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City University London Academics Criticise Government’s Local Media Strategy

Academics have called into question the Government’s commercial, TV-focussed local media strategy, saying that it fails to take into account the qualities of successful hyperlocal media outlets.
by Hollie Jenkins

The UK Government's 'Local Media Action Plan' proposes helping existing local media providers by removing local cross-media ownership rules to encourage economies of scale. Speaking at the 'Future of Journalism Conference' in Cardiff, Senior Lecturer Neil Thurman and Professor Paul Bradshaw, both from City University London, said that their research showed large media companies offering localised news content are not always successful in generating community engagement.

Thurman and Bradshaw, with co-author Jean-Christophe Pascal, looked at the hyper local (extremely local content) publishing efforts of one of the UK's major regional publishers, Northcliffe Media, owned by Daily Mail & General Trust. They found that their 'Local People' network of websites suffered from some important flaws and were well behind independent equivalents in terms of engagement with users.

In particular:

  • The four 'Local People' sites they studied fell a long way short of meeting Northcliffe's target of getting 75% of the local online population using their sites. An average of just 8% registered on the site
  • Although Northcliffe intended the network to be 'for local people, by local people' about three-quarters of the stories were actually written by the community publisher employed on each site.
  • Comments on stories and follow-ups to discussion posts were also infrequent, with a large majority not generating a single comment or reply.
  • Only a small number of stories or discussions concerned local politics, for example just 7% on 'Dorchester People'. In contrast 'Entertainment' and 'Sport' accounted for 53% of all stories.
  • Practical information on topics such as 'Amenities', 'Social Services', and 'Security and Safety' were popular but not well-catered for by the sites' structure.
  • The sites had failed in their initial aim to be "local version of Facebook". The researchers found the average registered user had less than one 'Friend', with over 90% of registered users having no 'Friends' at all.

With the Coalition's 'Big Society' initiative promoting "corporate and civic responsibility" over "state control", the authors agree with the Government that newly empowered town halls and citizens will need to be held "to account" by a "thriving and sustainable" local media sector.

They disagree, however, that a TV-focussed, commercial strategy is the way forward.

Thurman said: "Successful hyper local media is often issue-focused, dynamic, personal, informal and low-tech. These are qualities the web does far better than TV. What's more, we found that the established commercial local media provider we studied wasn't enabling community participation or meeting audience interests as well as many independent hyperlocal bloggers have done."

Professor Bradshaw added: "Lower advertising prices online and an increasing demand from advertisers for metrics of engagement mean that the commercial model for hyperlocal news is unproven. A successful commercial model is as likely to come from the independent sector as from traditional publishers or broadcasters".

Their full report: "Can Big Media do 'Big Society'? A critical case study of commercial, convergent hyperlocal news" is available on the City University London website at: http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/135/

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.