One of the opportunities of the web is to rediscover really local news but I see little sign that it is happening despite all the talk of “citizen journalism” and “hyper-local news”. There are very good reasons, and some less good, why local coverage has changed in the past 40 or 50 years.
But it makes sense to go back and look again at the idea that news value is related to proximity. That means that for some people the village pantomime is more interesting than the latest fiasco at the Home Office.
With the unlimited space available on a website it is possible to provide both, provided ways can be worked out to get and process the information. Small niche readerships can be provided with the news that they want.
Local newspapers have lost much of the ability to serve smaller communities following the consolidation that has taken place. One of my first jobs was on the Buxton Advertiser, Herald and High Peak News, a title which had absorbed its competitors. But it was still intensely local and we travelled around the villages picking up snippets of news.
One week I made the mistake of being the first person in the office on Thursday, the day after publication, when any disgruntled readers would call. The phone rang and a woman demanded: “Why don’t you have the name of the organist at Dove Holes Methodist chapel on Sunday?” I waffled an apology for this gross failure in our coverage. In the next hour I took three more calls about our poor reporting of Dove Holes. I guess a colleague had found the pub fire more alluring than a visit to the carpenter/undertaker.
That was the morning I came to understand the importance of very local news. Now hyper-local news has become a buzz phrase, but the concept is to serve quite large areas (around 50,000 people for Backfence sites in the US and 1 million for the BBC’s ultra-local TV in the UK).
For the first time in my life I am living in a village, and it is about the same size as Dove Holes. I have no doubt that there is still a thirst for very local news.
It is easy to blame mergers and the passing of papers into groups of ever-increasing size, which were divorced from their communities, but this is not the whole story.
Journalists did not like the parochial approach to news. It seemed old fashioned and we fought for brighter newspapers which seemed more in tune with an age when increasing car-ownership was taking people greater distances from home in search of entertainment.
The closing of local courts and changes in procedures made the paragraphs about careless drivers and a whole range of minor crimes more difficult to get. Local government has become more centralised too with the loss of urban and rural district councils.
And along with that the consolidation of ownership of local papers resulted in fewer reporters and production centred in the larger towns.
The concept of very local news is not entirely lost. The East Anglian Daily Times still uses pages of submitted reports from Women’s Institutes and other organisations but they are covering a relatively large area and space is limited. There is no weekly paper covering my village.
With the web there should be no limit to the quantity of submitted copy that can be published. And there are people who would happily send in copy on the church’s fund raising plant sale, the school football match and the talk to the history society.
To add to this traditional content we can have blogs from people who have something to say about their community.
Making all this pay would not be easy. But at the moment finding a paying business model for newspapers in the internet age is a problem. I am convinced that newspapers and their websites can be rebuilt by rethinking our ideas of news.
The structure of newspapers has been to provide the material that will interest the largest number of people at the entry point — the front page. The web allows us to have a range of entry points including very local news, wider area news and sports news.
Reading through what I have written it seems more like random thoughts for a debate. But that, I guess, is what blogs are often about.