Measuring plurality at a local level – should #hyperlocals be included? DCMS consultation

DCMS is consulting on a measurement framework for media plurality. Late in the day they have asked me if I can help elicit views from the #hyperlocal media community (for free and quickly). DCMS says:

‘Media plurality is about the information that people consume on a daily basis, which informs their views and perspective on the world. ‘Media plurality’ means having a diversity of viewpoints available and consumed across the media. In line with Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, we want to develop a clear measurement framework in partnership with industry, and carry out the first ever market assessment of plurality in the UK today. This assessment will create a benchmark for the degree of media plurality in the UK today, helping to decide the level that is sufficient, and how to address concerns about media plurality.’

There’s a 27 page (uncommentable) pdf online. Relevant questions for hyperlocal web people boil down to:

should DCMS include hyperlocal web audiences in their framework for future calculations on media plurality?

should the BBC be included in the calculations? and

how should they measure the impact of social media as a whole?

DCMS says

‘In many areas, ‘hyperlocal’ websites are beginning to appear, sometimes where there may be gaps in provision of news or information from other sources, these can receive high user figures and become a key source of information for people in specific communities. However, the amount, quality and type of information that people are able to and actively do access in regions and local areas can differ enormously.‘

To my mind, it seems obvious that in some cases the impact of hyperlocal web media and their audience size should feature in plurality considerations if the local paper, radio station, tv station are to be taken over or fall under same ownership. If for instance in Sheffield, it would be daft not to include the huge Sheffield Forum audience when considering media plurality in that city. Similarly in Thurrock/Your Thurrock, in Lambeth/LondonSE1 on the Isle of Wight/OnTheWight etc etc.  So hyperlocals should be in the framework Leveson requested.

But DCMS and OFCOM needs to understand better the nature of hyperlocal audiences and the impact sites have on local thinking. To this end they should support work such as that by the AHRC-funded Creative Citizens Consortium researching hyperlocal audience led by Professor Ian Hargreaves out of Cardiff and Birmingham, or the AHRC-funded work on plurality by Professor Steven Barnett at Westminster. Early work from the Creative Citizens consortium featured in 2012’s OFCOM Communications Market Review. Work done by Rob Procter at Warwick on Twitter and the riots is also germane. DCMS should also study NESTA’s Destination Local and Carnegie UK Trust’s Neighbourhood News work on hyperlocal media (declaration – i work with some of these groups).

The government makes huge, albeit fragmented interventions to support local plurality, which need to be quantified as changes to these will affect any measure of plurality. The consultation paper has a hole in this area. I wrote up Professor Barnett’s June evidence to the Lords Communications committee recently touching on this ‘How much ‘subsidy’ goes into local news?’. As part of the plurality framework, DCMS needs to round up the public sector subsidies to:

local newspapers through diverse mandatory advertising schemes for statutory notices – almost all retained in print after an industry lobby

local TV – programming subsidy through buyback and transmission

local BBC output

Media Trust to the Community Channel via central government and the lottery

local community radio.

Then DCMS has a baseline against which to measure changes in local plurality using funding as a proxy.

In the consultation document, DCMS flirts with the value of BBC spend on news and local news – the Department should ask the BBC for a detailed breakdown of its expenditure on local media by place/region including trends over time and then publish this. It’s impossible to debate local plurality without an understanding of what the BBC is spending and would improve the BBC’s transparency. Past expenditure, indeed even current expenditure, can’t be said to affect the BBC’s journalistic independence.

The BBC’s local online coverage was castigated recently by one of the BBC’s usually placid audience councils.

BBC Online’s local offer is not as strong as its UK and international news…For instance, local news stories are not updated frequently and news coverage is not particularly comprehensive in most localities. In addition, BBC local sites are organised around regions or counties, which are perceived as being too large to be locally relevant.

BBC Management submitted a new plan for local online to the Trustees but this was never published. This plan is also vital to understanding plurality at a local level and should be published.

Informal social media is a new and rapidly growing way of informing local populations about what is going on – but it isn’t simple to evaluate, changing every few months. As new market entrants against a background of declining plurality of traditional sources, these media attain a high importance. Some sites start out on blogs for instance and then suddenly grow massively on Twitter or Facebook.  Formby First rapidly acquired a 2,900 person Twitter following, Visit Horsham morphed from a traditional website to a Facebook page with 12,000 likes in a town of 55,000 people in only a few years. Sites like On the Wight make a vast contribution to plurality in areas where there is little media choice and a dominant print press.  In Kings Cross London my own website now has a Facebook audience that dwarfs the blog – but Twitter and the email list feed my most active audience.  Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has leaned heavily on bloggers to open up council coverage by filming council meetings – not the BBC, for instance.

Weird hybrids and cross overs occur – in London the BBC transport and environment correspondent Tom Edward’s Twitter stream is far more useful to people who write about cycling and transport in London than his material that makes the cut to go on telly or publish as full length web articles.

These media can be measured in pure numbers, but their influence is much harder to quantify.

Anyway – there will be a range of views on this document. Either comment below and I’ll send views in to DCMS or email MediaPlurality@culture.gsi.gov.uk

I’ve made clear to DCMS my view that a rushed request for comments isn’t a great way to engage new market entrants and small businesses in policy formation. I note that the Department has a new Permanent Secretary who could perhaps provide the resources and incentives to engage better with new market entrants and avoid any chance of capture by well funded lobbies.

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William Perrin

Founder of Talk About Local, Trustee of the Indigo Trust, member of UK Government transparency panels, former Policy Advisor to UK Prime Minister, former Cabinet Office senior civil servant.Open data do-er, Kings Cross London blogger. Loves countryside. Two kids, not enough sleep.
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