The West Leeds Dispatch was one of a group of local news websites which recently attended a national conference at Cardiff University, writes John Baron.
The event discussed plans for a representative body for hyperlocal/community news operations like us. For those who don’t know, The Dispatch is run voluntarily – we currently don’t take advertising or make a profit – and covers a specific area of Leeds, hence the term ‘hyperlocal’.
The event was run by the Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ), which aims to support the development of the community news sector in the UK.
You can read a detailed account of the meeting here, but in summary, the meeting asked if hyperlocal news operations would want a representative body and if so, what would it do?
Very broadly speaking, The Dispatch has been in favour of establishing such a body. It seems a good idea on paper and a potentially important mechanism for supporting our work – but would it translate into something that would work in the real-world?
— John Baron (@johncbaron) July 26, 2016
The meeting established that a representative body could apply for things like Big Lottery funding to support the sector, running events and lobbying (ie with the BBC and – possibly – on issues like council spending on statutory notices). There was also vague talk about securing funding to facilitate an independent advertising agency to sell adverts onto publications like The Dispatch.
It was also clear that a representative body would need to have people who run local news operations at its head, with C4CJ offering support.
There was also much discussion around how a representative body – which would be free and UK-wide – could operate. For instance, should there be two tiers to take into account amateur ‘hyperlocals’ and those with commercial interests? Should there be bodies for each of those?
What would the entry criteria be (if any?). These are issues which questioned the very identity of the hyperlcoal sector and there are no easy answers.
C4CJ will now attempt to put together a scoping document which encompasses the thoughts of the day and broadly sets out where we’re headed with the initiative. The document will be consulted upon further.
17 people attended on the day, including community news publishers, academics and representatives from organisations such as the BBC and IMPRESS, the independent press regulator – however more watched live through Periscope and shared insights through #C4CJconsultation on Twitter.
We also heard about how the BBC plans to share content with other news providers – a move which could mean websites such as The Dispatch being able to share video and audio material produced by the BBC. The BBC also has plans to fund 150 local reporters attached to local news organisations who will report solely on local councils.
I mentioned above how I broadly supported the idea on paper. But it’s always been clear that the hyperlocal/community news sector has many different elements to it with different objectives and aims. Reconciling those under one banner is not going to be an easy job.
I do believe any representative body should be fully inclusive and not elitist or overly selective in its membership, as suggested by some. One body – made up of local news providers – should cater for diverse all and act as a catalyst for helping to support, represent and develop existing sites.
It should also encourage people to set up community news operations as mainstream media operations withdraw from communities. There’s no reason why it can’t be achieved under one banner with a basic entry criteria (another bone of contention seemingly influenced by the emergence of press regulator Impress on the hyperlocal scene).
Adding tiers to the sector seems unnecesary and divisive, which isn’t a good foundation on which to start a representative body. Two different bodies would just burn themselves out.
At what point does hyperlocal/community media end and independent commercial news start ups begin?
There’s a long way to go on this, but whatever happens, these are interesting times for sites like West Leeds Dispatch and it’s good to see some momentum supporting hyperlocal. We’ll continue to watch developments and be part of the conversation – there’s even talk of the next consultation taking place in Leeds, so watch this space!
What do YOU think? We’d be interested in hearing the thoughts of our readers on this issue. Have your say in the comments below.