Hyperlocal, hegemony, and closure — notes from the What Next for Community Media? (#cj15) conference

Yesterday (9th September 2015) I went over to Cardiff for a one day conference called What next for community media? Whether by accident or design, the event presented its answer straight off the bat: hyperlocal media — that’s what’s next for community media. And because of the day’s format, which was mostly run in plenary and had no space for questions or debate, we had to accept that answer: hyperlocal media is the future of community media — sponsored by Nesta (as our name badges and conference packs were keen to remind us).

The conference didn’t speak to nor include some of the more established community media forms, such as the UK’s long established and statutorily regulated community radio movement or community newspapers. It’s sole focus: digital projects, most of which would have themselves identified as hyperlocal media.

This is just one example I’m seeing of how the term “hyperlocal media” is increasingly becoming synonymous with the term “community media”. This is a theme I’m unpacking in my PhD work, where I’m looking at how hyperlocal practitioners are defining, explaining and justifying what they do. (I’ve recently perfected the tweet length pitch of my thesis — here).

Does it matter that this event focussed on digital projects, on hyperlocal projects? Does it matter that it’s sponsored by Nesta, and why have I flagged that up? And where did that focus come from anyway?

Nesta, alongside Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board), has been one of the main agencies to have provided funding to hyperlocal media projects. The thrust of that funding has been, as we’d expect for the agencies involved, innovation led (where innovation has often meant developing new digital tools). So it’s not unsurprising that when Nesta partner with academics (the lovely people at the Centre for Community Journalism) to put on an event about community media that event will tend to pull towards hyperlocal media, and have a technological focus. So we ended up with an event focussed upon hyperlocal media, and in particular the ways in which to make it sustainable or profitable.

So that’s the why, I think. But does it all matter?

In one of the few sessions where we delegates were able to speak, one delegate passionately asked why nobody was talking about printed community journalism (which in fact he framed as “print hyperlocal”). To him it mattered. Other delegates chatted over coffee that community media workers, community activists they knew would have loved to have come if they could have raised the train fare (the event was free to attend, though I do need to check the privilege I have to be able to get a £100 rail ticket bought for me fairly easily). As I mentioned, very few people had the chance to speak anyway and they all presented a fairly unified front of people focussed on their own practice as media creators and on developing income generation — this wasn’t a space which talked about community outcomes. It just wasn’t that event.

We shouldn’t seek to criticise these people though for wanting to celebrate their work and for wanting to find a way for that work to pay. What we should be cautious about is that this is done under the auspices of a very specific idea, the idea of community journalism.

A conference is a hierarchical event in which authority is given to only a few people to disseminate their own ideas through structures and actions that simultaneously block the ideas of others from being heard and understood. The programming of the day, the staging and moderation of talks, and other factors contribute to a conference discourse that dictates what can be a valid truth statement (Wolf & Troxler, 2008 ). At What next for community media? anything said on stage was not only a valid truth statement, it was also an answer to that question — it was the future of community media.

In my PhD project I’m using discourse theoretical analysis to explore how hyperlocal discourse is constructed. I’m searching for moments where meanings are constructed, looking at what ideas and symbols are included or excluded from that construction and seeing how the meanings of symbols and ideas are changed through that action. Those people who seek to apply “closure” of meaning upon a discourse are hegemonic agents, and their act of closure rules what is inside and what is outside of discourse. For a moment within What next for community media?, we had a moment of closure in which hyperlocal media was able to subsume the entire symbolic language of community media, and was also able to exclude other projects — like that passionate speakers’ printed projects — from being both hyperlocal and also from being community media.

Then within the event itself, a further moment of closure was provided upon hyperlocal media with the unveiling (really a hard launch) of a new map of UK hyperlocal projects. Local Web List is a replacement for Openly Local, two surveys of hyperlocal activity with markedly different methodologies. Openly Local was a directory of hyperlocal websites that required site owners to actively register for a listing. That is to say a website owner needed to identify themselves as a hyperlocal project, and then had to list their project on the site. In this model individual site owners contributed not just to a database but to the meaning of “hyperlocal media” because they offered their work as an example of the discourse in action. Local Web List moves to a passive methodology in which curators seek out websites, decide if they are hyperlocal or not, and then include them in the database. The process started with an editing exercise on the self-registered Openly Local database and has moved onto a desk based research process in which the judgement of one or two key people rules what is inside and what is outside of discourse. Thus the possibilities for meaning begin to be closed, and new powerful gatekeepers are anointed.

Is this map important? Well to bring ourselves full circle, when our passionate printer of parish pamphlets asked “where is the hyperlocal print”, the clearest response he got was simply that much of the schedule of What next for community media? flowed from a new report called Where are we now? which itself is a response to the same author’s earlier work, Here and Now. Here and Now sourced most of its understanding of what the hyperlocal sector was from the Openly Local database. Nobody ever claimed it was perfect or complete, but that database gave researchers a sense of what the hyperlocal sector looked like, and it was messy and odd but it was what it was. The report that it produced was a milestone in formalising meaningful discussion about hyperlocal in the UK, and from that a whole project of closure has been built in which now further closure has been layered in by allowing the messiness to be taken away, replaced with order, controlled by the hegemonic agents of hyperlocal media and, perhaps, community media too.

The Contributoria Tapes: Burn your house to the ground: why you need to kill your darlings to maintain your independence.

This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.

Article background

This was the first of three* collaborative articles that I worked on for Contributoria under the pseudonym of Howard Wilkinson. And boy did we get in trouble.

Howard is a character that we invented on Paradise Circus. Howard is equal parts Alan Smithee and Grant Naylor — either a cover story for when nobody wants to own up to something, or a gestalt for when a number of us have collaborated on a piece. Jon Bounds and I had been working on an academic paper about our work on Paradise Circus and we saw the independence theme of the September issue as a perfect place to publish some of the work (whilst raising a few quid towards projects we wanted to run together). So again, this piece is sort of stealth-academia, dressed as journalism, though in this case the feature writing comes much closer to reporting on our actual research project. I’m really interested in this interface between academia and media so getting the chance to work like this twice in one month was really useful.

So how did we get in trouble? When we came to get paid, Contributoria realised that Howard was two of us and said we’d gone against the spirit of openness on the site. I think I can sort of take their point on this one. We had mentioned in the article that Howard was a group of people, but nobody had spotted it. Our bad. For a moment there there was a sense that we were going to get binned straight off but we were given a reprieve and some rules for how to conduct collaborative writing under your pseudonym in the future. I think we were the first co-authors, possibly the only ones, and so we’d caught people at Contributoria towers off guard — the nature of experimentation I guess.

For the benefit of doubt, this bit was co-authored by me and Jon Bounds and can also be found on Paradise Circus.

*sort of, two got published and the other one got binned by legal — more on that soon

Burn your house to the ground: why you need to kill your darlings to maintain your independence

I’m Howard. I’m part of a Birmingham miscellany called Paradise Circus – an ongoing love letter to a battered city. Paradise Circus writes, films, photographs, draws, makes and records things about Birmingham. I am, we are, Jon Bounds and Jon Hickman, Craig Hamilton and Danny Smith, and a number of other people who want to contribute to a conversation about what the city is, was, and could be. We weren’t always Paradise Circus and we used to be famous. We could have been contenders, but we threw it all away. You should too. And in this article, I’m going to tell you why.

Birmingham: it’s not shit

There was a website once, called Birmingham: it’s not shit. It started out as a few flash animations and a web forum, like the ones they used to have, and become a blog, which is sort of like an online diary. That was us, and that was me: Birmingham: it’s not shit. We call it B:iNS for short.

The site began in 2002 as a reaction to official discourses about Birmingham. Marketing Birmingham and Birmingham City Council, bidding to be the European Capital of Culture for 2008, wanted to sell an idea of Birmingham as a sort of preppy, trendy loft apartments and lattes kind of town. But my kind of town wasn’t and isn’t like that; Birmingham wasn’t all women laughing and eating salad in canalside bars. The local media went unquestioningly with this idea and we stepped up to push back at it. We wanted to tell a story about the other parts of Birmingham that real people cared about and could connect with.

Originally we were just Jon Bounds. Jon took his lead from sites like Popbitch and b3ta; pieces that played on a sort of Brummie race memory were layered with pop cultural references and internet memes and often took a satirical twist, knowingly subverting the traditional conventions of news writing. Jon gave B:iNS a self-deprecating personality and a tagline (‘mildly sarcastic since 2002’) which both set the tone for the work and spelled out our own take on the Birmingham mind-set.

B:iNS was a psychogeographic account of an unofficial Birmingham and it existed at the centre of a series of situationist moments through which alternative narratives could be constructed. Jon encouraged people to ride Birmingham’s famous 11 Bus route for 11 hours on the 11th day of the 11th month; B:iNS and the things in orbit around it existed to force those who engaged with it to disrupt the Spectacle of officially sanctioned daily life in Birmingham. Yes, by riding buses without going anywhere. That’s how it works.

But then something strange happened: B:iNS became successful at being successful. It became if not popular, then notorious, and if not well read, then at least celebrated. Proper grown ups, with titles like Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Creative Industries name checked it in public speeches. Lesser grown ups, like local politicians did too. Suddenly Jon Bounds, our founder, was a local media hero with his celebrity measured and weighed, assayed and registered as the 14th most powerful person in the West Midlands. As his influence didn’t extend a millimetre into Sandwell or other boroughs, he must have been even higher in the second city.

Burn your house to the ground

Strange things happen when you are co-opted to the mainstream.

People send you things, mostly press releases, not actual things, sadly. Your project becomes a channel, your community an audience, your work a target for indiscriminate marketing messages. There is a system, a well oiled machine, that exists to poorly match products to publics and to push messages indiscriminately through media outlets. Once you are in this machine you cannot get out of it. It becomes exhausting. We were drowning in stories, of offers to write us highly targeted blog posts (about jacuzzis, about travel, about anything) that would surely help boost our SEO rankings. We’d each of us sit down, at the end of a day, after doing our day jobs, to work at this project and we’d be hit by the firehose of PR opportunities. When you’re drowning in this stuff you can’t see your purpose anymore. It’s easier to close the computer then it is to work through the mail and get on with the project.

People invite you to things too. Silly PR things, but important things too in civic buildings with wine and with nibbles. What can you do when you’ve become so co-opted into the official city that you are ranked in terms of power and you’re invited to the sort of events to which you are supposed to provide a critical foil?

The Situationists have a term for this: recuperation. Recuperation is the process by which radical work is neutralised and becomes incorporated into the mainstream, bourgeois world. We’re going to look at this through their prism of their (Debord’s) Spectacle, because we (the Jon B weat the time) considered B:iNS to be a work after their theories.

B:iNS got lumped in with hyperlocal media which is a sort of clearing house for recuperated alternative media: all that difficult stuff about communities and about local democracy and accountability that community media groups have struggled with for years neatly repackaged and then reframed in terms of commercial viability, sustainability, and technology.

So we were exhausted by the spectacle, forced to conform to it, and then represented to ourselves as one of its objects.

We weren’t the only ones. Dorothy Kidd, one of those clever media theorists they have these days, gives a really clear account of this recuperation happening amongst community media groups in California. Kidd suggests that, more than just relocating alternativeness within something mainstream, the mainstream is recuperating alternatives through actually appropriating their language. BiNS got swamped, patronised with faint praise and made to reflect the mainstream. Some alternative media are sold false ideas of legitimacy: encouraged to chase grants and revenue streams which don’t have any longevity, these then have to bend their ideas to the funding. Some are swamped by the promotion of their activity to different interest groups which are not motivated to continue: Journalism students create tens of hyperlocals: all shortlived. ‘Civic good promoters’ create sites supposedly staffed by and sold as outlets to neighbourhood managers, these then disappear in local government reorganisation and cuts. In short, everything is nudged by the Stituationist’s Spectacle: memes are bred in the environment that soon infects and kills alternative voices.

We, perhaps uniquely, noticed it happening to us. So we got real. We got tough. It was time to kill our darling, it was time to burn down our own fucking house.

Burn your house to the ground

And that’s just what we did. We took the only damn thing we’d done that was good in this world and we threw it away. B:iNS was destroyed through an elaborate online performance only to be reborn as Paradise Circus – our ‘ongoing love letter to a battered city’ which seeks to challenge both the official and mainstream media record of Birmingham and the neutered and diminished nature of the city’s alternative public sphere.

Only through removing B:iNS altogether were we able to create a space for ourselves to work. We removed the noise, we uninvited ourselves from the official parties and we drew a line in the sand.

At the heart of it all is the Manifesto, a clear set of guiding principals that keep us true and tell the world who we are. The Manifesto says what goes in the work, and provides a framework for rejecting things that are of no use to the project. And being deliciously rude to those for would attempt to recuperate us.

If you are an independent media producer we urge you to always be clear about your project, to resist recuperation and never be afraid to set fire to the damn thing and just see what happens.

Paradise Circus – A Manifesto A Global City with a Local Miscellany

  1. Birmingham is not shit.
  2. That’s not to say everything that happens in it is not shit.
  3. Each has to decide what bits are and aren’t shit for themselves. We decide here, this is Paradise Circus.
  4. Birmingham is not shit but that doesn’t mean we have to churn your press release.
  5. Birmingham is not shit but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t send the press release about your band or your art happening to all the other really good blogs that might like it, like Created in Birmingham (which is not shit, a lot of the time). Just don’t send it here.
  6. Birmingham is not shit, is not shit. It’s also not a news source, hyperlocal blog or anything of that sort. It’s now Paradise Circus.
  7. We write, film, photograph, make and record things about Birmingham. That is all.
  8. You have the right to respond, we have the right to ignore you.
  9. We wish you nothing but love (if you’re not shit).