Archive for the ‘democracy’ tag

Local news needs ‘bottom-up’ structure to survive

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Orkney Today has announced it is closing. The paper, which served the small islands of Orkney just off the Scottish coast, was — like countless other local papers — battling against declining circulation and disappearing ad revenues. “Orkney Media Group management and the newspaper’s excellent staff have tried a number of initiatives to reverse the fortunes of the newspaper,” the paper reported, “but to no avail.”

If the news industry as a whole isn’t exactly the picture of good health, local news is in the emergency room. News problems at a national level — falls in circulation, and collapse in classified and advertising revenues — are acute at a local level.

This has serious political implications, particularly in terms of who acts as the democratic watchdog, which is why this concerns not only news bosses but also politicians.

“We are concerned that … the problems in the local media industry are leading to a scrutiny gap,” read a report, Future for Local and Regional News, from the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport.

Defining local

The problem is, when thinking about what to do about it, how do you define local? For Orkney Today this was pretty easy. It served a clearly defined geographic area — the Orkney isles — that is run by the Orkney local council, and that has a long established sense of community. But what about places that aren’t surrounded by sea, that don’t have a single local authority, and may not have such a long established sense of community?

This isn’t an academic question. In political — i.e. public policy — terms how you define local will determine what you do and how you do it. How can a government, for example, even consider direct or indirect subsidies, for example, without knowing who to give them to and what parameters to set?

Boil it down and you can probably define “local” in three different ways: Politically, economically, or socially. (I’m deliberately ignoring random geographic boundaries even though that’s how regional broadcast news appears to be defined right now). The way you choose to define local then has fundamental implications for the type of journalism you end up with.

If you’re in government you’re probably most worried about the health of democracy and so it makes logical sense to define “local” in political terms — i.e. at the ward level, or the local authority or county council boundary, or the constituency. This way you highlight the watchdog role of journalism. You make clear that, as a society, you believe in the idea of a “Fourth Estate” — a section of society whose role it is to scrutinize local politics, uncover corruption, and tell truth to power.

The problem with this is that political boundaries don’t necessarily make economic sense or correspond to what people think of as local. Take my ward in England, called “Kingham, Rollright and Enstone.” I don’t live in Kingham, Rollright or Enstone, I live just outside Chipping Norton. So a news service called The Kingham, Rollright and Enstone Times wouldn’t seem very relevant to me. On top of which my ward is pretty spread out (it’s rural) and there are only about 4,000 people in it in total. That’s too few for most professional news organizations to bother with, unless they can get costs close to nil.

Because if you’re a news organization then while you’re thinking about local politics you’re also thinking economics. You have to be if you’re going to survive. You have to think about how many eyeballs you need to make enough revenue via circulation, subscriptions, classifieds, etc. You’re making a calculation that, say, you need to sell 10,000 print copies a week to get by. With 10 percent penetration that means you need to serve an area of about 100,000 people. Multiply the numbers considerably for bigger publications or for broadcast. But the problem with an economic definition of local is that it’s unlikely to match the public’s perception.

If you’re a member of the public then local probably means your street, your neighborhood, your town. What the news industry likes to call hyper-local. As a participant in a recent Birmingham focus group said, “If it’s not within a 10 mile radius, it’s not local news as far as I’m concerned … it might as well be national.” That quote comes from “Meeting the News Needs of Local Communities,” a research report released this month by Media Trust. News at this level is great for building community cohesion and for making people feel a part of a bigger society, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but volunteers and non-profits providing it in a sustainable way.

Recipe for success

That’s why it’s so hard for a government, or a news organization, to know what to do. You can’t create this sort of genuine hyper-local news service from the top down. Neither the government nor a news organization can direct the public to produce news about where they live. This sort of news has to be from the ground up. It has to be participatory. It has to be by and for the local community.

Which is why the local news organizations/co-operatives/forums most likely to work are those that start from the bottom, and that build participation, collaboration, mutualization, and partnerships into their DNA. This is very hard indeed for legacy news organizations to do. And it means that the best a government can do is to create a framework in which people are able to fill the vacuum being left by the disappearance of local news, rather than trying to subsidize the existing industry or provide top-down direct support.

This post was first published on PBS MediaShift IdeaLab on Monday 27th September, 2010

Written by Martin Moore

September 28th, 2010 at 10:23 am

Contributions from readers quadruple! (from 1% to 4%)

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New research from Cardiff will show that 4% of news website readers contribute online – i.e. leave comments, keep blogs, send in photos etc. – according to an academic at Wednesday’s journalism and democracy conference at the British Academy (whose name I did not catch – if the person who said it reads this please let me know).
Though this was prefaced – by the Cardiff academic who made the comment - with an ‘only’, 4% is still four times higher than a couple of years ago.
Back in 2006 we were told that only 1% of the audience actually contributed to sites (e.g. see Paul Skidmore on the ’1% solution’ in Prospect in December 2006), while the other 99% simply read, viewed, listened.
In this context 4% sounds like a pretty significant increase. Especially when you look at what that 4% is able to produce. The number of comments on the BBC’s Russell Brand / Jonathan Ross Have Your Say, for example, reached 52,681 before they closed the forum. A healthy 10,699 have so far commented on whether John Sergeant was right to quit Strictly Come Dancing. And 2,200 people have made their views known on the MySun debate ‘Should smacking your children be banned?
Imagine if, in another 2 years, the number participating quadruples again. In the BBC’s case this would equate to hundreds of thousands of comments a day, thousands of photographs, and hundreds of citizen journalism videos. The equivalent of a few truck-loads full of post.
How are they going to cope with this? With considerable difficulty. Anne Spackman - comment editor at The Times – told the conference that it is already costing the paper hundreds of thousands of pounds to moderate comments, take in user generated content, and create systems to allow for engagement with readers.
So what should news organisations do? Well, they could start by thinking alot harder than they do about the sort of relationship they want with their audience and then work out the best way to develop that. Right now most news sites still work very much on the broadcast model. In other words, they’ll tell you what they think and when they feel like it they’ll let you comment.
This means their attitude to involving their audience often comes across as patronizing or parasitic – or both. Patronizing because just being asked to leave a comment is like being told you can ask questions after the speaker has already left the room. Or being given a space to shout without any indication whether there will be anyone around to listen. Parasitic because simply asking for content from the public (‘send us your photos and your videos’) makes you look like a wanton freeloader.
News organisations could learn a lot from social networking sites, particularly in terms of how people want to relate to one another, communicate and use information. Mind you, they’ll need to learn quickly if, by the end of 2009, 4% becomes 8%.

Written by Martin Moore

November 20th, 2008 at 2:16 pm

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A new founding principle for the BBC

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Fantastic. A proper thoughtful speech about politics, the media and the role of the BBC from Mark Thompson – the BBC’s Director General (‘The Trouble with Trust’).

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m impressed is that I’ve been banging on about many of the same issues for a while now. Indeed, for the last couple of months I’ve been on a road trip telling anyone who will listen (BBC included) that news organisations are changing fundamentally, that the Fourth Estate is under threat, and that the only news organisation with the scale and remit to take the lead in doing something about it is the BBC.

One aspect of his speech particularly struck me. Thompson did not just outline what he saw as the problems with democratic engagement (including a healthy dose of scepticism about the value of scepticism) he also had a go at suggesting a way forward. This included transforming “the way we [the BBC] connect British democracy – and all its many democratic institutions – to the public”.

This is important. It means, in effect, adding a fourth pillar – ‘to connect’ – to the BBC’s famous founding principles – to inform, educate and entertain’. I’m not sure I like the verb Thompson’s used – I’d probably go with ‘to engage’ or ‘to include’ rather than ‘to connect’, but the concept is right. Only by including the public in a reconstituted Fourth Estate can we hope to sustain and renew it.

Thompson then talked about what this might mean in practice, for example, giving the public “Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them”. Much, in other words, of what mySociety has started to do through www.theyworkforyou.com, and some of it’s other excellent websites.

Indeed it sounded like organisations like mySociety – and, I hope, Media Standards Trust – inspired this part of Thompson’s speech. Which appeared to be confirmed by Thompson’s comment at the end that “We don’t want to do all this on our own, but in partnership with some of the existing sites which are pioneering web democracy – and with the democratic institutions themselves”.

This is significant – and exciting – new territory for the BBC. The Corporation will need partners, and will need to sustain its ambition (not so easy given the financial and other pressures it is under), but this is most certainly the right direction. Thank goodness.

Written by Martin Moore

January 16th, 2008 at 12:48 pm

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Market driven media damages democracy

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…was the basic message of Professor James Curran’s dry but highly worthwhile lecture at the LSE this evening.

Proving the impact of media is tremendously tricky. How can you tell it was the media that had an impact and not something else? How can even the most meticulous of experiments disaggregate the effects of media from the effects of environment, background or pure human instinct?

It can’t, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. And Professor Curran has certainly had a go.

He and a team of researchers have done an exhaustive (and by the looks of it exhausting) study of the nature and impact of news in four western democracies: two of which have a ‘pure public service model’ of broadcasting (Finland and Denmark), one which has a mixed model (Britain) and one which has a market driven model (the US).

They looked first at what was in the news – breaking it down into ‘hard news’ (politics etc.) and ‘soft news’ (entertainment and sport) and into domestic and foreign – for both television and newspapers. They then quizzed 1,000 people in each country about politics, society and celebrity (i.e. who is the Prime Minister of Britain vs who is Maria Sharapova).

And discovered… that knowledge of hard news and current affairs was greater in countries with public service models than market models (with the mixed in between).

Not entirely surprising you say – although it took the academics in the audience about 30 seconds to start questioning the methodology of the study.

What was perhaps more fascinating than the overall national figures was the different levels of understanding between socio-economic groups. In the Scandinavian countries knowledge of hard news / current affairs was higher in low income groups than high income groups (the poorer you are, the more you know). The exact reverse was true in the US.

This led Curran to conclude that in a democracy with a market driven media model it is much easier to manipulate the public and much less likely that the politicians will be held to account. An assertion he backed up with some startling figures about how many Americans still believed – in 2006 – that Iraq had been harbouring weapons of mass destruction when the US et al attacked in 2003.

Curran’s figures will no doubt be disputed by many, but they should not be dismissed, since the momentum right now – especially in Britain – is all with the market.

Written by Martin Moore

November 13th, 2007 at 8:55 pm

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