Millions of people voted in the UK’s local and national elections in May, but who can say how well informed they were about local issues? Some 45% of London voters turned out for the mayoral elections, 55.6% voted in the Scottish Parliament election and 45% at the Welsh Assembly elections, but it is near impossible to ascertain what they knew about their nominee’s policies.
The UK’s local news landscape has been decimated due to mergers, cuts and closures. This has amounted to a steady and widespread withdrawal of professional journalism from our cities, towns and villages – and a resulting drop in information. But all is not lost just yet: at the same time a new generation of “hyperlocal” or community news outlets have emerged.
Often run by volunteers or a small team of professional journalists, these local news websites, papers and magazines are dedicated to the communities in which they are based. The hyperlocal sector is financially precarious, however – a survey I conducted which was published in 2014 indicated that only a third of community news publishers make any money and those who do are usually making modest amounts. Funded by a mixture of donations, advertising, membership fees, crowdfunding and grants – to survive, this new media sector relies heavily on the dedication of its readers to survive. In order to continue, the hyperlocal outlets need support from their communities from the get-go, drawing local people – and businesses – in not only as consumers but as funders and champions of the cause.
Community journalists have a close connection with the areas they cover, routinely reporting on local events and being more likely to quote ordinary people than established newspaper publishers. Many also cover local politics very closely, often reporting on council meetings and supplying electoral information at a grassroots level.
The strong relationships that local outlets build with communities often make for very engaged audiences. The producers of Welsh town website Wrexham.com, for example, recently wrote about differences between their output and that of the established online news outlet in the area, the Trinity Mirror-owned Wrexham Leader newspaper and accompanying website Leader Live. Wrexham.com, which is run by only two full-time journalists, publishes considerably less news than Leader Live – but, by some measures, it claims that its audience engagement far outstrips the paper.
Traditional local publishers continue to retreat from communities, moving from town centres to regional hubs and closing local offices which used to provide a valuable point of contact with readers. By contrast, hyperlocal journalists typically live and work in the communities they serve and many are committed to engaging with audiences in real life, as well as digital contexts.