Annals of mutual incomprehension: Local newspapers and hyperlocal bloggers

Patrick Smith from Paid Content went along to the AOP’s Microlocal Forum yesterday and came away a bit disappointed.

There wasn’t much at the AOP’s Microlocal Forum on Wednesday to suggest that either semi-amateur, entrepreneur-led start-ups or big-league newspaper publishers will make real successes of hyperlocal in 2010.

Well, no. But did we expect ‘real successes’so soon? Not really. As Smith says, we’re in the ‘foothills’of something new. The context may seem ‘auspicious”, but out in the real world, larger forces are at work.

Recently, Clay Shirky suggested that cities with less than 500,000 inhabitants in North America could look forward to a future of ‘endemic civic corruption’because no-one is watching the malefactors who are tempted to skim 5% off the top of everything that comes their way. (Mmm. Civic corruption? It takes two to tango, and the private sector is usually in there somewhere.)

‘I think that’s baked into the current environment,’said Shirky. ‘I don’t think there’s any way we can get out of that kind of thing.”

Bloggers and hyperlocal sites are trying to fill some of these gaps. Hopefully, some of them will gain more prominence as part of the government’s independently-funded multimedia news consortia.

But how will these relationships work on the ground? At AOP’s forum, Roger Green, digital managing director at Newsquest, vented his frustration at the ‘joke meetings’he’s been forced to endure with ‘people from no-name start-ups who say we should help them start their business and pay them for the privilege”.

From the blogging/hyperlocal camp, Paul Bradshaw criticised “one-sided partnerships” in which local newspaper suck up the benefits and bloggers get little or nothing.

It’s an uneasy stand-off. The grassroots translation is just as intriguing as the high politics.

Here in south London, where I live, Jason Cobb runs The Onion Bag Blog, a lively take on life and community politics in Lambeth (”the rotten borough”) and its hinterland.

Cobb has a deep affection for his neighbourhood, its people and history. The barbs he aims at Lambeth council are well-targeted. Local editors should be queuing up to employ him.

But Cobb’s recent discussion of a telephone encounter with a reporter on the South London Press points to the yawning gulf that exists between old and new, traditional and upstart.

The story starts with Cobb’s effort to interest an unnamed reporter from the South London Press in a local oral history project called Stockwell Stories.

Eventually, the reporter put in a call to Cobb. Here, according to Cobb, was his first question:

‘Where is the borough of Stockwell?”

This isn’t desperately promising, because Stockwell tube station is only a couple of miles from the HQ of the South London Press in Streatham.

Next question:

‘Why would you want to talk to local people?”

Well, OK: perhaps this was a provocative enquiry designed to elicit a passionate response. It’s been known to happen.

Unfortunately, things go downhill from here. Ultimately, there’s this question, which rolls down the copper lines toward Cobb in a manner that suggests it’s still 2002:

‘What is a blog?”

Was Cobb talking to a staff reporter? Perhaps not. As one commenter points out, he was probably talking to a teenager on work experience “who may not have English as a first language let alone a familiarity with the geography of South London”.

Fair enough. But as Cobb asks: ‘Why allow someone to objectively report a local news patch, if by admission, they are unfamiliar with the area and struggle with the language?”

Good question. As Dan Gillmor noted long ago, the collective audience always knows more than the individual journalist. Cost-cutting tilts the balance even further in the wrong direction.

From Roger Green downwards, the dialogue between local bloggers and local newspapers involves vast quantities of mutual incomprehension. It’s there in the ‘joke meetings’between publishers and ‘no-name start-ups”. And it’s there on a phone line that connects Jason Cobb with the South London Press.

It’s also there in Cobb’s disdain for what he describes as the “cat-stuck-up-south-London-tree” agenda of Tindle Newspaper Group’s local organ.

Collaboration between local newspapers, bloggers and other ‘outside’contributors might seem like a sensible solution. Among others, David Montgomery, the chief executive of Mecom, assumes that it’s a natural progression for everyone.

No doubt this looks easy enough from Montgomery’s perch 10,000 feet above the action. But it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work, and big changes in attitude, to make it work on the ground.

(Thanks to south Londoner Adam Tinworth for the link to Onion Bag Blog.)

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