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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Hyperlocal is here to stay (Help Me Investigate)

As an enthusiast for investigative journalism and a believer in the power of crowdsourcing, I volunteered as an investigator on Paul Bradshaw's Help Me Investigate platform.

The topic I chose to investigate was "How much local council news coverage is there in your local newspaper?", led by The Guardian's local launch editor Sarah Hartley.

I picked one daily, The Argus, and one weekly, the Sussex Express, and analysed their coverage of local council news.

The instructions were to:
a) count the total number of news pages (excluding ad pages, sports, property section, etc)
b) count the space occupied by local council stories (1/4, 1/2 or 1 page)
c) divide b by c to arrive at a percentage

The two papers returned very similar results. In four weeks, Sussex Express produced an average of 4.15% of council news in its news pages and The Argus, an average of 4.46% over five days.

If you are interested in helping the investigation, go to the Help Me Investigate
site, read the guidelines and let Sarah (sarah.hartley AT or @foodiesarah on Twitter) know which papers you are covering from this list.

The outcomes were in line with my expectations. Since regional papers started shedding staff as ad revenues fell, the resulting understaffing in local papers' newsrooms meant the remaining reporters had to stretch themselves to tackle the increased workload and cover their patches.

When editors are under pressure to publish stories that sell papers (i.e. gore, crime, deaths, scandals) and move circulation figures upwards, stories about local government decisions, which are not controversial enough to stir a strong response from the reader, are likely to be given lower priority, or, might, at most, end up as a nib (news in brief) in a spare corner of the page.

To me this only underlines the importance of hyperlocal news bloggers, as addressed in this blog by Dan Slee, a former journalist who now works in local government
. Slee thinks local bloggers should be respected and treated as journalists by council press officers whereas bloggers should behave like journalists, checking facts and studying basic media law.

He refers to another ex-journalist, Ross Hawkes, who decided to found the Lichfield Blog, currently with 16,000 users, when he heard a fire engine run past his house one day and his wife wondered where it was going. He told Slee about his a-ha moment:
“I realised that there was no way of finding out anymore because local papers just aren’t there.”
Case studies
Only a few days ago, the Press Gazette
reported that The Argus would be using journalism students from the Brighton Journalist Works as community reporters for the newspaper's website. Web editor Jo Wadsworth will also be training PCSOs to upload news and appeals to the community, virtually turning them into beat bloggers.

This hyperlocal initiative of
transforming local contacts into community correspondents was also picked up by Sarah Hartley in her blog. It will have the dual benefit of providing students with valuable experience and multi-media training, while expanding the scope of news covered by The Argus.

Another Newsquest paper, The Northern Echo, responds to ultra-local news content needs by regularly recruiting members of the public – ranging from teenagers to pensioners – as contributors to their website.

Assistant editor Nigel Burton explains here that their community correspondents do not replace staff journalists, but rather supplement their work by covering ultra-local stories they would normally miss. Or give a miss to.

Changing landscape
With resources thin on the ground and space on print paper so precious, is training community correspondents to become hyperlocal journalists groundwork for a more interactive and a less recession-vulnerable type of journalism?

A decision at a local council meeting, which may not make headlines, might still generate debate and mobilise people at grassroots level. So, even assuming there is no harm in limiting coverage of unexciting council stories to 4% of a local paper's content, having a team of community correspondents further scrutinise that 4%under the magnifying glass of citizen journalism might be a step in the right direction towards empowering their communities – as both news generators and news receptors.

How that will eventually change the future definition of news and journalism is a hot discussion topic for another rainy day.

Watch this slide presentation given on hyperlocal by Sarah at the Digital Editors Network event in Preston in October:

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Blogger Jo Wadsworth said...

Hi Chie,

First of all, I think this is an important investigation, and all power to you for taking part. But I am very surprised at the results, so I did my own quick survey, which came up with very different figures.

First of all, I only counted pages which had NEWS at the top of them - and if they had a half page ad, then only counted them as half, etc etc. Then every page lead I counted as a half page, panels as either 1/8 or 1/4 pages, splashes as either 1/2 or 1 depending on how much of the front page they took up, and spreads 2. I didn't count any nibs, although I'm confident there would be loads of council-relevant nibs in each edition. And I didn't count stories about other local authorities, such as NHS Trusts, or local-specific figures from Parliament.

For the five weekdays from Wednesday, November 4 to today, Tuesday, November 11, the results were as follows (we do have a Saturday edition, but I can't lay my hands on one):

10 Nov - pages 11, stories 3.75
9 Nov - pages 10.5, stories 2.25
6 Nov - pages 17, stories 3
5 Nov - pages 17, stories 2
4 Nov - pages 11, stories 3

I make that 66.5 pages, and 14 stories - which comes to 21%.

As you've raised our community corresponding project, it's worth saying that most of ours don't scrutinise local council decisions - and I certainly don't expect the PCSOs will be doing that. They're more likely to report on more innocent local goings-on such as fetes, community cafes, broken pavements, and pubs closing down.

That's not to say this kind of reporting is less valuable - far from it. It's part of the glue which keeps communities together (and more likely to team up to scrutinise or fight unpopular council decisions should the need arise).

And of course, projects like Help Me Investigate, and some of the new breed of hyperlocal bloggers like Pits n Pots, are evolving the role of citizen journalism even further.

The challenge for regional papers is how to embrace these changes to benefit everyone - and I hope the experience and reputation of local newspapers can add something valuable to the new hyperlocal mix.

10 November 2009 at 15:32  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

Hi Jo,
Thanks so much for commenting. Yes, I can see how your way of counting would produce higher figures for the Help Me Investigate task. I too only used pages that said "News" at the top, but, unlike you, I did count a page with a half page ad as one page, so different methodologies will lead to completely different results.

I was very confused myself about which stories to count in, and it was often not clear-cut when an article could be counted as 1/2 or as 1/4 page. I included nibs though. I guess everybody participating will be counting differently, so unless we all work using the exact same parameters, the resulting figures should be looked at with a big pinch of salt...(sorry, Sarah!).

I didn't think your PCSOs and community correspondents would be covering council meetings, etc, but I wanted to use the results of the HMI project to highlight some good existing initiatives at hyperlocal level, as I am very much pro-citizen journalism. (I will be doing a separate blog on it soon.)

A lot of "old school" journalists, pooh-pooh the concept, probably because they are reluctant to accept change. Journalism, like everything else, needs to evolve with the times (or risk dying) and I think citizen journalism is one of the nascent aspects of modern journalism.

You deserve lots of accolades for having spearheaded not only the great cosmetic changes to The Argus' website, but also the progressive-thinking hyperlocal projects that are helping bring cohesion to the community (as you say), while producing fresh and interesting user-generated content for The Argus. It is initiatives like these that will soon determine which papers have their feet firmly in the 21st century and which are stubbornly hanging on to the Ice

11 November 2009 at 00:01  
Blogger Paulb said...

Great stuff, Chie - really impressed you managed to do it for 4 weeks, which makes the results more reflective. I think Jo raises a good point about ads and looking at news hole rather than pages as a whole - new challenge issued on the investigation...

11 November 2009 at 15:38  

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