What “professional” journalists can bring to hyperlocal

Tweetdeck on my laptop last weekend was dominated by Tweets coming out of the Talk About Local 09 unconference taking place in Stoke. So many great hyperlocal sites, each doing things differently to best serve their community.

Then, over the week, it’s been interesting to see the debate continue – largely on Roy Greenslade’s update (essentially a state of the nation update on the hyperlocal scene), particularly around the issues over what “professional” – ie paid – journalists – can bring to hyperlocal.

It was interesting to see Greenslade’s suggestion of “professional journalists” helping hyperlocal sites being interpreted as “belittling” hyperlocal journalism by Will Perrin, the founder of Talk About Local. There are journalists who seek to belittle hyperlocal journalism, largely out of ignorance or a fear that these “free” sites will take their jobs.  But they are in a shrinking minority.

But there are things, I believe, hyperlocal site operators can learn from established journalism.

Dan Slee, a local government press officer from Stoke, hit the nail on his head in his post about what bloggers and local government press officers can do to improve the relationship between the two.

His fifth, and final point, for bloggers is:

Buy a copy of McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists. The best, most readable book on media law there is. If you are even halfway serious about blogging on issues that could be controversial buy it and put it next to your computer.  It tells you what’s legal and what is not.  It. Will. Save. Your. Life.

That’s also the first thing any trainee journalist is told to do, be it at university or once into the newsroom. It can be hard going, but it is a classic example of how the principles of journalism transcend the delivery method.

One of the hyperlocal sites I have had a fair amount of dealings with over the past months is The Lichfield Blog, which demonstrates brilliantly the ability to cover more if there is a “professional” journalistic influence involved.

Ross Hawkes, a journalist who now works as a lecturer, used to work with me (for a short time) at the Birmingham Post and Mail, runs The Lichfield Blog with Philip John. Ross’s knowledge of things such as the law, has, in my opinion, enabled the site to cover a wider range of stories than perhaps they otherwise would have been able to. Why? Because  a knowledge of the legal issues surrounding court and libel, for example, should breed confidence when covering issues. Other hyperlocal bloggers I have spoken to say they would like to be able to cover such issues, but aren’t sure of where they stand legally.

Knowledge of journalistic “rights” such as access to information is something else “professional” journalists can bring to the party.

For what it’s worth, I believe everyone benefits from a scenario which sees hyperlocal sites and established, or traditional, media working together. Simply assuming that newspaper journalists will seek to rip off content from hyperlocal sites and pass it off as their own is as incorrect as newspaper journalists assuming hyperlocal bloggers are all members of the old green ink brigade. Both assumptions come from widely-quoted bad early examples and aren’t reflective of the majority now.

But it’s a new relationship and one I think needs to grow organically on a case-by-case basis. What suits one blogger and newspaper may be entirely different to the sort of relationship needed at operations in the next county.

A hyperlocal site operator (I’m not intentionally avoiding the word journalist here – but I do know some hyperlocal bloggers who prefer not to be called journalists) will probably know their local area, and its interests, much better than a full-time journalist, whose patch or circulation will be much, much bigger.

At the same time, journalists who are trained and experienced in news gathering are in a position to offer support and advice, if needed, on how to get information and access to things. Is there any reason why a hyperlocal site, which didn’t have the time and resources to investigate a certain issue, couldn’t team up with the local newspaper, and then they collaborate together to help bring an issue to light?

If a hyperlocal site hits a brick wall with the local council, could the local newspaper journalist work with that hyperlocal site to get that information? Wouldn’t that be a great way of signalling to those councils which don’t recognise hyperlocal sites as “media” that they are not going away?

Yes, there are cases of newspapers or media organisations simply lifting information from a blog and not crediting the source (Brownhills Bob, a hyperlocal site in Brownhills, Staffordshire, explains the impact this has here). I’ve dealt with aggrieved bloggers who have felt their content was “lifted” – and in busy, stretched newsrooms, the only way we can seek to make sure it doesn’t happen again is to know that it’s happened in the first place.

No-one knows how the media landscape is going to evolve at a local level in the future, so surely it makes sense for us all to work together in the meantime for the good of readers and the communities we serve, regardless of how big or small they are?

3 thoughts on “What “professional” journalists can bring to hyperlocal

  1. Interested to see your new blog David – great stuff and it looks like I’ll have to update my blogroll!

    I went along to the Talk About Local unconference and it was a very insipring day (much credit due to Will Perrin and his team). The debates were very constructive and really got to the heart of the matter of who is considered a ‘proper’ journalist. Hopeful the NALG will draw up some more realistic guidelines for councils shortly and bringing pressure and/or advice in that area is just one way that us professional journalists could help here.
    If you’re interested in this issue, you may also find my blog posts on this subject useful;http://sarahhartley.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/journalists-bloggers-citizens-who-are-these-people/

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