The demise of regional papers and the rise of online media have opened up opportunities for individuals to run grass roots websites reporting on issues that matter to them, writes Naomi Westland.BY REPORTING ON the workings of local councils and highlighting local events and issues, citizen journalists now have an increasing role in local democracy as falling advertising revenue means local papers are forced to slash their budgets.
According to the Newspaper Society there has been a loss of 146 local papers over the last five years, many of them freesheets. There have been launches, including paid-for titles, but many of those that remain have reduced staff resources.
Despite their best efforts, local papers often struggle to provide in-depth coverage of local politics and issues that affect their readership. This threatens to leave local people in some areas without the information they need about local councils, businesses and events.
The work of citizen journalists – unpaid writers, photographers and film-makers publishing their own coverage of issues and areas they are interested in – may be going some way to filling the gaps. Birmingham, the UK’s second most populous city, has a thriving online news scene with websites – offering video, photographic and written coverage of what’s happening in the city – attracting thousands of visitors.
With video-sharing sites covering everything from pop concerts to the summer riots, and blogs focussing on a single village or postcode, citizen journalists in Birmingham are using new technologies to provide local people with essential local information.
Adam Yosef, creator of the I Am Birmingham site uses video to show a side of Birmingham that wasn’t being picked up by the mainstream press.
“I didn’t want the blog to be a news service. I wanted to offer something different from the press release regurgitating mainstream media,” he said.
When rioting broke out in a number of cities across England in the summer, including Birmingham, Yosef went out with his camera capturing footage the mainstream media missed. To date there have been over 10,500 views of the photo gallery of the riots and 208,000 views of his videos.
“The Birmingham Mail called us up and asked to use our content. Then ITV Central News got in touch, and Sky and the BBC.
“Anyone can be a journalist these days. Maybe we don’t need the mainstream media any more,” he said.
I Am Birmingham has city-wide reach, but others have a hyper local focus, covering a very specific geographical area. Dave Harte writes the Bournville Village Blog about the area he lives, which is home to the Cadbury’s factory. He said bloggers and journalists have different roles to play in disseminating information.
“The first story I did when I took on this blog was about the Kraft Foods takeover of Cadbury’s. My local knowledge meant that while the national journalists were around the front of the factory, I was around the back talking to shop keepers. Lots of them said they wouldn’t speak to the mainstream press.”
Many bloggers say that it can be difficult to get reaction to their stories because they are not always taken as seriously as mainstream media. But Harte said this can be an advantage, and his own content often gets picked up by the Birmingham Mail, which develops the story further.
“The journalistic way is to get both sides of the story. I don’t care about that. I’m not nostalgic about journalism or about the newsroom. My defence is that it is just a blog.
“I like seeing my half story get spotted by the Mail and turned into a whole story with reaction and analysis,” he said.
One way for newspapers feeling the pinch to make sure they cover all the communities in their area is to team up with local bloggers, as the Birmingham Mail has done. Stories about local areas that the Mail picks up from their blogs appear in a section of the paper’s website entitled Your Communities.
In return, the bloggers have the chance to earn some money as the paper has offered to act as an agent if another company wants to use a photo from one of the blogs.
Paul Bradshaw, reader in online journalism at Birmingham City University, said we are likely to see more of this collaborative approach in the future, not least because it brings commercial benefits to local press thanks to the potential for distribution of content.
“There is a clear collaborative benefit if you can involve more people because distribution is central to a publishing operation, it defines it even more than content,” he said. “Online distribution [via Facebook and Twitter for example] is dominated by users so there is an incentive to involve and engage them.”
He added that there’s no reason for bloggers to fill gaps left by the decline in local papers, but if they do it’s because of overlapping interests.
“A lot of bloggers, particularly those looking at issues such as planning for example, see their role as making the council processes more open and transparent. This does fill a gap, but it doesn’t fill other gaps, like the beautiful baby competition which a local paper may have run.”
Looking to the future there is clearly huge potential for local people to use new media creatively to publish and share information about what is happening in their communities, with or without local papers.