A local media thought experiment: “The Bearwood Question”

So local TV is back on the agenda, offering more questions than answers. In the Guardian Media Talk podcast Matt Wells questioned Jeremy Hunt about the ability to deliver “local” in any meaningful way through broadcast television. TV, in its traditional broadcast sense, is territory based: signals have a “footprint” to which they are broadcast and which they can be received, and that footprint means that there is a hard map of territories and locales which can be served. And those locales do not always make sense to the people who receive the messages. 

One of the problems with local TV over digital terrestrial, as Wells points out, is that the footprints mean that some large areas that have two distinct identities cannot be served independently. So Manchester and Liverpool cannot receive “local” TV at the same time. Internet technology is seen as affording something much more flexible: both cities could receive local services simultaneously via an IPTV transmission.

That’s great but it shows that the problem is always framed by TV-think even by those who can see problems in the system. The question that is answered by IPTV isn’t “what should local news look like?” but “how do we overcome the limitations of radio waves to produce more broadcast footprints?”.

This is where the idea of “The Bearwood Question” comes in. Bearwood is a lovely area of the West Midlands that I’ve lived in a number of times. It sits across a local authority border and manages to not quite be Sandwell and not quite Birmingham. When I lived there I looked to Sandwell for local government, and to Birmingham for my cultural and social life. So what does “local media” mean in Bearwood?

  It’s incredibly subjective. I’m sure some of my neighbours were Black Country diaspora, drifting towards Brum the same way I was drifting out, and their sense of “local” would be very different to my own. Regional media is actually quite good at providing “local media” in this context as it sits across the footprint that encompasses Brum and Sandwell. That means it will deliver everyone in Bearwood a bit of what they need to answer local questions (albeit with a large dollop of things that are of little importance to their locale). Hyperlocal is effective at telling you what is happening on the doorstep, but the space between hyperlocal and regional is complicated, nuanced and personal. And that’s what putting local media online can answer – not “how do we make a broadcast footprint smaller?” but “how do we help people fill their own footprint with media that matter to them?”.

(if any of this sounds familiar it’s because I’m a bit obsessed with Bearwood’s boundaries)

Why hyperlocal “fail” is sometimes actually hyperlocal “win”

I’ve just read an article called “5 reasons your local blog will fail” (http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2010/09/5-mistakes-that-make-local-blogs-fail259.html ). It’s an interesting read but it assumes profit as the only way to benchmark success of a local blog and it assumes advertising as being the way you make money out of your blog. Some local blogs are genuine community projects, and need to be benchmarked against non financial criteria (reach, engagement, number of contributors). Others may close or downscale (so ostensibly fail) because their principals are snapped up by media companies who recognise their talent or other opportunities that pay the bills. You could see the latter as a failure in terms of project longevity, but if the hyperlocal journalist set up their website as a calling card to find a better job then their project has been a success in terms of their own indicators. Think about the Bournville Village blog and Created in Birmingham. Both blogs gave a voice to interesting people who then got drawn off to do other things. In the case of CiB it happened twice, and after a fallow period, the project is now going strong after one of the original guys took control back. Bournville Village is interesting firstly because it’s founder got snapped up to launch hyper local projects for the Guardian and secondly because in it’s 2nd iteration it is thriving despite having many of the “fail” hallmarks from the article. It’s a one man gig, and that man, my BCU colleague Dave Harte, isn’t afraid to invest time in more mundane local issues (he’s a geek for gritting plans for example). I’m not sure how much he makes from ads on the blog, but he doesn’t appear to be giving up his day job yet. He’s getting something else from the blog altogether. I think it might be called “fun”.

That said, the general idea of each of the 5 reasons for failure are sound. It’s hard to sustain something without a support team, and it’s tough to gain an audience if they don’t know about you and if you don’t speak to their interests. I blame technology for this. It’s so easy to set something up in terms of engaging with the tools that it’s easy to miss the fundamental questions at the heart of what you are doing and why.