The definition of the ‘Big Society’ is still open to interpretation and every day there are some examples being highlight of what people believe it stands for. Usually, these have revolved around local initiatives that still have some central government support and are about putting responsibility back into the hands of communities. In all this fever and excitement you could ask where does that leave the local media that is currently struggling to survive. Is the future one where the citizen journalist is in local control or is it a future with social media taking the lead?
New research this week by Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre that was commissioned by the Media Trust has an interesting recommendation for the future of the media. http://www.mediatrust.org/localnews . The report claims that ‘many of our communities feel disempowered, unheard and irrelevant’ and ‘want journalists, local news and local newspapers back at the heart of their communities’. It also claims that despite the rise of citizen journalism there is still a gap left in communities where local newspapers and media have dwindled.
The solution is local news hubs. These hubs are seen to be the way communities could be brought together with professional journalists and volunteers. The outcome would be an accessible source of news for local and regional media and a way to drive online community ventures. And they could be run as commercial or not-for-profit social enterprises. I may be old-fashioned but this appears to be saying there should be ‘news agencies’ run in communities on a voluntary or non-profit making way. If these were created then what happens to those professionals currently making a living through the capture and distribution of news?
The report takes it one stage further and says these hubs could become the new ‘community organisers’ that the Con/Dem Government has outlined under the Big Society. It states: “Galvanise communities around their media, and you create an energy and strength of voice that can move mountains”. But when does moving from news gathering to news making become acceptable? The one thing that British journalism has always prized at its heart is the power of observing and reporting and being objective. Taking the approach of ‘hubs’ putting pressure on about issues or holding ‘powers’ or public sector agencies to account moves them from being points of journalistic news gathering to lobbying or campaigning.
Media hubs show what elements of communication the current Government values. It is about ‘free and easy access to information’ and the ability to challenge and debate it. This is why the Police Reform paper has only one element of communication included that is completely focused on providing more crime statistics for the public. Helping people to make sense of the information that is available is not going to be easy. It will be like giving people access to the books of some major companies and expect them to be able to understand what their financial situation is. If this Government view continues then agencies and public sector bodies are going to have to be able to provide non-judgemental guidance and use communication to explain information such as crime figures.
The hubs may be seen as the way to provide newsgathering and meeting places, but it could be argued that this is already being developed on the Internet. More and more hyperlocal sites are being developed that offer those very things. So perhaps the future for local news is about developing the online opportunities that the local sites provide, both in terms of information and news sharing and in providing a way to meet and share with others from the same community. We already have some good examples to follow including Will Perrin’s work on Talk About Local http://talkaboutlocal.org.uk/ and sites such as Saddleworth News http://www.saddleworthnews.com/.
And the final question that remains – whose agenda will these news ‘hubs’ be working to. Unless they are totally inclusive of all sectors and elements of each community then it will inevitably be unbalanced. A worrying thought for a country that has had a pride in its journalistic standards.