Local News and the Democratic Deficit

This post is by Professor Richard Sambrook

A few weeks ago a group of hyperlocal news sites gathered in Cardiff at the seat of Welsh Government to learn how the Welsh Assembly works, be briefed by politicians and officials, and start to report the working of the devolved government.

It was a moment which brought home may of the themes outlined in the Carnegie Trust report, “The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Local”. 

The Presiding Officer, who hosted the event along with Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism, was explicit in her concern about the impact of cuts in local journalism – and her hope that hyperlocals could at least partly fill the gap. For those running sites, it was a lesson in how to find information and stories about their very local community within the daily business agendas of national government.

And by the close of the day it showed how hyperlocal community news sites could start to take on the more traditional role of the local press. For some of the politicians it was a revelation as they realised collectively, these small local websites had an audience bigger than the local daily paper. Time, then, for hyperlocal news to be taken seriously.

The years ahead will see more such moments of revelation as community journalism starts to mature and assert its place in the media ecology.

There is much to celebrate in the Carnegie report. As well as the now well recognised problems of the decline of local journalism and the consequent “democratic deficit” left in the information vacuum as news organisations close papers and withdraw resources – it sets out how grassroots community sites are able to take up the challenge.

We should be in no doubt there is a serious problem to be addressed. Rural communities especially, but inner city areas too, need binding together through debate and discussion of local issues. Citizens need to be better informed about the decisions being taken in councils and government on their behalf. Local accountability needs to be open and public.  The decline of traditional local news sources puts all of this at risk.

Studies by several universities, including my own, shows how the content of hyperlocal sites are now holding decision makers to account and providing a crucial forum for information and debate about local issues.  The Media Standards Trust backs this up by looking at how community sites are addressing the democratic deficit. And there are other initiatives designed to bolster what is still an embryonic movement. As the report says:

It took newspapers several hundred years to attain their market dominance; the vast majority of hyperlocal sites have been around for less than ten years. It is a new, mainly non-commercial market segment in a sector dominated, with one or two exceptions, by large corporations.”

As the report makes clear, the crucial challenge is economic. How to make these small websites, often run by volunteers, sustainable or even profitable in the long term? It contains realistic proposals for limited intervention to support these initiatives and the communities they serve and to nurture the growth of community journalism.  I hope government will listen. But in the meantime institutions like universities, foundations and NGOs must do all they can to support the growth of a 5th estate of grass-roots media.  It’s becoming clearer all the time they provide an important service to communities and have a crucial role to play in the new information society.