#CJ15: What next for community journalism?

Yesterday I spent a packed but interesting day at Cardiff Uni for the Centre for Community Journalism’s What next for community journalism conference. I was there to offer a quick overview of the Media Mill project (my presentation is online). It was a fascinating day with lots to mull over.

  • Investigative journalism is alive and well: There were some really inspiring examples of passionate and committed local storytelling that any investigative journalist would be proud of. Take a look at The Bristol Cable and 853.com for example.
  • Hyperlocal’s don’t know what they are: A clear message for me is that hyperlocal community is a broad church and there isn’t one clear thread that you could pull out that would define hyperlocal.  It also strikes me that a number of ‘hyperlocals’ in the room didn’t really seem to be bothered by that – they do what they do. It seems more an issue for those who want to represent them.  Efforts to map the sector have simply highlighted the issue. I think there’s some great scope in the map to be able to ask some questions about the capacity of the sector – I think that ‘parish pump’ newsletters, which might be seen as nothing more than notice boards, could be called in to ‘active’ journalistic service if a local issue demands it. (later: John Hickman makes a good point about how inclusive the term hyperlocal is in this context) 
  • The BBC is not the Media: The various BBC announcements made earlier in the week didn’t get much play in the room. I’m not sure if that’s because there weren’t many open forums (not a bad thing) or because people didn’t really care. But those ‘advocating on behalf of hyperlocals’ like Nesta and the CCJ seemed quite exorcised by the BBC. One of the keynotes of the day was from Damien Radcliffe, showcasing the Where are we know report . (and here) Its a good report, but I was struck by the way that the BBC and commercial media were treated differently when it came to what they need to do to support hyperlocal. You might say ‘but they are!’, except that I think what’s being asked of them is the same – ‘give us some of your money’.  
  • The BBC is not the competition:  Given the general conversation around the commercial and ideological motivations around hyperlocals its pretty clear that for some in the room, particularly those with a more liberal market reform view, that the BBC is an easy target.  Of course the biggest threat is the regional newspaper industry but you can’t lobby them! It was also interesting to see Facebook get a poking from Dan Glimor (who played the libertarian in the room  more than once) by suggesting that Facebook wanted to be like electricity (in it’s fundamental utility) which was fine by him as it invited regulation. It got a big laugh and a good deal of sympathy but I get the sense that, beyond the political, given their scale, for most hyperlocals Facebook is more like a passing supertanker rather than the indiscriminate steam roller many in the mainstream media think it is.
  • There is no single, viable, transferable business model for hyperlocal: There are hyperlocals that make money, those that don’t. They do it through ads, some don’t. The reality is, that the diversity of the sector means there is no clear way for them to make money (if that’s what they want to do).
  • There is no such thing as a level playing field: I heard the term ‘we need a level playing field’ a lot, especially in the debate around where money for support should come from. I hate the term because it really means ‘get off my grass’. The truth is that the media ‘field’ is like a big bubble. ‘level’ one bit and all that happens is the other gets distorted. Leveling a playing field doesn’t just mean lowering the field to a level (often a lowest common denominator) , it means the players need to raise their game. The price of that is often a compromise between the motivation and the practice for a hyperlocal site. Which brings me to my last point…
  • Ethics and Law are BIG weak spots: I saw some, frankly, unethical practices in some of the journalism on display – good journalism with great impact but there could be some really serious trust issues if not legal issues. (later: Judith Townend noted in a comment below that her research has suggested that law is a bit of an issue in general). There was also a really revealing debate about the value of signing up to a press regulator called the Impress Project –  a kind of independent re-imagining of the press complaints commission, right down to asking the editors code of conduct (which very few people had heard of). Some in the room didn’t like the idea of any regulation – a strong anti-establishment vein or that liberal market view raising its head again. But for me, ethics and regulation is not an ideological issue – its a commercial and editorial reality. It’s also an issue of trust. Getting called out for your ethics is one thing. Having that picked over in court is another.  If nothing else, the debate around what constituted a ‘relevant publisher’ would be enough to convince me to stump up the 50 quid to join; I can only imagine what that would cost if it was lawyers arguing that when an aggrieved reader took you to court!

All in all it was a fascinating day with some really passionate and inspirational stories to tell. I really appreciate CCJ and Nesta pulling it all together and asking me along.

There’s some really good and thoughtful round-ups by Russel Todd over at independenttropicalwalesRichard Jones  Miljenko Williams,  John Hickman and Dave Harte