Given that the reinvention of local news seems to fit well with the UK government’s idea of a ‘Big Society’ why does the government’s current media policy seem to contradict both?
It is becoming increasingly clear that the reinvention of local news will have to be from the ground up. There are certain aspects of news gathering and publication that are not profitable to do (think court and council reporting). Therefore assuming there are no direct government subsidies – which seems a pretty safe assumption right now – if it is to be done it will need to done by people who want to do it, are committed to doing it, and are not looking to make lots of money out of it. In other words, people who live locally and want to contribute something to the society in which they live.
This is just the type of thing this government wants to get people doing. Just last month the Prime Minister David Cameron said he intends: ‘to build a nation of doers and go-getters, where people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better”. The government, Cameron continued, wants to empower people, particularly at a local level, ‘breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society.”
Local media is a great first step on the ladder of community involvement. You can start with a very low level of commitment – participating in a local online forum, posting pictures to a local flickr site – and then progress organically towards a deeper and more substantial commitment – organising local events and writing up reviews, reporting on discussions at the local school’s open meeting.
Read ‘What Works’, a fascinating recent report by the J-Lab assessing 46 local community start-ups that they have been involved with, and you’ll see how closely local media links with local community and local participation. Take The Forum in Deerfield, New Hampshire. It is run by a core group of local volunteers, but more than 350 people have contributed news, articles, photos, columns, art and literature to the site (50 of whom contribute regularly). According to J-Lab: ‘The School Board and Select Board now seek out coverage. The local police departments send crime reports. Recreation departments and libraries submit articles.’ And the whole thing is run from within the community.
Yet, current government media policy seems to run counter both to this bottom up reinvention of local news and to the ideals of the Big Society. This was made manifest last week in two one-day conferences that, by chance, happened on consecutive days last week – 1000 Flowers in Norwich, and Local TV news at City University in London.
At 1000 Flowers Rick Waghorn had gathered together a motley collection of grassroots initiatives, entrepreneurs, local businesses, and local media players. Panels focused on the entrepreneurial side of local news, collaboration, and how to avoid onerous regulation. Even the big players who were there – like Trinity Mirror and STV – were clear about how much they had learnt these last few years about the limits of the top down approach. Trinity Mirror has, for example, now struck partnership deals with over 20 local bloggers in Birmingham. STV has spent the last few months talking to as many people as they can about collaborations.
By comparison the local TV news conference the following day illustrated how the local TV idea – the one on the table from government – seemed to come from another era. There were panels talking about transmitters, DTT platforms and whether Birmingham Alabama really is like Birmingham West Midlands (it isn’t). The assumption appears to be – from the government side – that if the State decides that the future of local news is local TV, provided on a digital terrestrial platform, then that is what the future will be.
This is classic top down thinking. Exactly the opposite of the Cameroonian Big Society. Rather than “breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power” this is a Kevin Costner Field of Dreams approach: ‘If we provide the transmission frequency it will be filled’.
But it won’t. It won’t because the economics don’t work, the demand is not proven, and there is little evidence that this is what people want to do (unless the government pays them to do it). On the economics, many many people with much more knowledge than me on money matters have made clear that local TV in the UK would not be profitable. If it were, as Claire Enders said on the Friday, people would be doing it.
The future of local media is likely to be messy – just like the Big Society. Messy in the sense that different communities will do things differently. There will not be homogeneity. Some communities will have a thriving community of journalists, geeks and bloggers covering local politics, local schools, and weekend fetes (like Birmingham). And they will do it in whatever way makes sense to them and what works for their community. Other communities will have very limited provision.
It is these gaps in provision we should be worrying about. But the way to fill them is not to ‘provide space on the DTT transmitter’, it is to motivate people and incentivise people to fill it. The way to do this is to lower the cost to providing this sort of information and scrutiny (e.g. though transparency) and then provide incentives for people to do this in a sustainable way (e.g. by providing tax breaks for public interest news provision).
But let’s please start to realise that telling people to do this, and telling them to do it on a DTT TV platform, is not going to make it happen.
More posts about #1000 Flowers and City Local TV conferences: