How do we ensure that our ideas of local and community media are relevant to the times we live in? That was one of the questions that we discussed at yesterday’s inaugural workshop of the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) Local and Community Media Network, which took place at Canterbury Christchurch University. The workshop was organised by Dr Rachel Matthews, from the University of Coventry, Dr David Baines from Newcastle University, and Professor Agnes Gulyas from Canterbury Christchurch University, who have been researching the role of local news and citizens journalism as a changing activity in local communities.
The workshop had the aim of bringing together academics and researchers from across the country, to discuss and try to understand what the implications are of the changes we are all facing in government regulation, in media technology systems, in social practices and social relationships, in the economy, in the role of the third sector, and so on. Each of these factors shapes and organises our experience of news and local media, and gives shape to how we think about, understand and manage our civic conversations.
To start the day Rachel explained how she had been introduced to journalism and news reporting as an apprentice reporter, and how she became a paid professional working in the news industry. Drawing on this experience, Rachel explained that she is now interested in thinking about how, and in what way, positive social change can be fostered in the development of news and local media services that is able to support local communities, and how they can be helped to understand the ongoing value of news and civic discussion.
Rachel outlined some of the factors that might be considered by the new network, and how any discussion about these topics and practices should be informed by interdisciplinary thinking and research that crosses many boundaries, such as news and journalism, community media, participation-focused digital technology and patterns and practices of civic engagement and development.
The aim of the network is to establish a forum for the discussion of research issues related to the potential economic models that might give independent and community reporting a sustainable and resilient future. The question was posed, though, as to how and from whom this future will be defined? Will reporters and community media producers be left to themselves, or will they be able to learn the essential values and practices of news reporting and journalism, so that they can operate in ways that are responsible and sustainable, and work to an idea of the common good?
As a historian of local news reporting, Rachel argued that it is essential that we learn from the past changes and shifts in news delivery, and that we develop a conceptual framework that can account for changes that have been dealt with in the news industry in previous social and technological upheaval periods. In looking back we can find clues that will give us an idea of how we might plan for the changes that are coming in the future, such as blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, data warehousing and more widespread and pervasive access to the internet with the internet of things.
In the following discussion we considered the way that the media landscape is becoming increasingly distorted, and how the business models that were once used to sustain local media and news provision, are increasingly unsettled. The influence of Facebook and Google looms large here, meaning that small-scale and local providers of news services are find it increasingly difficult to commit themselves to sustained investment in local news, and even more difficult to make money without resorting to monopolistic and conglomerative models of business organisation.
The challenge, it was proposed, is to reconnect the idea of news with a strong sense of civic purpose. This might mean that we might have to slay some holy cows in the process, Rachel suggested, as we move to discuss and think about alternative models of media sustainability.
Dave Harte, from Birmingham City University, shared his thoughts on the models of hyperlocal journalism that he has extensively researched, and the need for a re-evaluation of the relationship between the ‘local’ and what is recognised as being for the ‘public good.’ Dave suggested that there is a different way to understand the status of media, which is designed for civic benefit, which is based on the idea of what is of ‘public merit’. This is a way of justifying news and information content that might not be popular, but which is otherwise essential to the smooth running of our local communities.
The question that flows from this, moreover, is who gets to define what these local news priorities and definitions might be, and how they are applied? Likewise, how can we support greater levels of intentional participation from all contributors to our community life, not just those who have been trained well, or who have the deepest pockets and the greatest ease in accessing resources?
The challenge of news distribution in the digital age isn’t just one of distribution, but is also one of changing production practices, as has been well documented since the introduction of the electronic newsroom. The problem is that as advertising shrinks in economic importance, then news organisations feel that they have to streamline and slim-down their newsrooms. This then becomes a vicious cycle as less original and local news means that readers stop engaging with a news service because they can find similar content from other platforms. One study has shown that many news organisations are pulling away from promoting their content on Facebook, as there is little return or benefit, as Facebook and other tech conglomerates hoover-up almost all of the advertising revenue that used to go to classified adverts.
I spoke about the need to consider community media as a developmental process that might be better thought as a civic and community development project, rather than as a media or communications system. We often seek to measure the effectiveness of our media by categorised outputs which look for clear boundaries between the local and the global, for example; or the clicks and likes that are shared as people see stories in their news feeds. But this doesn’t account for the quality of their engagement, I suggested, or give a sense of what anyone is getting out of the media that they are engaging with. If we think of media as a process of community development that is potentially inclusive and participative, then the challenge is to work out what people find meaningful and engaging in structuring and supporting their community lives, rather than simply acting as a passive audience or as a consumer bloc.
Clare Cook of the University of Central Lancashire, took this to the next level when you addressed the issue of what makes independently produced media sustainable, and how we can harness the potential to trace value in the work that reporters and journalists produce using things like blockchain technology as a way of demonstrating ‘proof of work’ and ‘proof of ownership’. Clare is working on a number of projects that ask how we can trail these technologies and thereby create resilient revenue streams that interact between content that is produced in a specific place and by specific people.
Clare showed an example of the use of mesh-networks, which are super-concentrated around access to Bluetooth nodes that are used to share site-specific stories and content. For example, in a school, in a bus station, or a museum. These mesh networks can be used to provide content that is specifically focussed on that place and the people who are occupying it. It doesn’t require an internet connection and is only available within the small – very hyperlocal – location.
Following our discussions and conversations we spent some time identifying the gaps in research and policy development that the network might be able to address. We agreed that working with other networks and academic disciplines would be essential if we were to identify what a working definition, or definitions, might be of localness, community, news and media practices. Each academic discipline usually comes at these things using a different rule-of-thumb to provide a starting-point for discussion, so it would make sense to map out these differences and ask in what way these different definitions may be able to help us to achieve a set of definitional terms of our own. A dialogue between academic and research practitioners in non-media disciplines will therefore be essential.
A further challenge considered in the discussion was how to identify what it is that sustains a sense of community, and how a sense of engagement and belonging is fostered through the use of media – both as an audience and as a participant. This will mean challenging some of the ways that we think about and measure social engagement and interaction. Thinking about how we can apply a different set of models of evaluation that don’t wholly rely on matrix and measurement type (i.e. quantitative) forms of evaluation will be important, because in many situations the shift and change in understanding is gradual and cannot be understood simply by looking at behaviours and the outputs of different media systems.
We also considered that the role that class, identity and diversity will be essential in this appraisal. As a measurable outcome of the changes that will come along in our media industries, one priority is that they must be more representative of the diverse and wide-ranging array of voices that make up our communities. If the politics of the local are to be re-appraised, then it will have to examine what feeds into our world-view and civic discourse about how representative our media is, and what we can do to make it more representative and democratic.
This means addressing major policy issues and presenting evidence through a process of public advocacy that supports media and community capacity building. In this way the process matters as much as the outcomes. To do this the network aims to be platform and technology agnostic and will seek to draw-in the social sector as a collaborative partner in the development of the local and community media agenda of the future.
The discussion was multi-layered and showed how interconnected these issues are with other challenges and changes that are happening in society. Fostering conversations about how we understand these changes is a good start. The next stage is to present evidence and test those ideas in a way that benefits the wider community of independent and community news and media producers.