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.