Hyperlocal journalism #1 – going solo

Cut Media publishing company has launched its own set of West London hyperlocal sites

Continuing new media’s obsession with giving new labels to well-established hack habits, patch journalism is back in vogue under the guise of ‘hyperlocal’ websites. Small-scale bloggers, tweeters and enterprising journalism grads are springing up to replace tired, understaffed local media outlets to cover their areas.

These online communities have sprung up to replace dying local print coverage which might cover a wider region without any depth. New sites covering anything from a single posh road in London to a village in the West Midlands have sprung up, but it’s all on a micro-news level. We’re talking about the opening of a new Tesco, here. Or changes to bin collection dates. Suddenly(ish) this is all very sexy stuff.

Who exactly has the time to set up all these local enterprises? Super awesome journalism graduates of course, young talent who can’t squeeze themselves through the increasingly narrow Big Media doors. Equally, they may not be employed simply because their new-fangled skillsets of internet-based research, digital know-how and multimedia dabblings don’t quite fit into the average print organisation yet.

The independent journalist

Cardiff journalism post-graduate Hannah Waldram is an oft-quoted example of a young, British hyperlocal pioneer with her Midlands-based Bournville Village, launched in August this year.

Community first…

The site, according to Hannah, covers events of extreme local interest. Her first public post announced that Bournville had made Open Street Map. This was followed up with a report on a shooting incident only a couple of days later, which the Birmingham Post subsequently picked up. But hard news isn’t the priority; the community is. Hannah suggests that hyperlocal journalism is a ‘different entity’ to traditional reporting altogether:

“Bournville Village isn’t out there to offer something better/alternative to traditional journalism…It is just trying to help build links between the community in Bournville which have perhaps been lost in some ways.”

News second

Like many British online media trends, hyperlocal journalism is an immigrant from America. As local papers collapsed, local bloggers rose to become authoritative news and opinion makers. But bloggers are fearful of potential libel cases, and indeed there is no comforting media parent to provide the funds should someone bring a suit. Hannah therefore leaves hard news to the established print outfits in favour of stories which buoyed the community spirit: “Positive stories which highlight good points about the community work best. People want to feel proud of the area they live in.”

It’s pretty brave to try going hyperlocal on your own; the practicalities of sustaining enough content for your site mean there’s little time to try a give it a solid financial structure. But there’s been one very solid outcome for Hannah – after launching Bournville Village, she was offered three jobs before taking one at social media agency Podnosh. That’s an outcome most young British journos would be happy with for now.

The postcode stranglehold and hyperlocals

Are postcodes useful to journalists? If you belong in the new school of thought which says journalism is hyperlocal, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial, then the answer is yes, very.

Northcliffe’s experiments in hyperlocal journalism have been less about creating pure news portals and more about community services. If you look at any of its outlets – e.g. Berkhamsted People – its tagline is ‘Your place. Your people’. The focus being on community-driven news. Surely then, it makes sense for any new hyperlocal venture to embrace as many community enhancing tools as possible and collect them all in one place. Good UK examples are the websites created by MySociety (like FixMyStreet) and Ernest Marples Ltd (like the local planning alerts service). These sites make use of the Royal Mail’s postcode database to provide users with information about what’s happening around them – whether it’s a new building development or what your nearest pharmacy is. Useful information delivered to you, where previously you had to squint at that rain-drenched bit of paper pinned to the lamppost outside no. 20 to find out that they’d be building that new conservatory for the next six months….

Except that this all relies on postcode data….which is subject to copyright and therefore can’t be used by any Tom, Dick or Harry, even if it’s for useful community purposes. If you want to use the postcode database, you have to pay royalties to Royal Mail. This is how sat nav systems work.This means that low-cost, open ventures run by community driven entrepreneurs like those behind Ernest Marples Ltd., can’t use postcode data without getting nasty copyright infringement notifications from Royal Mail. Not having the means to challenge Royal Mail, Ernest Marples Ltd has ceased to provide any of its postcode-based services or API’s. So no pretty integrated tools for hyperlocal journalists.

The campaign against this stranglehold argues that Royal Mail (and indeed the Ordnance Survey which charges similar royalties for mapping information) are funded by the tax-payer. Therefore the tax-payer should have access to the information held by these companies. Hearteningly, Tom Watson MP has put forward an Early Day Motion:

That this House notes with concern the attempts of Royal Mail to restrict access to the postcode database for not-for-profit web services; further notes with alarm that this heavy-handed approach has led to not-for-profit websites which seek to provide essential services to the public being left unable to function; and calls on the Government to ensure that the database is made freely available to anyone for not-for-profit use, thus enabling citizen-focused projects to flourish and innovate.

Why not write to your MP and get them to sign it?