Daily Mail, the Express and the Sun in a bid to ‘oppose fascism and social divisiveness in the UK media’.

The blue-tops continued assault on Britain’s most senior judges, using language that some argued was reminiscent of Nazi Germany, spawned a ‘stop funding hate’ campaign which led to Lego declaring they had no plans to work with the Daily Mail in the future.

Fake news, while effectively onerous, has failed to establish itself as an industry in the UK. However, according to Buzzfeed, the reason why is that we have a highly partisan established press already doing that job for us.

Inaccurate news stories about Muslims abound, journalists live in entirely separate filter bubbles than the people they report about, and trust in national newspaper journalists is down to an alarming 18 per cent, lower than estate agents, bankers and lawyers.

On top of this is the very protracted boxing match, vague, and obfuscated with legal jargon to all but those who work in, have been the victims of, or study journalism. It is of course, the rumble in the jungle over who gets to regulate the British press.

In the red corner, weighing in at 99 per cent of the established newspapers, heir to the PCC and unofficial (self) regulator of the press, Ipso.

In the blue corner, weighing in at 20 or so independent newspapers, heir to Mosely, Lineker, Rowling and Grant et al, and the only officially recognised regulator of the press, Impress.

Sadly, the Queensbury Rules do not apply to press regulation, so don’t expect it to be over in twelve rounds. It’s a fight to the death.

But as exciting as this sounds, the ringside seats are all but empty, save for a few free press campaigners and journalists. The public don’t care. In the words of John Lennon, ‘all [they] want is the truth, just gimme some truth.’

But where is it? If trust has collapsed, then where does that leave hyperlocal and community news publishers, and how do we go about restoring it?

Speaking to Sue Lani Madsen at the Spokesman-Review, Mark Smith of the Davenport Times said: “There is a sense now that if one media source is bad, they all are.”

In which case, how do hyperlocal and community news publishers weather this storm, what methods do they employ to insulate themselves from the fallout, and what lessons can be learned from their approach to local news?

By their very nature, community publishers are immersed in their communities. Their raison d’etre is the community they live in; it is their lifeblood.

Moreover, they care about the communities they serve, and the people in it.

It’s no accident the that the rise of community journalism coincided with the decline of the traditional press. The open architecture upon which the Internet was built, and which has relentlessly chipped away at print revenue streams, also gave people access to free platforms on which they could champion their streets, villages, towns and cities. They did so in direct competition with the mainstream media who only visited when there was a missing child, a murder, a political scandal or a case study to localise a national story.

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Pamela Pinski, of Digbeth is Good says that hyperlocals “are an antidote to the notion that bad news sells and good news is only news when it serves the interests of the publication and not necessarily the community.”

But does it follow that community journalists are more trusted because they don’t simply publish negative stories about their communities?

Not necessarily. But when journalists are connected with their community, and engaged with the protagonists of their stories there is an ability and a desire to work together to address local issues and to affect positive change.

There’s certainly a preference for this kind of content, too. In the last 10 years, 198 UK newspapers have closed, while over 400 community newspapers have sprung up.

Facilitating debate, discussion and cooperation, documenting life, not just as passive observers painting archaic portraits of local communities, but by building a sense of community, exploring solutions, reconsidering the notion of objectivity, goes a long way to fostering reciprocity and building trust.

In short, being a good neighbour is better than being a critical watchdog.

There are two models that are successfully combining the two: The Ferret in Scotland, and The Bristol Cable. Both publications are cooperatives that are owned by their respective subscribers.

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A Ferret said: “Transparency and governance are key factors in building trust with readers, regardless of the scale that a media project operates at.

“We don’t just view our subscribers as passive recipients of information; they are joint owners of the project. As a consequence, we do our best to share information and engage our subscribers on key editorial and governance questions and there are even places reserved for readers on the board.

“This approach seems to be working, as we’ve seen steady growth in our income, both from subscribers and grants since we launched.”

As local newspapers centralise their newsrooms in ‘content rooms’ two or three counties away, they leave behind the trust of their audiences. Audiences feel isolated, ignored and misrepresented.

What the mainstream press is failing to understand is that geographic proximity results in nuance, accountability, lived experience and ultimately better journalism. It helps breed trust.

Reporters in communities must, therefore capitalise on their visibility and the immediacy of their operations. Doing so will demonstrate a civic commitment that is otherwise retreating.

Improving the lives of their readers, instead of the bank accounts of their shareholders, is always going to be appreciated, regardless of whose feathers they ruffle.

However, from a business standpoint, smaller publications can get away with a lot less in the passionate service of their community.

Inaccuracy and defamation can be a costly mistake, and even bankrupt some community publishers. In some cases, editors have no choice but to sit on stories waiting for verification that larger organisations will run the risk of publishing without. In some cases spike the story altogether.

But even this has its benefits.

David Travers, who runs a successful hyperlocal publication in the Midlands says: “Being first is hugely important to me, but never at the expense of accuracy, it’s stressful sitting on a story sometimes, but worth it.

“I think what I’ve done here is create a brand that is trusted.

“The mainstream press has immense amounts of stuff to sift through every day. They’re bound to make mistakes.

“A new online publication has a huge opportunity to start out clean and stay clean. And there’s the opportunity – it takes years but eventually the public decide who they want to tell their story to.”

Fuelling public trust in journalism has never been more important. Distrust leads to insulation, filter bubbles, captive audiences and fake news. And without an audience, no publication can expect to survive.

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Stuart Crowther, who runs InsideMoray in North East Scotland, believes that in order to compete effectively, you have to be the antithesis of the mainstream press.

“Here in Moray I believe the majority of readers recognise that our community site takes a very different approach from the mainstream press – and that has been one of the reasons for the rise in popularity of InsideMoray.

“Given our high profile and readership in relation to the two main local print titles, we are trusted and believed far more readily as it is recognised we are not ‘reporting for profit’ so have no reason to sensationalise a story.

“Indeed, we go out of our way to play down the sensational.”

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Patricia Murray, editor of the Durham Skywriter in North Carolina, U.S. echoes this sentiment: “Trust can be better established when the media outlet states the reasons for its existence and upholds that with every issue.

She adds: “Avoiding unnecessary drama might make my stories a little less juicy, but everybody knows that I’m not out here to score points but to help my community.”

But what about the entertainment value of reading the news? What of the outrage, shock, empathy, humour, the fizz of endorphins we get as we pour over the latest celebrity gossip, true or not?

Trust is not the only reason we read one publication over another.

And community publishers need to be aware that, like shy-tories or closet Brexiteers, their readers won’t always tell them the truth about what they want to read and where they go to read it.

Relying solely on trust can be dangerous. Trust isn’t the end game. While it’s necessary for commercial survival, it won’t always result in an increase in readership, subscriptions, or membership.

No one is going to retire to the Bahamas sipping cocktails on a yacht made from trust. But as news sources proliferate, and as millennials increasingly consume their news from social media where contradictions flourish, trust is a premium that community publishers can ill afford not to pay.

But wait. The idea of trust is changing.

We tend to know instinctively where individual newspapers fit into the media ecosystem.

We know not to go to the Daily Sport for an accurate breakdown of the Chancellor’s Budget. We know not to go to the red tops for neutral political commentary. We know not to go to the Guardian to find out what Kim Kardashian is balancing on her bottom this week, and we know not to go to local or regional press to get juicy kiss-and-tell stories.

The Internet is so much more confusing for users. Its scale means we cannot fully understand the topology of it. We no longer know where to go to get certain types of news or news that we can believe. The very notion of what trust is, not simply where to find it, is at stake.

The challenge for hyperlocals and community news publishers, is that the vast majority are trying to survive in this Wild West of facts and alternative facts, and by extension, are vulnerable to the same perceptions of inaccuracy, corruption and flimflam.

Ultimately, trust is not a currency exclusive to demagogues, moguls, digital giants, or even regulators. Its wealth is not concentrated in a handful of tabloid newspapers, and it is not a by-product of financial success. Trust is born out of human connections; it starts local and grows exponentially. As attention shifts toward the national media, journalism needs to reestablish itself in those places where nothing is happening as well as those places where (it seems) everything is happening.

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