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.

Space is hard

I’ve been writing up the methodology section of my PhD, and in what is becoming a recurring theme in writing things up it’s caused me to go back over some things I read ages ago and get a fresh perspective on them.

Today that fresh perspective is about what everybody else has been doing in hyperlocal research, and where what I’ve been doing is different.

One of the things I’ve done differently in my work is embed myself for a while in organisations, which puts me inside the space and time reference of hyperlocal media workers and their practice. Most of my contemporaries are working the other way around: bringing the hyperlocal media people into their own timelines. And it turns out that what I did was hard, but valuable.

What am I talking about? OK, so a lot of hyperlocal media research is desk based. Some work has counted things — websites, articles, comments, that sort of thing — and that’s cool, because we can find out a lot by counting things. The most important thing about counting stuff is we can see how much of it there is and if there’s a lot (there is quite a bit of hyperlocal stuff as it goes) then people are happy for us to go find out more stuff.

Some researchers have found out some of the extra stuff by doing questionnaires and surveys, and that’s desk based too. All the desk based stuff is hard graft (there’s lots of data to get, then sort, and code) but it’s work that researchers can easily control.

In some projects the researchers wanted to get some richer data and they spoke to practitioners — normally using semi-structured interviews. Those interviews belong to a world that the researcher can control, too. Sure there’s a little bit of compromise in finding time that suits researcher and interviewee, but fundamentally this takes the subject out of their world and drops them into research-land.

So what have I done again? Well as I say, I went into the organisations and I made things and I observed and did some interviews prompted by the things happening around us that day (very loosely semi-structured as I had certain beats I wanted to hit).

And it turns out that space is hard — finding the space for this sort of research into hyperlocal is hard.

Because the thing is that hyperlocal media work isn’t very neat. Now truthfully no media work is. We’d be naive to think that a local newspaper journalist works a 9-5 day but there are core office hours and there’s an office so we could do participant observation of a newsroom quite easily. Hyperlocal though is rarely that neat. While there are some operations that have core hours and proper offices, a lot of the work isn’t like that at all.

So how do you deal with getting into the space and time frame of work that happens when it can, that happens on odd days, or in the gaps between things, or that happens at ten o’clock at night sat up in bed?

You can’t that easily. You definitely aren’t getting into that bed. But you can find some of the gaps and be there for them and that is really interesting.

Who are the hyperlocal producers?

I’ve previously touched on some of the different profiles of people who make hyperlocal media in a post I wrote a long time ago. I’ve since been off doing other things that have brought me full circle back to the question of who is making hyperlocal media.

In my PhD project my theoretical framework is strongly influenced by the discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe. I won’t expand too much on that here, but it might help you to situate that if I told you that it pushes my work deep into post-structuralism and post-Marxism. That leads me to begin thinking about identity and the formation of group identities in particular ways. A useful summary is provided by Marianne Jørgensen and Louise Phillips (2002):

“The understanding of identity in Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory can be summarised as follows:

  • The subject is fundamentally split, it never quite becomes ‘itself’.
  • It acquires its identity by being represented discursively.
  • Identity is thus identification with a subject position in a discursive structure.
  • Identity is discursively constituted through chains of equivalence where signs are sorted and linked together in chains in opposition to other chains which thus define how the subject is, and how it is not.
  • Identity is always relationally organised; the subject is something because it is contrasted with something that it is not.
  • Identity is changeable just as discourses are.
  • The subject is fragmented or decentred; it has different identities according to those discourses of which it forms part.
  • The subject is overdetermined; in principle, it always has the possibility to identify differently in specific situations. Therefore, a given identity is contingent – that is, possible but not necessary.”

Or, to summarise that: a subject never has a fixed identity, rather it can take on a number of subject positions in relation to the discursive structures in which it operates — and those subject positions are not fixed either, because they relate to discourses which are themselves constantly negotiated.

So, a refinement of my previous way of thinking through this is to locate various discourses and various subject positions within them. It then becomes interesting to map how various subjects negotiate the terrain, which subject positions they might take and when — and also how aware subjects are of the turns that they make. So, for example, in the focus group which I reported on at MeCCSA 2013 one participant commented:

“I refer to what we do as community media but if NESTA are talking about giving us money I’ll happily describe us as hyperlocal.”

And this shows a purposeful and conscious reframing of activity in terms of different discourses, taking on different subject positions of ‘community media producer’ and ‘hyperlocal media producer’ because he recognises that there is an antagonism at play that relates to funding for his work. In truth the work has probably changed very little, but the language is adapted to describe it in the hope of deriving positive (funding) outcomes.

I’ve been looking through a number of hyperlocal websites over the past few days trying to select some more case studies for my work. I’ve got some particular criteria I’m looking for that relate to the professional backgrounds of the producers, but the way in which subject positions are articulated within hyperlocal discourse actually makes this rather difficult. For example, one website bills itself as being “brought to you by local residents of [town], [name 1] and [name 2]” and also carries the line “developed and maintained by [company] a [town] business”. The web design company and the local residents are clearly the same people*, but they have taken two subject positions. These subject positions share their relationship to [town], but are differentiated: residents and business. It is important to be associated with place as this is a key moment of hyperlocal discourse: the hyperlocale, the place being represented. What does it mean to be “resident”? This positions the hyperlocal media producers away from professional discourses of media and communication, and connects with ideas of community media or citizen journalism. The local business subject position allows them to market their business within the local frame.

An alternative story, “the website is owned and run by local communications professionals whom you can hire”, is more direct but changes how the production of the hyperlocal content is understood. It is not more truthful, both are equally true, because [name 1] and [name 2] do genuinely hold both subject positions, they are both local residents and local business owners.

So who are the hyperlocal producers? They might be citizens, residents, journalists, business owners, and they might be any or all of these things, and many more, at different times as they operate as subjects of different discourses and as the discourse of hyperlocal is articulated around them. To take this out of all that theory stuff for a second, and to provide a handy tl;dr: hyperlocal media is many things, to many people, and those people are trying to accomplish a range of things (sometimes at the same time) — to give them the best chance of succeeding we need to understand what they are trying to do because the least useful label we have is probably ‘hyperlocal media producer’.


Jørgensen, M. & Phillips, L. J. (2002) Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method. London: SAGE.

* I have decided not to name either the website, the business or the individuals here. My intention isn’t to draw criticism to the website, the business or the individuals (my intention is to use this to illustrate the negotiation of subject positions) but I can’t guarantee that my intention wouldn’t be misunderstood. The link between the individuals and the business can be discerned because both are linked to the same address which is a residential property.

Statutory Notices for the 21st Century

When, in the opening pages of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the people of Earth protest about the planned demolition of their planet, Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz replies:

There’s no point in acting surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now. … What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that’s your own lookout. Energize the demolition beams.

Continue reading Statutory Notices for the 21st Century

How big is a hyperlocal patch? My final word on the size of a hyperlocale

Over the summer I wrote some pieces regarding the scale at which hyperlocal media production might operate. It involved talking about postcodes, more postcodes and US cable TV and its broadcast footprints. Beyond that, I’ve been reading articles that claim all manner of sizes and shapes for hyperlocal media – up to and including whole US states – and I’ve distilled it all down to this, the cut and keep “how big is a hyperlocal patch?” definition:

Hyperlocal media can be plotted within a macro-organisational scale that describes media-space relations. It sits beneath local media in this scale and is bound to an area (which I call a hyperlocale) that ranges downwards from a UK postcode district. This gives an upper population for a hyperlocale of 22,500 people, though realistically many hyperlocales serve much smaller populations. There is a strand of the literature on hyperlocal media that is concerned with the manner in which many hyperlocales can be represented together within an aggregated service that covers a locality, region, and nation (or a US state). Such services can be described as hyperlocal media, but researchers should be aware of the distinction between the hyperlocale and the overall hyperlocal media service.

Of course, the size of a hyperlocale is one thing, but it’s nowhere near defining what hyperlocal media is.

From the Interactive Cultures Blog – Hyperlocal media: discourses and repertoires

I posted a brief report on the IC blog about my talk today to the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research. This was a dry run based on the first draft of a paper I’m giving to the MeCCSA conference in January – all of it drawing on my PhD work.

See the full post: http://interactivecultures.org/2012/10/hyperlocal-media-discourses-and-repertoires/

Postscript: This post was my first use of IFTTT to cross post from the work blog to here. You can now ask IFTTT to create draft posts in WordPress, so I’ve got a recipe that generate a draft post for me every time I write on that blog. It replicates the entire post as a draft and provides a back link. I’ve written this post from scratch so it’s more of a way of forcing this cross post into my document queue. I’m going to be doing this to make theplan an aggregation of all the different things I’m writing. That’s the idea, anyway.

The ever present problem of hyperlocale and scale

I’m trying to close of a section of my literature review today, which led to me chasing up an old lead that purports to be the origin of the term ‘hyperlocal’ (or hyper-local as was). The reference leads to a business article in the Washington Post from 1991, which outlines a new cable TV news channel:

To give the channel what Hillis calls a “hyper-local” slant, Allnewsco will supplement its regular programming with three shorter news reports each day tailored specifically for viewers in suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District. (Farhi, 1991: p. F25)

How much does this moment of coining offer to our understanding of hyperlocal web publishing? Very little.

I tend to take the central unit of hyperlocal activity as the placeblog (which may be independent or which may operate as part of a formal network of distribution, ownership and control), and placeblogs typically represent something in the order of a UK postcode district. Compare this with hyper-local as described in Farhi’s article: Allnewsco planned to offer three news feeds for three hyper-local patches within their total coverage area. Those areas – ‘suburban Maryland’, ‘Northern Virginia”, and ‘The Distrct’ – are probably meaningful terms to those who live in Washington, but mean little to me. But they sound pretty big, and much bigger than I’d accept as being hyperlocal in the sense we mean it now.

Digging a little deeper, I can see that the population of ‘The District’ (Washington DC) is said to be 617,000, whilst ‘Northern Virginia’ is a non-formal geographical description for part of the State of Virginia that can be said to account for 2,623,079 people. ‘Suburban Maryland’ (also not a formal conurbation) is quite hard to define (I even asked a Baltimorean who said she was unfamiliar with the phrase) – for now let’s take the state population less the population of the larger cities – that gets us to 4,802,293.

This is all very hard to pin down properly*. Lucky for me my Baltimorean just messaged me something that helps clarify this further: the area referred to in Farhi’s article as the ‘Washington area’ probably refers to ‘the Washington DC metropolitan area’, and there is a handy guide for researchers to define that area here which gives me a clear breakdown of those three hyperlocales:

Jurisdiction Population
District of Columbia 585,459
Northern Virginia 2,042,792
Suburban Maryland 2,030,492

This table draw on 2006 census data for districts within the three hyperlocales chosen by Allnewsco for their project – I suspect slightly higher than they were in 1991, certainly different, so bear that in mind as I draw this to a close.

So let’s now put this into the context of UK media, and current thinking about hyperlocal media. The population of Birmingham is estimated at just over 1,000,000 and we get the same estimate for the Black Country, making a combined population of around 2 million – or equivalent to just one of Allnewsco’s hyperlocales. To come at the figures another way, we might expect a placeblog to have a reach pushing at the maximum end to a postcode district which is a reach of 22,500. The areas of local focus we deal with in contemporary conversations about hyperlocal are about 1% the size of Allnewsco’s ‘original’ hyperlocal – they’re just quite simply different things.

Does this matter much? Yes and no. It illustrates some of the caution we need to take when comparing US examples of hyperlocal activity with UK ones (and perhaps from country to country). This is something of a running issue as you move through literature, for example I often find that American writers refer to hyperlocals that cover whole states (these large hyperlocals are in fact usually aggregated networks of many placeblogs that serve small hyperlocales, along the scale of postcode district). This early use of the phrase hyper-local was framed in part by its transmission technology (TV has historically operated at larger scales, so there was novelty in the level of local coverage offered here), and in part by its geographical context (things scale differently in the US, it seems), but also by media markets. We could argue that the use of the modifier ‘hyper’ was apt because it was delivering a granularity of service that was new, much as place blogs do now, and so there is something common between the use then and now. That seems reasonable to do, but what we mustn’t do is forget the vast differences in scale that apply when reading accounts of hyperlocal media.

But the question that I’m really struggling with is this: what happened between the early 90s and the mid/late 00s that meant that hyper-local (as a term) sat on a shelf? Blogging about places didn’t just start happening one day, but the term seems to get parachuted onto placeblogs, and then inspires new ones from around 2005. Is this a convergent evolution – did someone re-coin hyperlocal? – or is there really a continuum from Maryland in 1991 to WV11 in 2012?


* I kept my working out in this post despite Leland Strott sending me the right answer because I think it illustrates some of the difficulty in understanding the human geography / psychogeography / demography of reading a location from outside.

References:

FARHI, P. (1991) Taking Local Coverage to the Limit: 24-Hour Cable News, The Washington Post, 11/3/1991.  [Accessed 14/8/12].

 

Hyperlocal: community media / commercial media / other

Hyperlocal is a tricky thing to study because there are so many different types of media work and media texts coalesced into the term. It’s almost easier to chart the differences between different projects than it is to pinpoint what they have in common.

To illustrate this, let’s look at two different incentives that are common but not consistent within hyperlocal: making money and doing social good. When we do that it’s quite easy to see three groups of people who we might expect to see working within hyperlocal:

Hyperlocal Players

So within this space there is commercial media and community media, and there is also the hybrid matter of social enterprise (which links up, of course with the Conservative’s Big Society policy agenda).

Spot the question marks? I nearly put “trolls” in here. I can’t actually think of anything that really fits in here, to be honest. But don’t worry – it’s only a model and I didn’t have time to build it to scale or to paint it.

 

More postcodes: hyperlocales, postcodes, and regional variations

I must be sounding slightly obsessed with postcodes at the moment…

UK postcodes are expressed as follows: B42 2SU. The postcode district in this example is ‘B42’. Frequently postcode districts are used as part of the identity of a hyperlocal website (e.g. expressed through logos and URLs) as a shorthand way of describing their hyperlocale, or their patch.

I just did a quick count on the Openly Local database [usual caveats of incomplete data apply], and ten percent of listings for England featured a postcode description within their listing within their name, URL, or location data.

Although clusters within Birmingham, London and Hull were evident, the convention of linking the hyperlocal brand a to a postcode district was pretty spread throughout England.

Interestingly the convention did not cross into Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (with the exception of one Scottish hyperlocal website). So what have the devolved regions got against the postcode? Or rather, why are the English so keen on managing their sense of space through them?

A third of the English hyperlocals that referred to a postcode within their branding belonged to the same aggregated platform that had imposed postcode based delineation upon the publishers, so that accounts for some but not all of it.

Hyperlocal and ‘postcode areas’

‘Postcode areas’ are often used to define the space – the hyperlocale as I’ve taken to calling it – which hyperlocal blogs serve, for example Sutton Coldfield Local used to be the B72 Blog and that sense of space is still fairly implicit in its coverage despite the name change (see also B31 Voices and many many others). I’m trying to wrap my head around what we mean by a postcode area, and what that means in terms of scale and reach. This table is useful in clarifying the various levels of the postcode system and what that means in terms of hyperlocal audience.

Average population size for postcode geographical areas

Average population

Area name

England & Wales

Scotland

Northern Ireland

Postcode area (e.g. YO)

500,000

400,000

1,750,000

Postcode district (e.g. YO10)

22,500

12,000

21,500

Postcode sector (e.g. YO10 5)

600

600

600

Full postcode (e.g. YO10 5DG)

40

40

40

So interestingly, most times I hear people talk about postcode area they mean a postcode district, and a postcode district is probably larger than I thought it was…