Revival of Local Journalism conference: 13 themes which matter for the future

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I spent yesterday at the Revival of Local  Journalism conference held by the BBC and the Society of Editors at MediaCity in Salford.

It brought together people from all forms of local media, and in that sense was rather unique. There were a lot of interesting views point across, and a few odd ones.

I’ll blog more on the themes which really struck a chord with me,  but here are 13 interesting points which got on to my notepad during the day:

1. The BBC feels like it is really up for working with the local Press this time: The BBC has launched charm offensives on the local Press before now. It’s promised to be a better neighbour before. So it’s understandable if there is some skepticism on Twitter when head of news James Harding said he wanted the BBC to build a closer relationship with the regional Press.

But it does feel different this time. For a start, the right people are saying it. And the Beeb also seems more open to others suggesting ideas of how that relationship could work. David Holdsworth, controller of BBC English Regions, was up for discussing all sorts of ideas, from sharing the archives more (although he suggested they weren’t as huge as people expect) to developing a relationship where local media provide content for regional bulletins.

There is also evidence of the BBC News being serious about crediting sources more effectively. Whereas the as ‘Local Live’ rolling news service on BBC Tyne and Wear – which is shared with the Teesside area too – managed just five links to local news sources yesterday, a new pilot of the service in Leeds and West Yorkshire which aims build a closer relationship with the local Press delivered more links than that in a hour.

2. Content is what matters, not the method of delivery: Because the conference sought to bring together people who worked in local media generally rather than just one type of media, it was possible to see there are probably more parallels between the challenges different types face than at other conferences. The most obvious one was the need to remember that it’s content which matters, rather the means of distribution.

Colleague Alison Gow caused a bit of a stir in the audience when she described digital as a more effective delivery method of news than the newspaper, after being asked if pushing into digital was accelerating the decline of newspapers. We print newspapers because they were once the best way to get information out to people but involves packaging up a lot of content from which the reader chooses the bits they like.  Likewise, in broadcast media, the regional evening news bulletin covering everywhere from Lancaster to Chester, Glossop to Birkenhead in the North West was a product of where telly masts were, not where people naturally want content from.

The pending deaths of both are, in my view, greatly exaggerated but if one thing was clear from the conference, it’s that the content regional journalists still produce is valued, even if the platforms are changing.

3. The user decides what local is now: Sitting in a room with some people who consider local to be an entire English region, and with people who see local as the size of a city as newspapers do and with people for whom local is just a few miles around their house in a hyperlocal way, it’s clear that the audience now has many choices about what is meant by local.

That sums up the spirit of the conference – the revival of local journalism – because there probably never has been a time before where there are so many differing outlets providing local news coverage. One stat mentioned was that most people want news within one mile of them, but will accept news up to 25 miles away. The consumer has a choice now, which is why the audience data we have access to is so important.

4. Hyperlocal sites don’t really need big media to link to them: Dave Harte, a hyperlocal expert who also runs the Bournville News hyperlocal site, added an interesting dimension to the ‘link to sources’ debate by saying that when the BBC – or other big media – did link to his site, it didn’t do much for traffic. The challenge therefore is to build a meaningful relationship between hyperlocal sites and traditional media.

5. Smartphones and social media changed everything for local media: This feels like the ultimate truism, but I’m not talking about the way people consume news. Several times it was claimed that social media and smartphones had made people more interested in local news because they were seeing and searching, hearing and finding. Jim Foulgar, head of news at Bauer Radio, says that this has led to revival of news in commercial radio, and cited several examples of his radio stations doing more than just reporting stories, but also setting the agenda too. I think we’re seeing the same on news websites too.

6. We face a huge challenge to meet expectations in the general election: Lucy West, the editor of ITV’s Granada Reports, warned that the General Election could well be dominated by the TV debates, but that the election will be won on local and regional issues. As regional journalists, our challenge is to ensure that the demand for information at a local level is well served.

7.  It’s not about your age, or your experience, but your willingness to learn: There was a lot of talk about learning new skills and the fact there’s never been a better time to become a journalist. Lucy Meacock, rightly described as a ‘legend’ by Victoria Derbyshire, made the point that she now writes for the ITV News website and edits her own packages for use online. Being part of the future of local journalism isn’t about your age, it’s about a willingness to adapt and change.

8. Reminding people that digital does pay: Does digital pay? Answer: Yes. You can talk about allocation of costs all you like, but the simple fact put forward by Local World’s Andy Phelan was that for every page view generated, money is made for the company publishing that article. The challenge is how it is sold. There is money there.

9. Social makes local media more important to Tesco: Tom Hoskins, group media relations for Tesco, said something which would be music to the ears of local journalists everywhere: local media is more important than ever to them, largely because of the impact of social media which can turn a local story into one seen everywhere very quickly. For anyone who has had the brush off from a national chain press office before because they’re just a local, that’s great news.

10. We have to solve our own business models: Shadow culture secretary Helen Goodman made a good point when she said that in a fight for funding between those who need support and a subsidy for local media, local media would lose out. Andy Phelan followed that up by saying that the best way to build for the future is to assume media needs to find its own business model which works. In that sense, talk of subsidies and sharing of TV licence fees is probably just a distraction.

11. Twitter and Facebook are friends, not foes: And Google for that matter. Several times there were suggestions that Facebook and Google were out to kill news organisations, while Joanna Geary, head of news partnerships at Twitter, was randomly asked if she would be happy to see the end of newspapers. Given 65% of people see value in a respected brand confirming and breaking news to them on social media, it’s obvious that social media and news organisations have a relationship which benefits both sides. Jasper Westaway from Bord.ers suggested that Twitter and Facebook will replace local newspapers. They might become where people turn to for news, but that’s very different to replacing trusted brands.

12. There are reasons to be cheerful: Ian Murray from the Southampton Daily Echo, in his capacity as president of the Society of Editors, provided many reasons to be cheerful for journalists. More people see our work than ever before, we’re back in the game of breaking news, people talk to us and more opportunities are coming up every day. That’s worth remembering…

13. But there are challenges: If there was one thing I was a little uncomfortable with yesterday, it was the rose-tinted view which sometimes emerged of how great things are. I’m very optimistic about the future, and believe it is a great time to be a journalist, but we can’t lost sight of how challenging life in our newsrooms can be these days. Moving from print to digital might be the obvious thing to do, but managing that migration is very challenging, and very hard work as well.

There was a rumbling of chatter on Twitter about ignoring the scale of job cuts etc – actually James Harding was very open about that from the start – and the NUJ’s Tim Dawson articulated that point very well. To me, it’s about the right balance of realism and optimism, and parking the pessimism which has dogged many parts of the regional media for a number of year.

That to me is the big message from yesterday – there are probably many more reasons to be cheerful than we think. It’s not ‘phew, we’ve made it’ territory, but it would be hard for anyone to have left yesterday’s conference without a sense of optimism. The challenge now is to make the most of the opportunities.

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4 comments

  1. Cheers for the summary. Interestingly for Blog Preston I’ve always found supermarkets one of the most engaged of organisations we deal with, they respond very quickly to requests for comment about planning applications etc. Often a lot faster than local councils/police and other organisations you’d expect would do so. As you say, I think they understand the impact “Blog Preston was unable to speak to anyone at Tesco” at the bottom of a story has – and that’s our readership trusting them less.

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