‘It’s the Village, Stupid!’: How Hyperlocal Media Can Save Journalism
On: September 15, 2011
Do you remember the good old days? Back then, journalism used to be a respected profession. Crowned by the rhetoric of popular culture as a sort of ‘champions of truth’ (Superman, His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men), reporters played a leading role in the capitalist western democracies during the 20th century. As the saying goes, Today’s News, Tomorrow’s Fish Wrap: in the times of new media, old tactics and structures are not useful anymore.
News conglomerates say that they make their best to adapt their structures to the new century, but it is not hard to realize that what they really feel is fear of the new communication channels. That’s what happened with ESPN last August: the sport news network reminded their employees that “sourced or proprietary news must be vetted by the TV or Digital news desks” instead of using Twitter. They are afraid of the present times, there’s no doubt about it. The future of the press (or its No Future, like in Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen) has become a common place in professional and academic conferences. Something assumed so unanimously should not discourage us from looking for different approaches to this particular subject. We could argue, using a risky biological allegory instead, that this phenomenon is not about the death of journalism, but about its evolution into diverse ‘communicational species’ adapted to the new environment.
In our hybrid post-post-post world, the social function of the press has been diluted, shifting from “the old man behind the typewriter” to a huge cast of new actors, and this is due to the emergence of a virtual, wholly communicated world. The roots of this brand new society lie deep on a bunch of entangled networks and such complex connection system is designed to escape from the tight ties created between old media conglomerates and political powers, as it has been proved in the last years by Wikileaks. If the press as a single entity is an outdated concept we must therefore question ourselves about the will of its successors. Let’s start, as if we were using a GPS system, by the nearest ones: hyperlocal media.
Figures of local newspapers’ sells decrease more and more every year and so do the media outlets, but this has not been a futile loss in terms of access to relevant information: the number of daily visitors to regional websites has increased by more than a quarter in the United Kingdom only in the first six months of 2011. In the densely populated conurbations of Europe and North America, social interest for even closer news has been met by many new media start-ups. These independently owned companies have developed news platforms based on geographical interests: districts, neighbourhoods or even streets. Users seem to like this new approach: according to the study “Online Neighbourhood Networks Study”, by the British consulting organization Networked Neighbourhoods, there is a prevalence of a sense of influence in the community’s decisions after participating on this type of sites.
Some of these media are user-built, reporting on events witnessed by the readers on the streets, or sharing links from different news sites. This is the case of everyblock.com in 16 cities spread across both coasts of the United States: citizens upload content from local bloggers or local media outlets regarding a wide range of interests, from traffic information to crime watch (Interview with one of its founders below). Other media, like the Spanish zonaretiro.com, are news sites created and edited by professional journalists aiming to reach the audiences of a specific area, in this case the Salamanca District in downtown Madrid. Classic journalistic genres are applied here in a microenvironment, allowing feedback through integration with social networks. These companies try to survive through classical ways like banners or discount vouchers, but also thanks to crowdfunding, loans or even venture capital firms.
Let’s not assume that web pages are the ending point of this story. We are beginning to realize their social and cultural impact, but this presentation format will be useless sooner than later. Technological items are becoming outdated with the same obsolescent rhythm of the physical ones, so it will not take very long until these desktop designs start being considered some oddity from the beginning of the 21st century. On that day, users might gain access to more relevant data about their surroundings but not only through their computers or mobile phones, because information will be present in other devices such as bicycles or the kitchen’s fridge. If hyperlocal media are creative and fit enough, they will adapt and evolve into even more complex communicational species, using our risky allegory once again.
Given our saturated environment there are, of course, concerns about the actual impact of these media in the communities they are devoted to: news are only news when told to somebody, otherwise they are secrets. Trust is also a significant matter, as reputation was (or it should have been, at least) a basic element of classic journalism. Hyperlocal media may be small and relatively unknown, but so were some of the most important news media at their very beginnings. Despite all the objections, understanding their brilliant future is key to discover what ever happened to journalism. Let’s not forget the sentence coined during Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 but, instead of the economy, now we must say “It’s the village, stupid”.