Saturday, June 19, 2010

Marple carnival, the Salford Star and hyperlocal news

As it's Marple carnival today thoughts inevitably turn to broader considerations about community cohesion; how a place like this not only functions successfully but also prospers. A key ingredient is an event like today's carnival - it's the mortar between the bricks.

But how is something like this communicated? And what role does a local media have in it? There is no coverage in this week's Stockport Express ahead of the event - there will be next week - and yet everyone is aware of it and talking about it. The bunting is out, the programmes are distributed, the posters are up and the Marple website has a big section on it. It's an event just made for the new wave of hyperlocal news services that are springing up.

At a meeting last week of a community group I'm involved in, we discussed how to communicate something we need communicating. Posters will be posted in relevant places, websites will be used and then someone suggested advertising in the local paper. I'm sure the same debate was had at the Marple Carnival committee.

Now, each week I dutifully buy the Stockport Express, just as I have bought the Hackney Gazette and the Lancaster Guardian in previous places I've lived. But it wouldn't help at all. We would waste effort begging the district reporter to cover the story, and an advert would be a waste of money.

It turns the arguments for hyperlocal news on their head. There's a debate on David Ottewell's blog here, sparked by a decision by Salford Council not to fund The Salford Star. Without going into the detail of that issue, it strikes me the debate seems to pivot around democracy, political accountability and public services. Because it is "a good thing" that journalists should do this, then so it follows that they should. Therefore the failure of other media to do this creates a hole which must be filled. Yet the very reason why local papers don't divert their resources to covering council meetings and committee meetings is an imbalance between the resource needed to do so and the rate of return of readers. In short, I'm not sure there is a demand for that level of engagement; certainly not enough to build a business on it.

Yet hyperlocal still excites me. Editorially, there are stories the print media don't cover. The reason? They just aren't close enough to the people they are writing about (and for) to realise that they matter. There is actually a more urgent appetite for hyperlocal discourse about the rather more mundane and lighter parts of life. Like a carnival, or a lacrosse tournament or where to get a birthday cake made.

I'm fairly sure that the two-fisted Salford Star approach wouldn't work here in Marple. And in reverse I do think a bit more of the soft stuff - with tweaks, with a good commercial manager and a broader editorial approach - it could thrive in Salford without having to go cap in hand to the council. It shouldn't come to that. But a sound commercial base, rooted in private community support and a strident pro local business stance may well give editor Steve Kingston the space and time to point out where the bad guys are hiding.

But it is also true that there is a massive commercial opportunity for hyperlocal media, especially in many of Greater Manchester's more identifiable communities. And the form that will take depends very much on the fabric of those communites and areas. One size will not fit all.


Adrian Slatcher said...

There's a tendency at a national level to think that "comment" is worth money and "news" is free for all. I wonder if this is turned on its head locally, where "news" is valuable (and increasingly not being collected by reporters on the ground) and "comment" is there in the ether. The argument about public funding of media seems a little moot in the current environment - but then again the amount that councils and others spend on publicity/PR etc. as well as their own "citizen" newspapers implies that there is a need to get the news out there. News - whether about a council committee meeting or a car crash - costs money to collect, there seems good reason to think that once collected it has some value (through syndication or other means).

salford star said...

I agree with most of the stuff you've written but just a couple of things...Firstly, the Salford Star has never gone `cap in hand' to Salford Council for money. We've never asked the Council for a penny - we've asked the community committees for money - as we are a community mag. These committees are supposed to be able to decide for themselves how they spend `devolved' money from the Council ie local council taxpayers' money but the Council has imposed criteria, which `publications' ,ie us, must meet. And, of course, in the Council's yellow eyes, we don't meet them. That's the problem we've got with Salford Council, and we are appealing against the constant ripping up of our applications on Tuesday, not that it will have any affect. Secondly, we'd love a commercial manager to help us be self sufficient - any offers? And, thirdly, the Salford Star is very positive about all sorts of what you call `soft' stuff going off in Salford - films, footy, art, events. We do loads of these stories, so please don't stereotype the Star...

Michael Taylor said...

Cheers for the comments. I wish the Salford Star all the luck in the world.

Nigel Barlow said...


As you are aware,there has been a great deal of debate both online and offline about the hyperlocal news scene,centred on Manchester after David Ottewell's comments following on from his initial piece about the Salford Star.

There is a lot of debate still to be had but my initial feelings are that the established commercial media have still not fully grasped the enormous changes in the economics of news.

Fuelled by the changes in lifestyle that the new connected economy is producing,the simple economic answer is that people no longer ant to pay for run of the mill news.

Hence the many problems that the regional and local press have combined with the drift from advertising revenue.

Of course whether a more localised or niche market operation can survive with its low cost basis is also debateable.

As you point out,a lot of the operations are one man bands( I am not going to get into the debate about amateur and blogger excpet to say that just as the economic model is changing so is the professional one)

At Inside the M60 we want to produce a alternative news service for Manchester.We have to grow to do that and growth will have to be funded at least in part from commercial revenues.

I firmly believe that there is an advertising model that works on a niche basis,it's going to involve smaller and more frequent revenues but there is a gap at the moment with small businesses who want to reach an audience not willing to pay the rates of the local press.

As an aside there is also the issue of local authority/other public sector advertising which needs to become more open to a wider platform.

At a conference earlier this year I heard the analogy that the model was like a plate of spaghetti being thrown at a wall with the strands yet to fall in place.

That I feel is where we are at the moment and different sites/organisations are going to have to experiment with differing economic formulas.

Finally to the initial post,what I objected to most about the David Ottewell blog was that it seemed as though the traditional media was attacking the "cult of the amateur"

Being done on the platform of the MEN blog did not help matters and whilst I accept that all it was opinion,it should have been kept to a private blog in the way that you do with Marple Leaf.

It also countered moves that are beiong made within Trinity Mirror to make bridges to the local blogger.

So,a lot said.I would finish by saying that there is room for us all.We might not agree with what each other are writing about,the paltform we are using etc etc but eventually those spaghetti strands will fall.Then we will see who got it right.

Nigel Barlow

Co-founder Inside the M60

David Ottewell said...

I don't intend to reopen old wounds but I've only just come across this.

I simply want to reiterate one point: I do NOT, in my blog, presume to speak for the MEN. The opinions are my own. In the same way, Polly Toynbee doesn't express the view of the Guardian; she expresses her views in the Guardian. (The same applies to Charlie Brooker, for that matter.)

In any case, I'm all for closer working between the mainstream media and hyperlocals. But I make no apologies for demanding high standards in finding, assessing, checking and presenting the news. That is the most important thing - the thing we should all value, because it is an integral part of democracy.

Anonymous said...

I work for Hattersley & Mottram Community Media ( a small, definitely non profit making, community organisation based in Hattersley, Tameside. After being involved in producing the areas regeneration magazine for a couple of years, myself and a couple of other residents began to lobby for that money to be put into the development of a community newspaper, led by local people. In January 2011 we will be celebrating the 10th birthday of the Hattersley & Mottram Community News, and we are now working with residents in other areas of Tameside to produce their own community newspaper.

Yes our papers are backed by funding from Tameside Council but there have only been a couple of attempts to influence what goes in them and that was orchestrated by individuals. I think the council was really quite forward thinking in understanding that giving people access to their own publication could actually be a good thing, in spite of the situations when we print something they don’t really like!

I’m sure with the massive cuts councils need to make TMBC will be reassessing whether they can afford to support the papers in future. But the very value of papers like ours is that we can focus on the local situation. We are not so caught up in the doom and gloom of the financial climate that we can’t still see the positives things going on in our communities.

That doesn’t mean we shy away from the impact of what’s going on nationally, it just means we take a local perspective. We can point people in the direction of help and support, we can make sure those most in need are aware of the services available to them and when necessary we can highlight people’s plight through telling their story in the paper.

I’ve loved reading the Salford Star, but their format wouldn’t work in a community like ours. But you can be sure if the Marple Carnival was taking place here there would be absolutely no problem promoting it :)